If you bought or received a gift card last Christmas, you’re in good company. While the appeal of gift cards shows no sign of abating—they’ve been the most popular gift for seven years running—it brings to mind a troubled time in U.S. history when retailers experimented with another alternate currency.
At the height of the Civil War, the hoarding of gold and silver made coins so scarce that most merchants were unable to provide change to their customers. In response, in 1862 private businesses began to mint their own coins that patrons could exchange for store credit, much like gift cards are used today. Millions of these coins, known as “rebellion tokens”, were minted in hundreds of different designs, often featuring a patriotic message or an image of the proprietor.
Typical of Hammacher Schlemmer’s understated philosophy, our copper tokens were stamped with only our name and address and the word “Hardware” on the obverse; the reverse featured the words “not one cent” and the die striker’s name, Louis Roloff, within a closed circle of laurel branches.
Production of tokens ceased in June of 1864 when Congress passed the law that made the minting of non-government issued coins a federal crime. However, it is not illegal to own the tokens. It is estimated that about a million tokens survived of the 25 million produced, and a rare example in good condition can easily fetch hundreds of dollars from an avid exonumist.