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Numismatics tells story of financial upset

Can you think about your coins these days without thinking about the financial storms that are raging in the markets around the world? It is difficult.

Can you think about your coins these days without thinking about the financial storms that are raging in the markets around the world? It is difficult. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t get uneasy now and again about your mortgage, your 401(k) retirement account, or the security of your job or occupation.


But there is always a numismatic angle. If coins and their related items teach nothing else, they do teach the cyclicality of American economic life. Where, after all, came Hard Times tokens? It wasn’t after President Andrew Jackson spent a day at the Maryland shore.

Jackson was roundly condemned in certain quarters during his presidency. He took on the Bank of the United States, which was partially owned by the federal government, and operated similarly to a central bank. But it wasn’t a central bank even though Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia liked to think he was in charge.

The bank’s charter expired in 1836 because Jackson actively worked to persuade the Congress to make it so. He succeeded. He believed in hard assets and issued a famous circular in 1836 that insisted that purchasers of federal lands pay in specie (gold or silver coins).

In the mad scramble for gold and silver, paper assets in the form of the prevailing privately issued paper money became poison and many banks failed, ultimately even the Bank of the United States itself, which had tried to continue on as a Pennsylvania-chartered bank.

Trade slowed drastically. Businesses failed as they couldn’t get their credit extended. Unemployment rose. Times were bad. Think Charles Dickens.

The tokens of the period are avidly collected. With similar business conditions today, suspect paper, a scramble for gold and rising unemployment, it is no surprise that the present occupant of the White House is the object of sentiments not unlike those expressed about Jackson.

“I take the Responsibility” of the 1830s tokens might be the “I’m the Decider” phrase of this first decade of the 20th century. Unfortunately, perhaps, nobody is recording present events with tokens.

Tokens themselves were a sign of distress. If businesses had no coins to use, they issued tokens.

Collectors of obsolete bank notes, which were notes issued by private banks that failed, many of them in the 1830s, are popularly collected today.

There are things to collect like Clearing House Certificates from the Panic of 1907. When firms ran out of cash, they could draw upon the balances that they were owed but not yet paid to them in cash. This way Wall Street could keep functioning in a calamity.

Depression scrip from the 1930s show the creativity of local communities when they too had no money to pay their debts. They issued scrip that would be accepted by those who were willing to take it until it was redeemed by the issuer when funds flowed again.

Financial turmoil is not new to the United States. It is just as cruel as it ever was in the form of dashed hopes and dreams or postponed retirements. But some of the outcomes were numismatic.