By Steve Carr
Sometimes, one of those “secret” areas of numismatics provides items that really tie us to the past. These items can be an 1861-O half dollar struck for the Confederacy, a gold coin from the S.S. Republic shipwreck, or even a single large cent, which can bring mental visions of what the mint was like when this coin was struck. We each have a piece of history in our collection.
One very affordable item with this connection to the past is a love token. Love tokens are coins that have one side smoothed or planed off, with engraved initials, names, scenes, or quotes in its place. Some of these engravings are rather crude - perhaps a farmer carved his wife’s initials on a coin while taking a break from his chores. Others are ornate and artistic - a bride’s wedding day gift.
Some love tokens come with a pin attached, some are holed, and some have a loupe attached. These were usually made into pins, necklaces, or bracelets. A person’s wealth probably determined the value of the coin being used as the “host”. Poorer people gave tokens made from lower denominations while a person with some money would choose a half dollar or even a gold coin.
These tokens are found on all kinds of coins, from half cents to double eagles. Usually they are found on Seated Liberty coins, many from the 1870s. Mostly, the reverse of the coin is planed off, but I have seen several examples of the opposite – with the obverse planed off. One of these, a dime, even had a CC mintmark! They are known on earlier Bust coins, but Bust love tokens are scarce.
The story of love tokens really started in the 1820s. America was moving west, but most of the wealth was still on the east coast. Money had to flow both ways and there just were not enough coins for commerce to grow. To solve this problem – and in some cases to make a buck - many banks began issuing their own bank notes. This demand created a number of jobs for engravers, who formed several bank note companies. Their end products are today known as “Broken Bank Notes” or “Obsoletes.”
Engraving was a growing occupation until the 1870s. Before 1875, private companies engraved and printed all United States currency. This changed when a sundry appropriation bill passed Congress on March 3, 1875, stipulating that all U. S. National currency be printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Eventually, all government notes were/are printed there. From this point on, private companies started losing business. They started off by releasing some of their engravers.
What were these engravers to do for employment? Some changed their profession, some retired. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing hired others. A few even took up counterfeiting. Some even found a new way to use their skills creating love tokens! Love tokens became very popular in the late 18th century as many unemployed engravers entered this field and helped popularize these tokens.
Love token coins usually cost less than an average coin in the same grade. A 10 cent 1877 dime love token, for example, will cost $10 - $15. Some tokens, however, are expensive. I once saw an 1825 $2.50 gold coin made into a necklace with the reverse engraved “X.X. to X.X.” – I forget the letters. It was well worn and the asking price was more than $1250. This type coin will easily set you back $6000 without being a love token. Which one would you prefer? I vote for the love token. To me, it is way cooler!!!