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Tokens / Medals / Medallions

Sometimes you will see something called a “coin” when it is really a token or a medal (medallion). The history of tokens and medals goes back centuries!  There are many types of tokens and medals, and they can be made from different things: some might be made of metal, cardboard, wood, fibre, nylon, plastic, bone or ivory, to give you some examples. The also come in different shapes: some might be round, square, rectangular, star, ticket, oval, and card, just to name a few. The most important aspect of a token or medal, is the purpose it was made. Most of the tokens mentioned here, were used prior to 1867.


Amusement: are probably the most common tokens you have seen. You might have gone to a kids’ play zone and play games that you had to put tokens into, and the games spit out tickets for you. You may have been in an arcade where you had to put in tokens to play pinball or other games. Your parent might have gone to a casino and played a slot machine by putting tokens into the machine. Or they may have won a token from a machine. As well, playing cards in Poker tournaments or at casinos, requires chips also a form of an amusement token. In parts of Asia, ivory or bone casino chips were used for hundreds of years. In your grandparents; days, tokens were also used at billiard halls. There’s also tokens for playing board games.


Bank: In 1850, the parliament of the Province of Canada passes acts 13 and 14 to amend the Currency Act, allowing authorized banks to produce legal tender tokens. Between 1850 and 1857 several banks issued a series of penny and halfpenny copper tokens.

There are other countries in the world that have also issued tokens through country national banks. 

Merchants (also known as Currency and Barter) : are used to help merchants ensure customer loyalty, in other words, so the customers keep buying from them. The merchants also use tokens when there is not enough cash in circulation, so there is a way to give customers change when a customer pays for a purchase. Merchants tokens are also used for promotion or advertising. For example you might have gone into a 7-11 store and received a token for discount or a free Slushy or Slurpee. You may have received a token at a McDonald’s restaurant is another example. Most likely if you visited Disneyland, you certainly receive any number of a large variety of tokens.


Today you would not see the many tokens that your grandparents (and possibly your parents) used. There used to be bakery tokens, cigar tokens, dairy tokens, general store tokens, hotel tokens, beard trim, shoe shine tokens, tailoring tokens, and more.  For example they would have had a token for a loaf of bread from the bakery, a quart of milk from the dairy, or a bag of flour from the general store. You have probably seen lots of tokens for a free cup of coffee, or for a car wash, or Dairy Queen and Sambo tokens.


Some tokens were issued by merchants as business cards, with the owner’s name and contact information on them.


Counterstamps: have long been used on coins and tokens to indicate a change in issuing authority or in value, to convey political statements or simply to advertise a business or its products. Common, was the practice of counterstamping copper coins and tokens. Counterstamps have been found on a large variety of world coins and tokens (including silver and gold pieces), including Canadian colonial tokens, U.S. large cents and tokens, and miscellaneous foreign pieces.


As current as the year 2020, a respected important source for information on counterstamps is Greg Brunk’s American & Canadian Merchant & Privately Countermarket Coins, which combines his two previous books.


To most collectors of counterstamped pieces (“personal pocket pieces”), the stamp is of the utmost importance, more so then the token or coin it is stamped on although the type of coin can add value. The history behind the stamp is the most interesting aspect of the piece, as it can be traced to a famous person, an important historical event, or some other reason it makes it an outstanding piece. In North America, it was a very common practice to counterstamp during the 1820’s to the 1880’s. During this period you would see people stamped their names on coins and carry them in a pockets or on a chain around their necks. Often the counterstamp advertised a business, and for a long period political slogans showed up stamped on coins.


Some of these like a Canadian J.O.P. counterstamped silver dollar, can go for quite a bit of money in the marketplace.


Religious: there are still some churches in the world today that use tokens, either to secure a family’s table or pew for a religious service or meeting, or to receive a mass offering such as communion, bread, or wine. These tokens are specific to a particular religion and may also be specific to a particular congregation or parish.


There are also medalets worn on bracelets and neck pendants. 


There are also medallions with religious prayers on them, similar to a prayer card. 


Mining / Forestry: for at least a couple hundred years, mining and forestry companies paid employees with tokens to be used against merchandise or medical services at the mining or lumber camps, which usually had a general store and a pharmacy and doctor’s office.


Trade Dollars: these are issued by municipalities, generally through the local chamber of commerce. The are can be used to pay for products (and sometimes services) during a specific timeframe. For example Klondike Day, Bathtub Races, a town’s Centennial celebration, a county fair or festival, and other similar events. They are usually worth one dollar, but some may have a higher or lower face value, depending on the what the municipality decides.


Municipalities also issue tokens to be used at farmer’s and country markets, to help low-income families buy fresh produce, or for ongoing shopping in a specific geographic area where merchants need a bump in people traffic, or for other reasons, such as reduced cost admission to something like a museum.


Blacksmith, Hard-times, Hobo-nickel and Potty-coin tokens: The picture above shows a few American Hard-time tokens and a couple of Canadian Blacksmith tokens. Below is a picture of some Hobo Nickels, and below that an altered British 1891 penny coin and a US Potty coin.

Hard-times tokens are American large or half cent-sized copper tokens, struck from about 1833 through 1843, serving as unofficial currency. These privately made pieces, comprising merchant, political and satirical pieces, were used during a time of political and financial crisis in the United States.

Blacksmith tokens are crude imitations of British and Irish halfpence that were traditionally thought to have been produced and circulated in the area of Lower Canada (centering in Montreal) and in neighboring areas, as upper state New York and northern New England. The main period for their circulation has been taken to be from about 1825 through 1840. Further research later showed they had a wider circulation range.

The Hobo-nickel token is a sculptural art form involving the creative modification of small-denomination coins, essentially resulting in miniature bas reliefs. The US Buffalo nickel coin was favored because of its size, thickness and relative softness. However, the term hobo-nickel is generic, as carvings have been made from many different denominations. Due to its low cost and portability, this medium was particularly popular among hobos (railway tramps), hence the name. The altering of coins dates to the 18th century or earlier. Beginning in the 1850s, the most common form of coin alteration was the "potty coin", engraved on United States Seated Liberty coinage (half dime through trade dollar) and modifying Liberty into a figure sitting on a chamber pot. This time period was also the heyday of the love token, which was made by machine-smoothing a coin (usually silver) on one or both sides, then engraving it with initials, monograms, names, scenes, etc., often with an ornate border. Hundreds of thousands of coins were altered in this manner. They were often mounted on pins or incorporated into bracelets and necklaces. The love token fad faded out in the early 20th century; love tokens engraved on buffalo nickels are rare. During this time period, hobo-style coin alteration could be found outside the United States, primarily in BritainFrance, and South Africa.


Love, Healing (Touch), Death Tokens: for centuries coins have been altered to recognize a “life event”. Most common during the Victorian era were silver coins converted to tokens and often they were also cut out or mounted to be used as jewellery. Silver was more malleable than gold, but there were also gold coins converted to tokens. The most popular have been “Love” tokens. These are coins that have been altered to profess love to somebody of or something (such as a horse or dog), to announce births, engagements, and marriages. Sometimes coins were altered to acknowledge a family member’s sickness in order to create a healing token. At other times, the coins were melted and shaped into a body part that was lost by a family member (such as a leg, arm, or hand). Coins were also altered to convey death. A prisoner on death row or heading to the gallows, a lost family member or dignitary life being memorialized upon the person’s death (or a pet such as a favourite hunting dog).


The coins are defaced by smoothing down and engraving one or both sides. In the European tradition, which began in the 17th century, such items are simply called “engraved coins”; however, North America later named them “Love tokens”. These did not become popular in North America until about the time of the US Civil War (April 1861 to April 1865). By the early 1900s, the custom of altering coins in this manner, lost most of its popularity. Love tokens are coins which have been hand-engraved after the minting process, often with sentimental messages. There are also coins that have been engraved for luck, and carried by loved ones as they headed into battle. British love tokens (which began in the 1600’s) are sometimes referred to as “crooked coins”, which were coins given by a young man to the object of his affections. The suiter would bend the coin to create a wave, in a bid to prevent it from being used. If the coin was kept, it was a sign that the young man’s affections were reciprocated. If the coin was rejected on the other hand, this was a dismissal of the suiter.  Love tokens were smoothed down almost ‘obliterating’ the monarch’s head, before being bent out of shape. They were also hand-engraved with special initials as well as love signs, including hearts and knots. Some love coins have been also struck with little holes, allowing the owner to attach it to a chain and wear it.  The vast majority of love tokens seem to have been made of silver (and a small quantity in gold), however you can still find bronze and copper pieces. A sailor may be given a good luck token before going off to fish hoping fo a good catch and a safe return home. 


A healing or touch piece is a coin or medal that has been engraved and is then believed to cure disease, bring good luck, influence people’s behaviour, or carry out a specific practical action (such a stopping an addiction). Most of these have a hole so they can be worn as an amulet or pendant. They are typically very worn from people rubbing and touch it to contract the “power” it is believed to hold.


Other: there have been tokens issued by dentists to kids for having no cavities, by teachers to students getting a “A” grade, by scouting groups to promote annual campouts, by families to celebrate special birthdays / anniversaries / weddings / birth of new baby / retirement, and by many organizations to celebrate a milestone (like a municipal centennial) or promote an upcoming event (like a concert).


Geocache and Path Tags: relatively new since about the year 2010, is the hobby of geocaching and pathing. The geocache tokens usually have a Global Positioning System (GPS) code on them, and can be tracked on the Internet; whereas the path tags are missing this feature.


Membership: there are medals issued for membership into a club, group, organization, fraternity, or a fellowship. For example Mosaic Temple has issued these for different levels of achievement, numismatic clubs might issued them to a new member or to recognize a volunteer’s efforts, or to celebrate a club milestone. A common one is membership in Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) receive a “chip” after one month, after a year, and so on to recognize the time the person has refrained from consuming any alcohol.



Numismatic: these might be issued by a numismatic group or a numismatist. They can be issued for shows, conventions, conferences, a loyalty or recognition program, and awards.  Some are issued to document history or simply as a collectible. There has been royalty and politicians for hundreds of years who have engaged medalists to document their personal position at the time of issue. There have been medallions issued when dignitaries have passed away, these are “memorial” medallions.


There are also artistic medallists, which create art, nature, history, famous persons, and other images on medals that tend to be bigger in both diameter and weight, and often have an ultra relief. Some of these are off-shape from the typical round medallions.


Competitive: These are medals issued for achievements in sports such as the Olympic games, hunting and fishing, shooting, and equestrian, fencing, and other sport federation events. They are also issued for horticulture (flowers and gardens) and agricultural associations (livestock and crops). They were also issued for World Fairs and World Expeditions, such as the Dominion Exhibition and Paris World Fair.


Back in the reign of Queen Victoria, these were particularly popular in the British Commonwealth, and were issued in bronze, silver and gold.


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