A Look at Civil War Era Tokens and Their History

Updated: Aug 22

Civil war era tokens seem to turn up quite often in New York state. I'm sure you've probably found a few when out metal detecting. Civil war era tokens were privately minted and distributed in the United States between 1862- 1864. At the start of the War, people began hoarding silver and gold coins. There was naturally some concern that paper bills might become completely worthless depending on the outcome of the War. Coins that were made from precious metals would retain their value regardless of how the War turned out. Their metal quality equaled their face value. As the War continued to rage on even one cent coins began to disappear from circulation as well. People still needed goods and services. Without any coins to trade for goods or services, commerce would have come to a complete standstill. The federal government, aware of the coin shortage minted additional one cent coins. In 1863 the US government minted approximately 49,840,000 one cent coins. That's practically five times the amount that was minted in 1861, only two years earlier, and it still wasn't enough.

Out of necessity and due to the scarcity of US coins during the Civil War, private businesses started making their own tokens or commissioning others to make tokens for them. Civil War era tokens first appeared in Cincinnati, Ohio in the Fall of 1862. In the Spring of 1863 New York state began using them. Tokens filled the need and we're accepted as a means of exchange in trade with a stated or implied value. It's hard to say exactly how many different varieties are actually out there. Researchers estimate that there are approximately 10,000 different varieties. Some were made by the thousands, others we're only made by the handful. Civil war era tokens fall within three general categories. There are patriotic tokens, store cards, and sutler tokens. All three types were used as currency during the War.

Patriotic tokens displayed a patriotic slogan or image on either one or both sides of the token. The majority of these tokens were minted in union states so most of the patriotic tokens are pro-union. Below are pictures of some of the different civil war era patriotic tokens.

One of the most well known patriotic tokens is the Flag of the Union/Shoot him on the spot token, also referred to as the Dix token. It was produced by the Scovill Manufacturing Company in Waterbury, Connecticut. At the start of the War, John Adams Dix, the Secretary of the Treasury, issued the following order to a Treasury Officer in New Orleans, "If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.". This quote, slightly modified, is on the reverse side of the token. There are at least 12 different known obverse varieties of the token paired with 10 different "Shoot him on the spot" reverses. Some of the tokens were minted with the error "Spoot" instead of "Spot".

Store cards differ from patriotic tokens in that one or both sides of the token displayed the name of a privately owned business and or it's location. A large number of store cards were issued from the states of Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. Listed and pictured below are some store cards from the Upstate, NY area.

Albany, NY:

Benjamin & Herrick, Fruit Dealers

DL Wing & Co., Union Flour

DL Wing & Co., Union & Liberty (Error)

John Thomas Jr., Premium Mills Coffee & Spices

Joseph Mcburney Cigar Box Manufr

NY C.R.R. EX Trains, Leave Albany

P. V. Fort & Co. Dealers in Fruits and Nuts

Straight's Elephantine Shoe Store

Almond, NY:

H. Dartt Dry Goods Groceries

Binghamton, NY:

Evans & Allen Watches & Jewelry

Buffalo NY:

EG Barrows, Brandies Wine & Cigars

F.J. Bieler, Business Card

George Gage Grocer

Hochstetter and Strauss Dry Goods

Howes Scales, L Danforth AGT

Sohm & Rohmann, Butchers

TJ Conry, Picture Frames Newspapers

Cohoes, NY:

Alden & Frink Merchants

Cooperstown NY:

Bingham & Jarvis Drugs Medicine Paint soil, GL Bowne Iron Clad

Elmira, NY:

Gold Cigar Store

Louis Strass & Co. Dry Goods

Fort Edward, NY:

Harvey & Co., General Store

Niagara Falls, NY:

Walsh & Sons, Staple & Fancy, Dry Goods

Ogdensburgh, NY:

G. Idler's Meat Market

Johnson House AM Sherman

Oswego, NY:

ML Marshall, Toys Fancy Goods Fishing Tackle and Rare Coin

Poughkeepsie NY:

Eastman National Business College, Actual Business Department

Seneca Falls, NY:

D. Skidmore's Hotel, Good for One

Troy, NY:

Charles Babcock, Jeweler

Fred A Plum, Goodyear, India Rubber Depot

Oliver Boutwell, Miller

Robinson & Ballou, Grocer

WE Hagan, No. 1, Soda Water, 5 Cents

Utica, NY:

IJ Knapp, Wine & Liquors, Utica NY

Sherwood & Hopson, China Emporium, Utica NY

TL Kingsley & Son, Great Wardrobe Clothing, Utica NY

Waterloo, NY:

Henry C. Welles Druggist & Book Seller

Watertown, NY:

Hart's Arcade, Gallery

Whitehall, NY:

EW Hall, To Purify the Blood Use Atherton's Pills

Sutler tokens are similar to store cards. They displayed the name of a particular army unit, generally a regiment, and the name of the sutler that conducted transactions within that regiment. A sutler was a civilian merchant, appointed by the government, who sold provisions and other goods to the soldiers. Every military post was allowed one sutler and regiments in the field each had a sutler who traveled along with them. Below are a few pictures of different sutler tokens.

In my ventures out metal detecting I have dug a few Civil War era tokens. I've always been intrigued by the story behind each token that I've found and how they ended up where they were. Upon deciding to write this blog article, I came to the realization that I knew very little about Civil War era tokens. Honestly, even after a few weeks of research on the subject there is still so much about them that I just don't know. With approximately 10,000 different varieties, obverse sides paired with different reverse sides, and all the minting errors, there is just so much to learn. You could spend hours, upon hours, reading the token tables. And naturally, as you read about each token in the table you are captivated to learn more. What's the history behind their design? How many were produced? Who was the manufacturer? How long was the store in business for? What did they sell? I could go on and on. The history behind these tokens is truly fascinating. It would probably take a lifetime or more to learn about it all. I would like to thank club member, Ed Rifenburgh for sharing some of his knowledge with me on the subject. Ed has dug over 30 different Civil War era tokens. If you have any information you'd like to share, please leave a comment in the section below. I'd really love to see pictures of the Civil War era tokens you have dug as well. I hope you have a great week! Happy Hunting!

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