The New York Observer was reporting various kinds of tokens were in daily circulation throughout New York City. According to the newspaper the tokens were being sold for around 62 cents per hundred tokens, which was a good profit when substituted for a cent.
An anti-slavery newspaper, called the Emancipator, was also reporting that tokens similar to a cent were being sold from the offices of the Anti-Slavery League on Nassau Street. The paper described the tokens as being anti-slavery in nature.
Mint Director Patterson also noted that tokens were springing up in Boston, though he doesn’t mention any names. The Boston tokens were very similar to the New York City tokens. They were lightweight when compared to a genuine cent. The tokens weight averaged about 70 percent of the weight of a real cent.
The Mint Director guessed that the cost to manufacture the tokens was about 50 cents per hundred tokens which when sold for 62 cents per hundred pieces allowed for a tidy profit. He noted that the dies seemed to be crude and cheaply made which no doubt kept costs down.
Merchants didn’t seem to have any problems accepting the tokens. They got “cents” at a great discount plus they got their own advertising added to the tokens. It was a win-win situation for them. The Mint Director had a much different opinion on the token issue.
Treasury Secretary Woodbury took the Mint Director’s letter under consideration. Woodbury contacted federal attorneys at New York and Baltimore and instructed them to eradicate the token problem. The Mint Director wrote Woodbury again to report another 11 tokens circulating in New York. Apparently the legal attacks stemmed the use of the tokens. Apparently not many tokens were struck after the spring of 1838.
Around the time that the tokens were entering circulation, political opportunists spotted an opportunity to attack President Jackson and Van Buren and to make a nice profit in the process. Quite a few varieties of these political tokens were issued and many have survived to this day.
While the tokens issued between 1837-1838 are known as Hard Times Tokens, the name is not quite accurate. The recession that started in 1837 was over within a year. By 1838 the New York banks had resumed specie payments. However, in June 1839 the economy tanked and fell into a real depression which threw large numbers of people out of work.
The main cause of the depression of 1839 was mainly the English discount rate which caused too much gold to flow out of Britain. The depression limped along into 1842 until the discovery of gold in Russian Siberia. These gold discoveries provided new quantities of gold to enter the world markets.
Today Hard Times Tokens are not widely known to most coin collectors and are merely a footnote in the history of the United States. Today these tokens are collected by specialists.