Opportunity often leads to innovation. Sometimes the events that contribute to an evolution of this nature are well-known and documented, while other times they are lost to history and only able to be speculated by present-day researchers. This is the case with the career of John Gibbs. In the course of the 1830s, his profession took a radical turn. While the exact details are currently unknown, the numismatic evidence of how his occupational path evolved creates a compelling story.
John Gibbs was born in Birmingham, England in 1809 and came to the United States as a young man with his father, William, having settled in Belleville, New Jersey. He proved to be very skillful and competent at a young age, and by 22 years old he owned and operated a stagecoach line that ran from Belleville to Newark (3 miles), and to New York City (8 miles). While little is known about the coach itself, Gibbs had a token struck for passengers to use. After purchasing a token, a passenger could simply exchange the piece for fare, and allowed Gibbs and other operators to not waste time waiting for customers to find the correct amount due or to have to provide change to customers. In 1831, this truly was an innovation and considered the first transportation token struck in the United States. On the obverse, the token reads “USM \ STAGE \ I. GIBBS | BELLEVILLE & NEW YORK,” while the reverse inscription states that the token was “GOOD FOR ONE RIDE \ TO \ THE \ BEARER” (fig. 1).
It was also around this time that Gibbs and Joseph Gardner leased a building on the property of Stevens, Thomas & Fuller—a brass-rolling firm—under the name Gibbs, Gardner & Co. From their landlords, Gibbs and Gardner procured brass sheet stock to manufacture buttons. Like other button-manufactories (most notably those in Birmingham, England), their skills came in handy to produce base-metal coinages during times of coin shortages. As a result, Gibbs, Gardner & Co produced some of the earliest Hard Times tokens in the mid-to-late 1830s for a plethora of private firms. He even made one for himself that states “J. GIBBS MANUFACTURER \ OF \ MEDALS \ AND \ TOKEN \ &c. | BELLEVILLE \ NJ.” The reverse displays a brigantine with the inscription “AGRICULTURE AND COMMERCE” (fig. 2).
Soon, his business began to thrive. Locals began to call the establishment “The Belleville Mint,” and other orders came in, most notably from individuals in the Montreal, Quebec area beginning in 1836. These were in the form of the “bouquet sou” tokens of Lower Canada. The Belleville Mint was not the first to strike these pieces, as a mint in New York State struck 500,000 pieces for the Bank of Montreal the previous year. These tokens proved popular in fulfilling the need for small change, and other individuals began to speculate on the them. In 1836, exchange broker, Dexter Chapin, commissioned the Belleville Mint to strike bouquet sou tokens and imported them into Lower Canada. While the quantity is not currently known, the Belleville Mint used at least 13 sets of dies, so it was, by no means, a trifling amount. These are, essentially, imitations of the pieces commissioned by the Bank of Montreal. Ultimately, others in Birmingham, England and Montreal also created dies and struck coins for this issue (fig. 3).
The Belleville Mint also struck a token for William Gibbs, the father of John. The obverse features a bull facing right with the inscription “A FRIEND TO THE CONSTITUTION.” The reverse, however, closely resembles that of a bouquet sou token, though with a legend that reads, “W. GIBBS. AGRICULTUREIST | N. YORK” (fig. 4). This was, perhaps, the earliest inclination that the Belleville Mint was involved with striking the pieces for Lower Canada.
While the bouquet sou tokens that the Belleville Mint struck can be considered imitations and not counterfeits—since they were accepted by the public as one in the same series as the originals, were (for the most part) were of similar weight to the originals, and the originals were not authorized by a legal entity—true counterfeiting efforts was not above the Belleville Mint. As early as 1835, large amounts of counterfeit coins flowed from the presses of this establishment. In June of that year, the operation was raided, the equipment seized, and Joseph Gardner, his wife, and an individual named John Campbell were arrested. The police discovered dies for Spanish and Mexican dollars, 1831 French five-franc coins, and a bag of counterfeit Haitian coins. In August of 1835, another haul of counterfeit coinage from the Belleville Mint was discovered by officials, when the schooner Charles Denison, sailed by Captain Cox arrived in New York City with 380 boxes, each containing 1,200 counterfeit dollars of Brazil (a total of $456,000), albeit struck completely in copper. At the time, however, United States law did not criminalize the counterfeiting of foreign copper coinage (only gold and silver), and the ship and its cargo were set free. The coins were then transported to South America where they were silver plated and released into circulation in Brazil.
The Belleville Mint also purportedly struck copper coins for Liberia, Brazil, and Haiti (fig. 5). However, some sources note that Stevens, Thomas & Fuller—from whom Gibbs and Gardner purchased their metal—struck these coins. It is also possible that “the Belleville Mint” consisted of both Stevens, Thomas & Fuller and Gibbs, Gardner and Co.—the two companies simply merged as one in the mind of the public. Furthermore, the legality of these pieces is also in question. Were they officially commissioned from the local entities of these places (like the Hard Times tokens), or outright counterfeits? More research is needed to fully answer these questions.
Later in life, Gibbs changed professions once again. By the early 1840s, the need for and popularity of Hard Times tokens subsided and orders stopped coming in. For Gibbs, perhaps this also led to the demise of his “front.” Without producing tokens for local merchants, how could he continue to cover up his clandestine operation of producing counterfeit coinage? By 1846, he left Belleville for New York City and set up shop on Forsyth Street. By 1856, he was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where he manufactured shade fixtures, buckles, lamp-burners, and other goods. Unfortunately, Gibbs did not leave behind any known written sources to help tell his story, and only the basics of his life are known through official documents, but the numismatic evidence that he produced allows for pieces of one man’s life, the history of metallic production in New Jersey, and the interconnectedness of this area to other, far-off places of the world in the 19th century to be better understood by present-day researchers.