Love tokens, as opposed to the more general term, “tokens of love,” are literally coins that have been smoothed and engraved on at least one side, sometimes both, to express a sentiment or memorialize an event. During the Victorian era, these tokens were tangible emotions you could carry with you everywhere you went—or even wear as jewelry.
The origins of love tokens might be traced back to medieval French treizains, or coins that were carved specially for a marriage. During the wedding, a Catholic priest would bless the treizains, which featured symbols of love and union such as double flaming hearts and handshakes. After being blessed, the coins were accepted by merchants as legitimate currency. Treizains evolved into modern marriage medals.
Love tokens were even more popular with the British, whose citizens had a long tradition of taking a coin out of circulation and keeping it as a good-luck charm. Typically, a man would bend the edges of a coin on opposing sides in opposite directions, so it would be easy to distinguish from the other coins in his pocket—for this reason, these coins were known as “benders.” If he gifted anyone his lucky bender, it was probably for sentimental reasons.
During the late 1600s and 1700s, the British began to sand and embellish coppers coins to mark births, deaths, marriages, and anniversaries. An early technique known as pinpunching created a design made of tiny dots hammered into the coin with a pin. A bit later, these coins were actually engraved with designs and lettering employing a smooth-line technique similar to that used on scrimshaws. These early “engraved coins” were most often made on half pennies, pennies, and two pence.
When people were convicted of crimes in Great Britain and sentenced to be shipped away to a penal colony in Australia in the late 1700s, they would often trade coins engraved with emotional symbols and messages with their loved ones. These “prisoner tokens” are believed to have originated some poignant love-token expressions such as “When this you see, remember me.” However, it is difficult to trace an engraved coin to a specific convict or a penal colony, hence, certified prisoner tokens are rare and highly collectible.
In the United States, the love-token tradition began during the Civil War (1861-1865), when soldiers would engrave coins either to carry as dog tags or to send as gifts to their sweethearts back home. After the war, Americans were devastated by the loss of lives and saw time with their family and friends as precious and short. In England, Queen Victoria openly adored her husband, Prince Albert, and when he passed away in 1861, she publicly mourned his death. She made it fashionable for the British and Americans to outwardly express their emotions, particularly with jewelry and trinkets.
Around the same time, chromolithography had become more affordable and available, putting woodblock-type engravers out of work. Many of these skilled artisans set up shop engravi...
The most common love tokens of the time feature what’s known as “triple-overlapping initials,” or three letters engraved atop one another, often in an interlocking pattern. It is believed that the widest letter usually represented the surname, while the tallest usually represented the first name, although experts say that these rules can vary depending on the artist and what worked best for the design. Later turn-of-the-century love tokens often feature more linear monogram-style initials.
Most often, romantic suitors—or family members or friends—would give the one they loved a coin with their own initials as a memento of their feelings. The exception would be for men proposing engagement, who would give a woman initials featuring the first letter of her first name and the first letter of his last as a way to ask her to change her name to his.
Love tokens were also commonly engraved with first names and sometimes dates, as well as with words to describe the relationship, such as “mother,” “father,” “aunt,” “cousin,” and “friend.” Collectors covet rarer love tokens that feature images, and of these “pictorial love tokens,” they’re more likely to find birds, flowers, lighthouses, and landscapes than people or hearts. Such engravings would convey messages through images, with bluebirds representing “happiness,” ivy symbolizing “constancy,” and lighthouses standing for “a safe harbor.” Some love tokens even represent a skill or talent, like those with musical instruments or tools.
Because coins were made out of precious and semi-precious metals, the tokens would be turned into jewelry such as bracelets, collar pins, pendants, necklaces, and earrings for women, cufflinks and watch chains for men, and stickpins or pinbacks for both. Even harder to find are rings, chatelaines, belts, and belt buckles made out of love tokens. Love-token jewelry for women often contained the initials of their husband and children. The bracelets became so popular with schoolgirls that they would beg everyone they could for engraved dimes to complete their bracelets.
Since dainty silver bracelets were in style at the time, Liberty seated dimes were the most common coin to be engraved into love tokens in the United States. Quarter and half-dime love tokens are also fairly easy to come by. Far scarcer are love tokens made out of $20 gold coins, which were heavy and expensive, and half cents, which predated the peak of the love-token fad. Particularly special love tokens might be enameled, with blue representing true love and black symbolizing mourning. Other rare love tokens were embedded with stones, particularly turquoise, red garnet, and pearls.
The Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 had multiple booths producing a large amount of these tokens for young lovers attending the world's fair, and after that, the trend started to fade. It might have had something to do with the discovery of new silver hordes, which made silver more widely available and, therefore, distasteful to the elite. Also, paper photographs had become more accessible, prompting the popularity of exquisitely embellished gold lockets holding photos as mementos of love.
Coin love tokens fell out of favor for much of the 20th century, but examples did appear in both World Wars. From World War I, you’re more likely to find a trench-art coin engraved as a dog tag. During World War II, love tokens were found in a specific subset of sweetheart jewelry, known as Pacific War Art, made out of the Australian coins U.S. servicemen were paid with. These love tokens would be fashioned into romantic bracelets or embedded into heart-shaped pieces of Lucite from downed planes and given to loved ones back home. After the war, the U.S. Congress passed a law against “fraudulently altering coins” as charm bracelets became the popular sentimental jewelry trend for women. It wasn’t until the 2010s that modern hobo nickel carvers like Andy Gonzales began to revive the love-token tradition.
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