Greg Bennick's latest interview for the Newman Numismatic Portal is with token expert David Schenkman.
Here's the second of six parts, where Dave discusses discovering Civil War Tokens.
Now, getting to the tokens. Around 1961 I guess, I started working part time for a man in
Norfolk, Virginia, where I lived, who had a coin shop. He was a retired Navy officer and I
would do whatever he wanted me to do with coins. And one day he gave me a box of Indian
head cents and said he wanted me to attribute them and pack them up for sale. So, as I was
going through them, there was a half dozen of these coins that were not Indian head cents, they
were different. They had advertisements on them and some of them resembled Indian head
cents. And so, I asked him what they were and he said they were Civil War tokens.
fascinated by them because there was so much more diversity than there was with the cents
which were the same except for the dates. He gave them to me, and I started collecting Civil
War tokens. And I was a member of a couple of local coin clubs. And I would pester everybody
for tokens and people would bring in tokens because very few people were interested in them,
at least where I lived. And I got to the point where I had probably about two hundred Civil War
tokens, and what I started seeing were duplicates of everything that I had. When I'd see
something else, like I wasn't picking up anything new, so I sort of assumed that I probably had
them all. And then somebody gave me a copy of George Fuld's book on Civil War tokens,
actually two little black books. And my bubble burst because he listed about 7000 varieties. So,
I realized I didn't know a whole lot about these, but I had a book! So now I could at least find
out which ones were rare and which ones were common. And so that really spurred my interest.
And from there I branched out to other types of tokens and obsolete paper money and to a
certain extent, coins also. And eventually I went in the coin business full time. I did that for a
number of years. I'm no longer doing that, but I still have as much interest in coins as I always
Greg Bennick: Well, let's take one step back. Let's say for a beginning listener, what is, since
you mentioned them first, a Civil War token?
David Schenkman: Civil War tokens, as you might assume, were issued by merchants during
the Civil War. And the reason they were issued was because there was a shortage of currency.
People started hoarding gold shortly after the Civil War broke out. Then they started hoarding
silver and eventually it got to where they were hoarding copper. So, these civil war tokens,
which were generally the size of a cent in a lot of cases, resembled an Indian head cent. They
filled the gap. They could circulate and they served two purposes because not only did they
advertise a merchant, but the merchant could buy them in quantity for less than a penny apiece
as the going price for a thousand of them was about $8 to have them made. So, you could
actually make a profit issuing these coins.
Greg Bennick: So, it sounds in a way much like Conder tokens and the role that they served in
in the UK, where there just was a shortage of coinage and these coins were made to supplement
a lack of coinage, to provide for commerce to continue to exist. I guess that was the same thing
with Civil War tokens then.
David Schenkman: Well, it was. And like Conder tokens, a lot of them were made for
collectors. There were collectors of these tokens during the war and shortly after the war. The
collectors that lived in the areas where there were die sinkers that were making Civil War
tokens would go to the die sinker to look at his dies and say well, make the five of these with
this die and this die, make me five in silver and fifteen in German silver or whatever. And they
were creating - instant rarities - that now sell for large amounts of money. And what they would
do is they would put one in their collection and then they would trade with collectors in other
areas that were doing the same thing with die sinkers in their areas. And so, a good deal of the
Civil War tokens are really not
legitimate in the sense that they were never intended for use.
And some of them were actually struck after the war.
Greg Bennick: So, they were struck almost as numismatic delicacies the way that in the 1870s
or so, there was a number of numismatic delicacies in terms of patterns made at the Mint for
collectors at their request and whatnot. These were things that were made both by the die
sinkers themselves, but maybe at the request of collectors also in order to create delicacies or
David Schenkman: Well, everybody likes a rarity. They were doing the same thing with
Conder tokens in the 1790's because there were coin… in fact some of the Conder tokens
advertised coin dealers.
Greg Bennick: So basically, the coin dealers who were using the opportunity that Conder
tokens, for example, were making rarities and striking those rarities as advertisements for the
fact that they were selling those rarities! It's pretty convenient.
David Schenkman: Yeah.
Greg Bennick: So taking a step even further back. Of course, tokens and Civil War tokens and
Conder tokens all fall under the token banner. Tell us about tokens. There are so many. And I
know that my father was a token collector and you've specialized in tokens. You've made
mention of the merchant connection to tokens. Tell us what a token is. And I don't mean that as
such a rudimentary question as to say a disk of metal, but when people think of tokens, they
think maybe of just transportation tokens first and foremost. But tell us about what a token is
and the purpose that they served in terms of commerce over the last few hundred years.
David Schenkman: Tokens serve a lot of purposes over the years. As you mentioned,
transportation merchants issued tokens extensively from the 19th century and the 20th century
up until even modern times, although to a lesser extent. And these tokens were generally, one
side would say the name of the merchant might say Joe Blow's Saloon, Bluefield, West
Virginia, and the other side would say good for $0.05 in trade or good for a drink or something
of the sort. And they were circulated in various ways, and they weren't really intended to
circulate the way Civil War tokens circulated. In some cases, the bartender would charge $0.25
for two drinks. So, when you paid a quarter for two drinks, he would give you one drink and a
token that was good for a drink. This way he ensured future business. So that was another use
for them. Some tokens were just strictly advertising. These are generally larger. We could spend
the next hour talking about the uses of tokens because there's lots of uses.
I've compiled for
many years a catalog that may never get printed, but I still compiled it of sports schedule
tokens, and these tokens are generally the size of a silver dollar roughly. And one side
advertises a merchant, the other side will have that year's schedule for the local football or
baseball team. So, the merchants would give these to customers who would be apt to keep them,
at least during the season that they showed the schedule of, and they served as a reminder of
that merchant's business.
Greg Bennick: So basically, mechanisms of not just advertising but of keeping business going.
It seems quite obvious to say, but your allusion to the fact that there's a countless number of
ways that tokens were used is fascinating because it makes me think, how does one collect
them? Meaning it's very easy if putting together a date set, which is sort of a modern approach
to coin collecting and collecting by date certainly wasn't always a thing. And I guess my
question is, how does one then collect tokens? It's very easy to collect if you're looking for a
date set of Indian cents, but what do you do in terms of tokens? How do people approach
collecting these things?
David Schenkman: Well, that's not an easy question to answer, but in general terms, I think
most importantly, well, two things. One, buy books. It's not as simple as collecting coins where
a Red Book might get you by. You need books, and there's a lot of them. And they tend to be
pricey because they're usually published in small quantities. But if you know what you're doing,
they can make you a lot of money if you're buying for investment or for resale. And the other
thing is to join numismatic organizations, for instance with tokens, the Token and Medal
Society, which is a national nonprofit organization that's been in existence since 1961. I believe
you're a recent member.
Greg Bennick: Yeah, I am.
David Schenkman: And they publish a magazine six times a year and occasionally supplement
issues on specific topics, and they also publish books from time to time. There are other
organizations that are more specialized. For instance, there's a transportation token society that
publishes a monthly newsletter, and they've been doing that since, I believe, 1948. And of
course, the American Numismatic Association, I would be remiss if I didn't put in a plug for
them because that's our national magazine. And they have articles on tokens and medals and
paper money and whatever else you might imagine.
Greg Bennick: While we're on the subject, I'll say that the Token and Medal Society puts out a
magazine, as you said, the TAMS Journal, and this has a full color cover, it's on glossy paper,
it's pretty nice and full color all throughout. It's a really impressive magazine. I actually just got
my first issue the other day flipping through, seeing your article, and then there's just a wide
variety of articles. And what's interesting is that I don't have an extensive background with
tokens, and still I joined just to learn something brand new about an area of numismatics that I
know very little about. And there's a lot of that to learn in this magazine. So I'd highly
recommend that without a doubt. And I agree with you also about books.
One thing I want to
ask you about for sure is a really specific topic. I just bought a copy recently of your book,
Virginia Tokens, that's about as specific as you're going to get. I mean, this book, I'm looking at
here it's about an inch and a half thick. It's got about 600 pages, and you could probably tell us
more about it. But this is a really specific work, and I can't imagine a greater reference on
Virginia tokens. It's enough, just this book alone to get one started, a collection of these things.
What could you tell us about that book specifically?
David Schenkman: Well, in the first place, it's absolutely the best reference on Virginia tokens
ever written, primarily because it's the only reference! So getting back to the tokens with this is
a good example as any. I wrote the first version of this book in 1980, and it was about 200
pages in it, and it listed 2500 tokens. That was every token that I knew about from the State of
Virginia. And I had corresponded extensively with other collectors and looked at collections
and went up to the ANS in New York. But this book that you just got, which was published by
the Virginia Numismatic Association four or five years ago, I guess, lists 6000 tokens - well
over twice as many. So that's as many tokens that have come out, not come out, that's a bad
choice of words, but have been discovered since the first edition.
One thing that people should remember about tokens is the fact that it's not as easy to
understand as it is coins. For instance, if you collect Lincoln cents you know exactly where you
stand in the hobby, you need seven dates to complete, you need this, you need that. With
tokens, there's really no way of knowing when you're complete because you probably never are.
So that can be a frustration or it can be a satisfying thing because you can also find things that
nobody else has ever found. The problem is if you want to collect is you can't just go out and
buy everything you want to buy. And a good example as any, I collect seriously a Virginia
transportation tokens. I've got almost every one known to exist except for one company that
operated out of Suffolk,Virginia and it was a bus company that operated during the thirties, I
believe. They issued four tokens. They're very distinctive types of tokens. I bought two of them
in probably the 1980s, sometime around there. And since then, I've looked for the other two.
Last year, one of them came up at an auction, I was able to buy it for $400, roughly. I would
have paid more. I would love to buy the last one, and I would pay more than $400 for it, but you
can't just go out and buy it. In tokens, we tend to call something not rare if there are maybe 20
of them around, we don't term it
rare anymore because there's that many of them. Putting it
another way, the Virginia token book that you bought, the 6000 tokens that are listed, I would
imagine that every token listed in that book is quite a bit rarer in terms of numbers made than a
1909 S VDB penny, and yet they're not nearly as valuable.
Greg Bennick: Is this because less were made. Or is this because less of them survived after
many many were made, that there's so few around today?
David Schenkman: I acquired years ago the mintage of photocopy of an original die sinker
who manufactured coal mine scrip tokens from the twenties through the fifties. And some of the
mintages are as high as a thousand, a lot of them are under a hundred. I've owned plenty of
tokens with a total mintage with only fifty, so obviously if only fifty were made, there's not
going to be a lot of them around.
Greg Bennick: Now, it's interesting that you brought up the fact that tokens are an area of
numismatics that you might pursue and never finish. When I interviewed Bill Groom recently
and Bill's specialty is counterstamps, Bill referred to counterstamps as
the last great frontier of
numismatics. And what he was referring to was the fact that there are always going to be
counterstamps that can't be identified, that might be identified, that are being identified or that
were recently identified and connected with specific merchants. And it almost seems that tokens
are a similar thing and as you said, one might find a new discovery of a token that has never
been discovered before. Do you feel the same about numismatics and the frontier that Bill
Groom described in terms of tokens and where they fit into the whole numismatic world?
David Schenkman: I think that there are a lot of frontiers in numismatics, and I've never been
able to understand the obsession that some collectors have, and I hope I'm not going to alienate
too many people when I say this, with getting a coin that a grading service is graded at one
point higher than the one below it and paying three times as much for that one point when you
generally can't even see it unless you really know what you're looking for. So as far as frontiers
go, Bill is correct, there are a lot of counterstamps that will never be identified. There are also
lots of tokens that will never be identified. The are what we refer to as mavericks and a
maverick is a token that does not contain enough information in its inscription to enable
identification. And interestingly enough, the term maverick comes from a rancher in Texas in
the 19th century who refused to brand his cattle, and his name was Sam Maverick. And
unbranded cattle came to be referred to as
mavericks. And that term is now used by token
collectors. It's a fairly standard term to describe a token that's unidentified.
Greg Bennick: I've never heard that before. That's totally fascinating.
David Schenkman: If you look at the one section of the TAMS Journal, every issue there is a
maverick section, usually four or five pages towards the back and those are all mavericks.
There's a section of ones that people have identified, and there is a section of ones that have not
been identified that people have sent in descriptions of.
Greg Bennick: Wow, I'm literally looking at it right now. So, these are things that people are
finding, figuring out, and connecting to historical sources and references. It's literally the
frontier that we're talking about. Meaning that it's people doing the research about this field of
numismatics as we speak. You know, basically in time for the next issue of the TAMS Journal
to come out. It's pretty fascinating that people can be that participatory because you're right, it's
quite true that I don't know if people are going to discover anything new about the Morgan
dollar series with the same speed perhaps, or the same amount of discoveries as seems to be
happening in tokens and counterstamps.
David Schenkman: Yeah. And they've been running that column pretty much since the first
days of the magazine, which was 1961. A lot of tokens have been published in that magazine
over the years. I edited that magazine for 27 years, and I can tell you that there's an amazing
diversity of articles.
About the Interviewer
Greg Bennick (www.gregbennick.com) is a keynote speaker and long time coin collector with a focus on major mint error coins. Have ideas for other interviewees? Contact him anytime on the web or via instagram @minterrors.
To watch the complete video, see:
David Schenkman Interview
To read the complete transcript, see:
David Schenkman Interview (Transcript)
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
DAVID SCHENKMAN INTERVIEW, PART ONE
Wayne Homren, Editor
The Numismatic Bibliomania Society is a non-profit organization
promoting numismatic literature. See our web site at coinbooks.org.
To submit items for publication in The E-Sylum, write to the Editor
at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
To subscribe go to: https://my.binhost.com/lists/listinfo/esylum
Copyright © 1998 - 2023 The Numismatic Bibliomania Society (NBS)
All Rights Reserved.
NBS Home Page
Contact the NBS webmaster