Coins of the Rebellion: The Civil War currency of Albany merchants

I want to show you some historic treasures today.  It’s a window to Albany life from 150 years ago.  And it’s a nice collectible series as well.

Take a look at this.  This is an actual minted token from 1863 for a shoe store on Broadway.

And tokens like this were the norm in 1863 – not the exception.

During the Civil War, common U.S. coinage virtually disappeared.  Gold and silver were hoarded, and even copper coins were squirreled away for their metallic value.

From this came a rise in custom-stamped coinage, as private metallurgists struck copper tokens for merchants.  These Civil War tokens were coins with patriotic messages, and were used in lieu of actual currency.  The Civil War tokens, also known as “storefronts” or “storecards,” were produced between 1862 and 1864, when their similarity in size and composition to actual pennies caused the United States Government to pass laws prohibiting private coinage.

Some storefronts were offered by various merchants in lieu of currency, and these sovereigns have developed into their own collectable numismatic subgenre.

In Albany, there were several styles of storecards stamped between 1862 and 1864, including some with typeface variations.  Most of them were either made of pure copper or a copper-brass alloy, but there are some examples struck from lead, tin, and even melted into bronze.

civil-war-token-1aOne of the most common Albany Civil War Tokens is the Benjamin & Herrick Fruit Dealers token, which could be redeemed at their 427 Broadway store.  There are several variations on this token, as the most dedicated collector will examine how close the letter ‘F” in FRUIT is to the letters in “BENJAMIN.”

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The reverse side of this token shows the address of redemption.  There are several different styles of this reverse as well, depending on the size of the numerals, and whether the “2” in 427 has an extra cedilla-like descending mark (as can be seen at right).

civil-war-token-12aAre you hungry for some coffee and spices?  Then you should head down to Exchange and Dean Streets and visit John Thomas’ Premium Mills.  There are several variations on this storefront coin as well, so keep an eye out.

civil-war-token-22aSometimes these coins may have a tiny hole punched through them; although there are several possible reasons for this type of modification, some sources say that the coins could be strung together on a string, or worn as part of a necklace or watch fob; other holes could have been made to test the coin’s metallurgic components.  Others may have been caused by stamping errors at the token manufacturer.

Of the Albany merchants with known Civil War minted tokens, only one – D.L. Wing – still has a building in downtown Albany, although the structure itself is an empty facility.  During the Civil War, D.L. Wing’s operations were housed at 318 Broadway – a different location than the D.L. Wing building currently on Broadway – and D.L. Wing’s Civil War storecards proudly offered “Union Flower” for their customers.

And by far the coolest of the Civil War token was one from Straight’s Elephantine Shoes, located at 398 Broadway – well, a parking lot is located there now.  Straight’s tokens featured a marching, boot-wearing elephant, and this figural token is extremely collectible, with good examples selling for up to $200 today.

The collectibility of these treasures ranges from common to nearly impossible to find.  While one can go on eBay and find several Benjamin & Herrick Civil War tokens for a low selling price, one variation – in which the token’s reverse contains the patriotic phrase “United We Stand / Divided We Fall” – is extremely rare, with prices ranging as high as $1,000 for a clean token with that phrase.

Although most of the tokens were stamped in copper, there were plenty of other materials used for these coins – including silver, brass, nickel, tin, and a copper-brass alloy.

The coins are about the size of a modern penny, and can easily be mistaken for a one cent piece.  In fact, the U.S. Government in 1864 actually passed a law that forbade the minting of storefronts and storecards.  The ones that survive today are treasures of a bygone time.

In addition to the private coinage, local merchants – as well as the City of Albany itself – issued paper scrip as the equivalent of currency.  This scrip was not backed by silver or gold, but was instead backed by the promise of local merchants to honor the face value of the printed document.

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These paper scrips were signed by C.J. Paige, Albany City Chamberlain, as well as by Albany Mayor Eli Perry, who in 1862 commenced the second of his three non-consecutive stints as Albany mayor.  Perry would later serve two terms in the House of Representatives in the 1870’s.

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Various printing companies lithographed these scrips.  The five cent scrip above was printed by Murray & Co. Exchange of Albany, while the ten-cent note came from Lewis & Goodwin, with offices at 452 Broadway.

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It’s amazing that any of these bills have survived to the 21st century.  The notes were printed on very thin oil-like paper stock, and there are indications that some of these scrips were counterfeited.

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It’s hard to believe that in many instances, the City of Albany did whatever they could to provide more money for their citizens – by simply manufacturing more money!  Imagine if the City tried to do this today…

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little excursion into a little-known fragment of Albany’s history.  And who knows … maybe this might inspire you to combine being a numismatist and a Civil War re-enactor.

As for these pieces … I’ll hold on to them for a little while, and then when I get a chance, I’ll donate them to the Albany Institute of History and Art.

Who knows?  Maybe 150 years from now, someone else might want to do some research on these little treasures.

Especially that cute one with the marching elephant.

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