The Original Meme: Hard Times Tokens

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Desperate times call for desperate measures. And hard times call for Hard Times Tokens.

Hard Times Tokens were copper tokens that were either one cent or half a cent in value. These pieces served as unofficial currency between 1833 and 1843. The coins were privately minted in response to an ongoing shortage of small changes in the US resulting from an economic depression.

One major contributing factor to this setting was the decision from President Andrew Jackson and his Treasury secretary, Levi Woodbury, to enact a law – referred to as Specie Circular – which demanded that banks only accept gold and silver as forms of payment for the purchasing of public lands. This decision had major implications because public land speculation reached new heights at the time.

This law prompted panic as people began hoarding coins that consisted of precious metals. As a result, banks had an inadequate supply of gold and silver as Americans rushed to retrieve their savings. Consequently, many banks failed.

The size of the Hard Times Tokens was similar to the cents they were intended to replace. Many of the designs took the difficulty of the situation as an opportunity to poke fun at Jackson and his vice president, Martin Van Buren.

Here we look at a few of the most amusing designs.

Running Boar Hard Time Token (1834)

Running Boar Hard Time Token (1834)




This token, minted from copper in 1834, reads My Substitute for the US Bank. My Currency. My Glory. Experiment. The obverse lettering reads, Perish Credit Perish Commerce My Victory My Third Heat Down With The Bank 1834. The wording of this token perfectly captures the sense of anger prevalent in the US at the time. For example, Jackson and Van Buren were often ridiculed for the tokens as seen by another design which included a quote from Van Buren’s inaugural speech, “I follow in the footsteps of my illustrious predecessor,” with an image of a running jackass meant to represent Jackson.

Millions For Defence Token (1837)

Millions For Defence Token (1837)




This piece is a reminder of how many Americans felt about the British at the time. The lettering reads, Millions for Defence Not One Cent For Tribute which expresses support for building up defense capabilities in the US instead of giving in to British demands amid an ongoing border dispute over Canada.

Daniel Webster Token (1841)

Daniel Webster Token (1841)




This copper token contrasts the stability of the constitution with the peril of Van Buren’s “experiment.” The obverse includes the name “Webster” referring to the pro-Whig Democrat Daniel Webster who was a vocal opponent of Jackson’s policies. Webster disagreed with Jackson’s anti-bank stance which resulted in Jackson’s decision to remove federal deposits from The Second Bank of the United States, the second federally authorized national bank in the United States. Jackson diverted federal revenue into selected private banks by executive order. This ended the Second Bank’s regulatory role.

The coins are a reminder that even in the 1800s there was a level of divisiveness in the country that so many associate with only our current era. Many of these tokens are very affordable. They are a great way to include truly unique and individualistic pieces in a collection.

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