From 1837 to about 1844, the United States experienced an economic depression, beginning with what is now known as the Panic of 1837. A number of factors contributed to the panic, most of which occured during the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, with Martin Van Buren as his vice president. Van Buren, although only a few weeks in office as President when the panic hit, often receives much of the blame.
As a result, "hard times" spread from the East, to the North and South, with a reduction in circulating currency, loss of business, falling agricultural prices, bankruptcies of plantation owners, and other economic pressures. Out of 850 banks in the U.S., 62 partially failed and 343 closed down entirely — a run on one bank when many of its customers withdrew their funds only spread panic, causing others to do the same elsewhere, and yet more banks to curtail their monetary policies still further. Several states even defaulted on foreign bonds, leading to the widthdrawal of the U.S. from international money markets until the late 1840s.
During the period, to help alleviate the shortage of coinage due to hoarding, private mints issued "Hard Times tokens," modelled after the large cents of the time, although different enough such that the minter could not be accused of counterfeiting. These tokens had political and/or satirical themes, or advertised merchants. These tokens, previously cataloged by Lyman Haynes Low in his Hard Times Tokens volume, appear in Rulau's Standard Catalog of United States Tokens 1700-1900 using the same cataloging system. Several of these tokens, in the collection of this author and his wife, are shown below.
The first of the three coppers on the left is a U.S. large cent issued in 1831, and typical of the type used as the model for hard times tokens. It features a head of Liberty on the obverse, surrounded by thirteen stars and the date, and, on the reverse, the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surrounding a wreath, inside of which is the denomination of ONE CENT.
The second two are Hard Times tokens, issued in 1837 and 1841, respectively (HT 47 and HT 58). They also both feature the head of Liberty with the date below, but the headband reading LIBERTY is replaced by a laurel wreath. On the first, thirteen stars are still present, while on the second, they are replaced by a wreath. On both, a scroll has been added reading E PLURIBUS UNUM.
While the reverse still shows ONE CENT, to avoid the appearance of counterfeiting, it is cleverly included in the phrase MILLIONS FOR DEFENCE NOT ONE CENT FOR TRIBUTE. This phrase refers to an apocryphal response to the French's demand for what was essentially a bribe in order to begin negotiations over greviances in 1797. In 1801, this same phrase was popularized again when President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay when the Barbary States of Tripoli, Algiers and Tunis demanded tribute from the U.S. in exchange for not attacking U.S. ships, so was familiar to token creators three decades later when Hard Times tokens were minted.
That same reverse was used on other tokens, such as this one, HT 293, featuring the new Merchant's Exchange building on Wall Street, in New York City, built 1827, which burned down in the Great New York Fire of 1835.
The original Merchant's Exchange building is shown on HT 294. As given by Rulau:
"The Tontine Coffee House building, at the corner of Wall and Water Streets in New York, was commenced in 1792 and completed in 1794. It and a large amount of surrounding land were owned by an association of 203 city merchants and other prosperous persons, who had subscribed at $200 per share. Thus the initial capital was $40,600. The Tontine scheme was to be divided equally when the original 203 holders had been reduced by death to just seven! Share purchasers often named their children, not themselves, as the share owners. Meanwhile, shareholders shared the income of the entity, which owned a good portion of what was then the 2nd Ward (bounded by Pine St., Nassau St., East River, and Gold and George Sts.)... The largest room in the Tontine housed the Merchants Exchange 1794-1825, but it soon outgrew its quarters, with bargaining being conducted in the bar, etc. A supposedly fireproof Merchants Exchange building was erected 1827 on Wall Street [shown on the previous token], but it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1835... The Tontine scheme was sort of 'Russian roulette.' When the 203 were reduced to 7, the survivors were to divvy up the loot. By 1862, 70 years after the plot was hatched, it was found that a family named De Peyster had bought up some two-thirds of the outstanding shares."
This arrangement is now prohibited in the U.S. and Great Britain as it provides an incentive for investors to kill each other, to reduce the number of survivors.
HT 63 is an example of a political token. As given in Rulau:
"At a meeting in Tammany Hall, on the evening of 29 October, 1835, there was a split in the party over the Congressional nominee. The friends of each had endeavored to pack the meeting; great confusion attended the efforts of the chiefs and their followers to obtain control, amid which the gas was turned off, it was alleged through the connivance of the janitor with one faction. Their opponents, however, if they did not themselves instigate the move, were equal to the occasion, and somewhat singularly, had come prepared with loco-foco matches and candles, and the room was speedily relighted. The Morning Courier and New York Enquirer dubbed the antimonopolists, who had used the matches, 'Loco-focos,' and the name was speedily affixed to the whole Democratic party."
"BENTON EXPERIMENT" and "MINT DROP" refer to Democratic Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton's support for hard currency (coinage) from the U.S. Mint which had intrinsic value (hard money advocates were known as "Mint Drops"), over paper money that was only backed by gold but valueless in itself. He supported Jackson and also argued for the abolishing of the Second United States Bank.
HT 66 specifically refers to the worthless privately-printed paper money as a SUBSTITUTE FOR SHIN PLASTERS, as it was "only good for stuffing in your socks (lining your boots with) to keep warm in the winter", with the Phoenix indicating that paper money was only meant to be burnt. The date of "Nov(embe)r 1837" refers to a convention held on November 27, 1837 with representatives from banks in 19 states to try to restore financial order, eventually leading to the reversal of the May 10, 1837 decision of the New York banks to suspend specie payments. The suspension is commemorated on the token's reverse.
The Whig opposition to the Democratic party, which opposed the closing of the Second United States Bank, issued tokens like this one, HT 9. The use of MY repeatedly on the token refers to the Whigs accusing Jefferson of dictatorial powers by his control of assets, and PERISH CREDIT PERISH COMMERCE as the result of abolishing the central bank. The boar may represent Jackson's fiscal policies running wild and causing havoc.
Daniel Webster also opposed the closing of the Bank, and was a supporter of the Constitution, as illustrated on this token, HT 22. The obverse shows the Constitution as a ship in calm waters, surrounded by the legend WEBSTER CREDIT CURRENT, showing his favoring the issuance of credit and paper money. In contrast, the reverse shows Van Buren's support of coinage only with the legend VAN BUREN METALLIC CURRENT, and the ship Experiment (written on the side of the ship, but too worn to be visible on this particular token) in a lightning and thunderstorm, driven on to rocks in a stormy sea.
This satirical piece, HT 34, shows a turtle on the obverse and the legend EXECUTIVE FINANCIERING, representing either money moving too slowly to state banks, and then sub-treasuries, or the slowness in getting the sub-treasury bill through Congress. The Independent Treasury was a system for the storing of funds in the United States Treasury and its sub-treasuries in various cities, and was in place from its inception until it was obsoleted by the Federal Reserve system in the early 20th century.
The reverse inscription of I FOLLOW IN THE ILLUSTRIOUS STEPS OF MY PREDECESSOR was a phrase said by Van Buren in his inaugural address in March 1837, although his predecessor, Jackson, is shown on the token as a jackass.
Lastly, this token, HT M19, while in the style of a hard times token, was actually struck in 1900 by the Gorham Manufacturing Company at the request of C.D. Peacock Jewelers of Chicago, and has a mintage of 10,000. The obverse shows a peacock with its tail feathers spread and the legend C.D. PEACOCK JEWELER CHICAGO. The date of 1837 refers not to the date of issue, but of the company's founding. The reverse, showing a clock with Roman numerals and the inscription TIME IS MONEY, is very similar to Hard Times tokens issued by Smith's Clock Establishment, HT 311-317.
Hard Times tokens are a varied series, providing a window into the politics and mood of an early American era.