Curator's Choice 2021
‘Not One Cent’: The Satirical Life and Times of the Hard Times Token
May 2021 By: Monica Kitner, Conservator
At first glance, this copper alloy token from the collection of The Portsmouth Arts & Cultural Center (Figure 1), could be mistaken for an example of conventional coinage often found in a museum’s historical currency collection. However, upon further inspection and with the aid of conservation treatment, this coin’s unique role in the history of the American economy becomes more apparent.
The tokens themselves (colloquially referred to as ‘Hard Times Tokens’) were an invention of necessity, reflecting the resentment of those most affected by the Panic of 1837 (Figure 2) and served as an alternative form of payment. At the time, financial institutions had begun to place limitations on specie payments in an effort to prevent further bank runs. This, in
conjunction with the decline of cotton prices (stemming from more readily available products due to improved transportation systems), the sudden destabilization of the real estate market, and restrictive trade and lending practices with the Bank of England, threatened an already weakened American economy. The resulting economic downturn led to unemployment and businesses failing, further frustrating the average American who relied heavily on lower denominations of currency for everyday transactions; currency that was now in short supply. The solution came in the form of clever satirical coinage, often depicting the source of the people’s resentment.
Fortunately, several different examples of Hard Times Tokens exist today in
museum and private collections. Most are identified by the words ‘Not One Cent/But Just As Good’ or other witty sayings differentiating them from official
legal tender (counteracting the counterfeit regulations of the day). The satirical imagery accompanying the inscriptions on the coins varied from a leaping donkey or shipwreck (Figure 3), to then President Andrew Jackson himself popping out of a coffer (Figure 4). The Portsmouth coin depicts a turtle carrying a treasure chest (labeled ‘SUB Treasury’) with the words ‘Fiscal Agent’ directly underneath. Much like the political cartoons, one finds in the news of today, this unofficial form of currency acted as a commentary on American’s dissatisfaction with their politicians and policies.
Clay, Edward Williams and Robinson, Henry R.
1897 The Times.
New York: printed and published by H.R. Robinson. Photograph. The Library of
Glasner, David and Cooley, Thomas F
1997 Panic of
1837. Business Cycles and Depressions: An Encyclopedia. New York:
Low, Lyman H.
1906. “Hard Times
Tokens. – A Supplementary Chapter.” American Journal of Numismatics (1897 –
1924), 40(4). New York: American Numismatic Society.
Scovill Manufacturing Company
1834 “I Take The
Responsibility Hard Times Token.” 1981.0296. The National Museum of
American History, <https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1382133>
Scovill Manufacturing Company
1841 “Van Buren
Hard Times Token.” 1981.0296. The National Museum of American History,
2021 “Hard Times
Tokens” Were Not One Cent. JSTOR Daily: Cabinet of Curiosities.
‘Not One Cent’: The Satirical Life and Times of the Hard