Category Archives: Tokens

A Caffeinated Tour of the ANS Collection

In the world of humorous coffee shop signs, there is one that has always rung particularly true for this numismatic devotee: “I Don’t Drink Coffee To Wake Up, I Wake Up To Drink Coffee.”

For many, coffee and tea drinks are mere caffeine delivery systems with varying levels of real or artificial sucrose. For others, they are magical brews sent down from on high, and possess an elevated status on par with the finest Grand Crus of Burgundy and the rarest of Scottish single malts. The truth of course lies somewhere in the middle, but after coming across a coffee-themed Civil War merchant token ultimately destined for the American Numismatic Society’s eBay store, it begged the question as to what other coffee or tea-related objects reside in the Society’s vast collection. Let us embark, then, on a kind of “world tour” as it were, to sample a few of the coins, tokens, and medals linked to the consumption of coffee or tea (sometimes both on the same object). These are presented with limited commentary, to illustrate the kind of broad searches that can be performed within the American Numismatic Society’s MANTIS database.

The Civil War merchant token that inspired this post. Note the similarity of the merchant’s name to that of the author’s, although there is no (known) familial connection to the issuer of this token.

Islamic Department

Given that both coffee and tea were not introduced to Europe until the end of the 15th century and early 16th century respectively—interestingly, both sources of caffeine made landfall in Europe just decades apart—it is not surprising that a cursory search of the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Departments do not yield any numismatic specimens with which this blog post is concerned. Suffice it to say, we are starting our journey in the Islamic Department, fitting when considering that the first historical accounts of coffee have its origins situated in present-day Yemen. That said, there are several fascinating (if not apocryphal) stories about coffee’s birthplace belonging to Ethiopia instead, which the reader is highly encouraged to explore on their own. Tea, of course, is just as popular as coffee (perhaps more so) in many Middle Eastern countries, so it is equally fitting that the first object on our numismatic tour is actually a bronze Iranian tea house token circa 1945–1956, an interesting piece that the author is keen to learn more about.

East Asian Department

Our next stop is the East Asian Department, more specifically China, the undisputed birthplace of tea, or Camellia sinensis. Here we also have a tea house token, this time in a copper alloy, oval-shaped, and uniface, with the reverse having an incuse impression of the characters on the obverse. It was issued by the Chung Ch’eng Tea House. Also featured is a wonderful tea brick produced by the Chao Li Qiao Brick Tea Manufacturing Company, circa 1875–1925. Although they are one of the few types of edible currencies known to circulate, the tea bricks that are still produced today have lost their role as a commonly accepted medium of exchange. According to the passage on brick tea in Robert D. Leonard’s Curious Currency, tea bricks came in various sizes, and mostly served the areas of eastern Tibet, Mongolia, and Siberia throughout the 19th century, and even into the early 20th century. Additionally, some tea bricks were of better or lesser quality depending on where they were intended to circulate, and whether the bricks contained Russian Cyrillic inscriptions or Chinese ones.

South Asian Department

If the reader is noticing a trend with respect to tea dominating the tokens found in the Islamic, East Asian, and now South Asian Departments, this is a function of the importance that tea plays in this region of the world, although one should not underestimate the popularity of coffee in countries such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as in some Pacific Island nations (e.g., Hawaii) and Australia. The following bronze token was produced by the Lungla (Sylhet) Tea Co. Ld. Lungla Division, circa 1879–1900, and likely played a similar role as the previous tokens, either as advertising pieces, or tokens that could be exchanged for goods.

Modern Department

Crossing the threshold into the Modern Department, we see a shift to coffee-themed tokens, although there is no shortage of tea-related objects in MANTIS as well. First is a copper alloy token dated 1671 featuring the bust of an Ottoman Turk and “Solyman” on the obverse, almost certainly alluding to Suleiman I ‘The Magnificent’ (1494–1566), the longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, despite this token being issued by “Wards Coffee House” more than 100 years after the death of Suleiman I. Next is a copper alloy token dated slightly earlier (1669) issued by Charles Kiftell to advertise their “Coffee House In Cheap Side” by displaying a hand pouring a fresh cup of coffee into an eagerly-awaiting cup. What better call-to-action could a proprietor pick to advertise a drink that was (purportedly) declared fit for Christians to drink by Pope Clement VIII (1536–1605) a mere 69 years earlier in 1600—although the reader is encouraged to take this story with a grain of salt, or perhaps a pinch of sugar in the case of coffee. Lastly we have an undated but definitely modern-era aluminum token for an aptly named “Coffee Bar” in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada—a purely utilitarian token versus one meant for advertising, as this piece was issued by the Saskatchewan Government Insurance Office.

ANS 1951.194.169
ANS 1967.159.836

United States Department

Representing the United States, highlighted here are two different tokens—although they are almost medal-like in their artistry—produced for the Union Coffee Co. Limited of New York in the 2nd half of the 19th century. One token, in white metal with proof-like surfaces, displays the head of a woman on the obverse, while the other token, in hard red rubber, boasts the bust of U.S. President John Adams. The “Alaroma” and “Bunola” on the obverse of both tokens refer to the two most popular brands of coffee that the Union Coffee Company produced. The company was a prolific issuer of tokens, and the hard rubber or vulcanite types featuring different U.S. Presidents were often released in multiple color varieties.

The final object representative of the United States is also representative of Canada, as it is a paper advertisement for a Buffalo, New York “Coffee House” pasted onto the obverse of an 1859 Canadian large cent—not wholly unsurprising given Buffalo’s proximity to the Canadian border. Also interesting is the volume of information the business chose to include; it’s evident they wanted to make the most of the large cent’s real estate by advertising the prices of no less than 10 items on this repurposed coin-token.

ANS 1936.18.10
ANS 1934.42.1

Latin America Department

Latin America is of course very well-known for their coffee production, so it should come as no great shock that several paper notes from Latin American countries contain printed engravings detailing various facets of coffee farming and production. On the reverse of this 1965 paper 5-Colon note of Costa Rica, a figure is seen drying unroasted “green” coffee beans in the sun, one of many steps required to get coffee from a farm to a consumer’s cup, a process wherein the final product often ends up many thousands of miles away from where it began.

Medals Department

Rounding out our “world tour” is another object from Latin America, but more specifically from the Medals Department. It is a simple but elegant medal featuring a coffee leaf, coffee flower, and coffee “cherry” (the fruit that encapsulates the two “beans” found in each cherry) along with the inscription “Uruguay-Brazil 1903” on the obverse, and three flowers and a cherry on the reverse.

Public and Private in Coin Production

There is a commonly encountered conventional distinction between coins and tokens such that coins are produced and issued by governments as legal tender, whereas tokens are produced and issued by private businesses and derive their value only from their redemption by the issuer. This distinction is useful for many purposes, but like most definitions, it runs into problems in situations where the real world turns out to be more complicated than the unstated assumptions that underlie the distinction.

One of these assumptions is that official money is actually produced and issued by governments. Leaving aside the very substantial problem of banknotes and other forms of non-metallic money, this assumption fits fairly well with the experience of coinage in twentieth-century practice in major economies, which of course is the formative experience of many recent numismatic writers, but it is not universally true historically.

In late medieval and early modern Europe, the applicability of this assumption to the way minting worked is ambiguous at best. For the most part, minting operations were farmed out to entrepreneurs, much like taxation and military recruitment generally were. The persons leasing minting operations would pay part of the proceeds to the government as seigniorage and keep the rest as their own profits. Thus, even though minting was carried out in the name of the state, authorized by a government contract, and often monitored by government officials, there is room for debate as to whether the production of coins can really be said to have been done by the government.

This silver penny of Edward the Confessor of England was issued by a moneyer named Wulfric (ANS 1967.182.28, bequest of Douglas P. Dickie). Anglo-Saxon moneyers minted at their own cost and to their own profit, as long as they were officially recognized, paid certain fees to the king, and conformed to royal coinage regulations.

The issuing of coins is even more ambiguous, because coins were not necessarily produced for distribution by the government at all. For the most part, mints produced coins, for a fee, when people brought bullion to them. Coins were thus issued by the minting entrepreneur to mint customers based on demand, without any involvement of treasury officials.

This system minimized the capital requirements for the government, but inevitably the reliance on private entrepreneurs carried a large cost in terms of corruption, malfeasance, and inefficiency, in addition to the private profits taken from the minting fees. Thus, the most centralized states, such as late medieval Venice and Florence, as well as England under Henry VIII, sought to control minting directly. Nevertheless, not all kinds of coins were equally worth controlling.

In seventeenth-century England, for example, silver and gold coins were produced by the government, albeit still on the basis of customer demand. However, the need for small change was met by medieval-style farming out, in this case by granting contractors such as Lord Harington and the Duke of Lennox the right to produce and issue copper farthings in the king’s name in exchange for a hefty fee to the Crown. Although everyone agrees that the silver sixpences of Charles I are coins, writers disagree on whether to call the copper farthings coins or tokens, because they were made as official coinage by royal authority, but they were produced and issued as a private business venture.

Bimetallic (copper and brass) farthing of Charles I of England, produced and issued by Lord Maltravers under royal patent (ANS 1978.9.126, gift of Ambassador and Mrs. R. H. Norweb).

The contracting out of coin production is not limited by borders. Already in the early modern period, and increasingly in more recent times, small states do not necessarily wish to make the substantial capital investments needed for a modern mint. Instead, the production of coins is contracted out to enterprises in other states. These mints may be private or locally public, but either way they are acting as private businesses in relation to the outsourcing government.

Silver thaler of the county of Stolberg-Königstein, produced in the free imperial city of Augsburg, more than 250 kilometers distant (ANS 2012.58.6, purchase).
Silver commemorative 5 lari of the Republic of Georgia, produced by the Japan Mint as an outside contractor (ANS 2018.22.1, gift of Mary Lannin).

The lesson here is not that it is correct or incorrect to refer to certain items as coins or as tokens. Rather, it is that a sharp distinction that is clear and effective for the United States or the United Kingdom in the twentieth century is not always so clear for monetary systems that do not work exactly the same way. Definitions are tools, not facts, and like socket wrenches or screwdrivers, not all definitions are a good fit for every situation.

ANS eBay Win Spurs Local History Research + The 2021 ANS Gala

The motto of the American Numismatic Society is Parva Ne Pereant—“So the Small May Not Perish.” In the world of numismatics, it is the superstar coins that often grab all the attention—Eid Mar denarii, Brasher Doubloons, etc. The ANS has even produced several wonderful videos about these great (some would even say “greatest”) coins, now available for viewing on our YouTube page. But what about those “small” objects without the more well-known fantastic backstories? As the ANS continues to make duplicates from its collection available on its official eBay store some buyers have reached out to share their excitement over auction items they have won from the ANS, proving that even those seemingly pedestrian numismatic objects can be monumentally important to a particular collector depending on their interests.

Kings Highway Savings Bank parking token, undated, from the ANS eBay store.

One such object is a parking token from the Kings Highway Savings Bank in Brooklyn, New York. The ANS has a large and diverse array of transportation tokens, many of which have yet to be cataloged, and this particular parking token duplicate could be of interest to any number of collectors, perhaps those that collect bank-related items, parking tokens specifically, or numismatic objects related to specific roadways or highways. In this instance, the buyer happens to live just minutes from the bank in question, although the bank itself is long gone, and only the building remains.

Kings Highway Savings Bank in 1929, courtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library.
Kings Highway Savings Bank in 1961, courtesy of the Center for Brooklyn History.

The Kings Highway Savings Bank was a mutual savings bank founded in 1923 with William R. Bayes as its president, and stood at the southeast corner of East 16th St. and Kings Highway, situated between the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Midwood and Sheepshead Bay. There appeared to be several branches at one point, with this location (built in 1929) functioning as the main branch.  Although the name of the bank is no longer visible on the facade, the building itself remains quite intact, and has hosted several different banks since then, most recently an HSBC branch that also appears to have vacated since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Despite the name of the original bank disappearing from the side of the building, the original doors are still there, and retain the seal or logo of the Kings Highway Savings Bank, as evidenced by the photos provided by the winner of the parking token in question.

Kings Highway Savings Bank main door panel with original bank logo.

The lucky bidder also provided this photograph of their new token in front of the old Kings Highway Savings Bank building, very much mirroring—intentionally or unintentionally—the other historic photos of the bank pictured in this blog post, right down to the car parked in the lower right corner of each photo. Furthermore, it is not entirely clear how this parking token was used, as there is no extant parking lot attached to the building, and it is in fact a very busy intersection with limited street parking today. Perhaps there was a nearby lot that patrons of the Kings Highway Savings Bank could park at, and if conducting legitimate bank business, would receive this parking token as a voucher for parking validation, and deposit it upon exiting to avoid paying the usual parking rate.

Kings Highway Savings Bank as pictured in January, 2021.

Is this story of a simple savings bank and its corresponding parking token “great”? Perhaps not in the grand scheme of things, but it is important to the person who now owns this token, and the purpose of the ANS is to house and maintain a repository of as many of these “small” historical objects as possible, so that they may not perish. It may also interest the reader to know that the Kings Highway Savings Bank is just one of many savings banks in southern Brooklyn whose original inhabitants have long departed, but whose historical buildings still remain. More can be found in this NYC Explorer blog post of 2014.

In other numismatic news, the American Numismatic Society held its annual Gala on Thursday, January 14, and it was also the first virtual Gala hosted by the Society. This format allowed for a greater number participants regardless of their location or time zone, and was a considerable success thanks to the hard work of everyone involved. This year’s Gala honored ANS benefactors Mark and Lottie Salton, and was a moving tribute to their lifelong involvement in the numismatic community. If you were not able to attend the Gala in real-time, do not fret; the ANS has posted the event in full to our YouTube page and we encourage you to watch the video to learn more about the lives of Mark and Lottie Salton, hear their stories, and discover how their gifts to the ANS have positively impacted the field of numismatics.

John Gibbs: Stagecoach Operator Turned Token Innovator, Turned Counterfeiter

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).

Figure 1. United States, transportation token of John Gibbs, ca. 1831. ANS 0000.999.2281.

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).

Figure 2. United States, store card token of John Gibbs, ca. 1833. ANS 0000.999.30590.

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).

Figure 3. Lower Canada, copper sou, ca. 1835. ANS 1949.65.17.

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.

Figure 4. United States, copper token of William Gibbs, ca. 1835.
Image Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

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.

Figure 5. Liberia, copper cent, 1833. ANS 1940.160.1599.

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.