Don't forget to pick up a token of your affection for your valentine this year. Robyn Einhorn, a specialist in the museum's National Numismatic Collection, shares her favorites.
How does a numismatist (person who studies currency) say "Happy Valentine's Day"? With a love token, of course!
Love tokens are coins that were engraved after the minting process was complete. Generally, an artisan removed the words and images from the reverse, or sometimes from both the obverse and the reverse of a coin. Artisans ranging in skills from a high-quality craftsperson to a "do-it-yourselfer" then engraved or punched pictures, initials, and messages on the cleared area.
Other times, the coin was left intact and the artisan engraved initials, dates, or pictures on the edges around the images of liberty or royalty. The coins became lucky charms, objects of art, and pieces of jewelry. The messages on the coins could be used as spiritual reminders, family documentation, or sentimental sweet nothings.
It is believed that the love token originated in Great Britain as early as the 13th century with the practice of bending coins. When dealing with your favorite saint, in return for a favor, a coin was bent and a pledge was made. The bent coin, "a token of your pledge," became a physical reminder of your obligation.
Because love tokens are hand-engraved, they are unique. The birth of a baby, the initial of your intended, a soldier leaving a memory of himself with his loved ones, or a prisoner getting sent off to do his time; all have been remembered on the surface of a coin. Love tokens tell stories that begin with the words, images, and initials engraved on the coins and are completed only by the limits of our own imaginations.
Other methods of making coins into tokens included cutting coins and "pinpunching" (a stippled technique that employed a hammer and point). Free-hand engraving may date as early as the 1500s in Great Britain and the 1800s in America.
It is difficult to place an exact date on a love token. How do you distinguish the date the art work was engraved on the coin? The age of the token is not necessarily the year the coin was manufactured, which is sometimes still on the coin. Nor is it necessarily the date engraved on the coin, which might be a significant date to the engraver and not the date the engraver re-carved the coin. It is a good thing that most collectors of love tokens are more interested in the quality of the carving and the sentiment of the words than the date or monetary value of the coin.
What are the stories these coins tell? Was the image of a Bible put onto Mama's token when she made a pledge to a higher spirit? Did one brother give another brother the copper token for protection when he went off to war? Was the octagon initial "M" a gift from a husband to his wife or a boyfriend to his sweetheart on Valentine’s Day? Did the brooch of many names represent the love of a mother and to her children?
Robyn Einhorn is a specialist in the National Numismatic Collection at the National Museum of American History. She has previously blogged about the V-nickel, the Kennedy half-dollar, and some fascinating fiscal facial hair.