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Promotional Token

In general, tokens are objects designed to symbolize someone or something else. While tokens may come in a wide variety of shapes and forms, promotional tokens are designed to entice the holder to purchase or support an object, person, organization, or idea. They tend to be relatively small and made predominantly of metal or wood. Most promotional tokens appear similar to coins, but they possess no legal monetary value. They may be designed to be carried in the pocket or purse or worn on a string or ribbon. They were commonly distributed as a form of advertisement, often enabling the bearer to a special price, service, or benefit when presented at the appropriate establishment. When displayed, they frequently communicated that the wearer as part of an elite group. The use of promotional tokens can be traced back into antiquity.

Commonly referred to as a ‘Hard Times Tokens’, this type of political media symbolizes the economic depression blamed on Jacksonian and democratic policies that focused on US fiscal management plans based on hard currency. The Panic of 1837 and subsequent depression resulted in the hoarding of hard currency and shortages of coinage. Many hard times tokens bore a familiar resemblance to U.S. coinage of the time. They were probably intentionally sized close to the large cent to lampoon the currency’s lack of value. Some forms bear busts of Columbia that are similar to those on the large cent. The substitution of “Not One Cent for Tribute” for “One Cent” not only prevented charges of counterfeiting being leveled on the token’s private manufacturers, but also served as a political slogan aimed against tribute payment to the Barbary Pirates . Biting political slogans were rampant. While none of the tokens were struck by the Federal government (and hence carried no official monetary backing), some forms were unofficially accepted by merchants as legal tender.

A single promotional token was recovered from the neck region of the adult in F-86. The token was circular with a diameter of 0.875 inches (2.7 centimeters). It was made of a cupreous alloy. Generally these tokens were composed of copper, although one specimen in the Alan S. Fisher collection was listed as made of brass. A small hole was drilled near the margin and fibers, preserved by absorption of copper salts, indicted that cotton filiments (probably a string) once passed through it. The object was undoubtedly worn around the individual’s neck. On close examination, the bust of a man in military garb was minted on the obverse side and a scale inscribed “Democrats” and “Whigs” was cast on the reverse. The date “1840” was placed below the scales. These features matched no known legal currency, but alternatively identified the object as a campaign token from William Henry Harrison’s 1840 presidential election campaign.

The bust depicted William Henry Harrison; his military uniform emphasized that he was a distinguished officer during the War of 1812. The scale portrayed on the obverse weighed in favor of the Whig Party (over the Democrats) and was surrounded by the inscription “Weighed in the Balance and Found Wanting”. These features set this specimen apart from the several hundred Hard Times Tokens that have been identified by Numismatists. The token does not appear to have been part of Lyman Low’s original 1899 catalogue of Hard Times tokens, so no Low number as been assigned to the form. Twentieth century token expert Russell Rulau, assigned the number HT-819 to this particular token.

Harrison spent much of his adult life as a career politician, holding office as Governor of the Indiana Territory, elected to seats in Congress and the Senate, and appointed as diplomat to Columbia. In his bid for the presidency in 1840 and with the backing of the Whig Party, he soundly defeated Jacksonian Democrat Martin Van Burin. Harrison’s views on slavery made many Southerners view him as an unreliable candidate. In true political style, Harrison’s rhetoric committed himself to both sides of the issue. In general, he viewed slavery as a non-Federally mandated issue that was best decided on a state-by-state basis. As a young man he joined an abolutionist society, a move that he later used to ground himself as anti-slavery. While Governor of the Indiana Territory, Harrison supported the emancipation of slaves in Indiana, even freeing his own slave, but recognized the right to maintain their services under indentureships that lasted for as long as 90 years. This move brought virtually no change to the status of the enslaved person in Indiana. In the 1830s he supported emancipation, but only if the slaves returned to Africa. During the 1840 election campaign, Harrison wooed Southern voters by denying that he was ever an Abolitionist, only the member of a humane society. Harrison could hardly be seen as an inspiration to people in the South and perhaps even less so to African Americans. It seems unlikely that the importance of the token included its relation to Harrison or the presidential campaign of 1840.

Coins carried special meaning in the historic African-American culture. Perforated coins are predictable finds around the necks, ankles, and other appendages of post-Emancipation period African-American interments. These artifacts, particularly those made of silver, were viewed as charms, able to ward off malevolent magic and possessed medicinal properties. Copper objects shared many of these same qualities. Wearing a penny around one’s neck was considered a cure for indigestion. Coins may have also served to ground important dates among illiterate or marginally literate community members. Folklorist, Harry Hyatt noted that perforated coins often bore the date of one’s birth, therefore served as a good luck charm. Rose and Santeford proposed that the dates on similar coins recovered from African-American interments in Arkansas recorded the date for the individual’s birth.

While not technically legal U.S. legal tender, it is likely that the Harrison Campaign token’s shape, size, composition, and inscriptions prompted the community to treat it like a copper coin. The token from F-86 was recovered with Harrison’s bust facing down and the scale and 1840 date facing up; this orientation may have intentionally deemphasized the token’s association with a political candidate in favor of information provided on the back. Most prominently this may have been the date. It was very likely that the token’s date may have also been the decedent’s birth date. The token was struck and dated in 1840, representing the only securely dated pre-Emancipation artifact from the graves at Avondale. Unfortunately there are no supplemental artifacts in the grave to provide a cross-date for its placement in the cemetery. Grave dimensions and skeletal features suggest that the individual was an adult when death occurred; if the assumption that the token represents a ‘lucky coin’ is correct, death as a young adult could place the date of death as early as the late 1850s and potentially represent a pre-Emancipation interment.

Caution however is in order. New South Associates has noted that copper does not survive well in burial environments, so the token’s poor condition cannot be viewed as a result of use, rather from exposure to caustic conditions. The aperture in a silver dime recovered from F-311 at New South Associate’s recovery of 9CH875 in Savannah, Georgia was extremely worn, an indication that the dime was used as a pendant for a considerable period of time; this wear was lacking in Avondale’s F-86 token, emphasizing that this object that was probably conserved. It is unclear how long the object may have been stowed away. This individual’s death may have occurred long after emancipation, particularly if the object was valued and protected, so it cannot be assumed that this token is unequivocal evidence of a slave interment.

The token may have also served other purposes. The medicinal properties associated with copper coins would likely be seen in this token and the token would have served as a fine substitute for these. As noted among coins, the token may have also served as payment for transport to the world of the dead. The token’s placement with F-86 may also be an indication of the decedent’s health and relationship with the supernatural world.


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