Observations on a Tiffin Token
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By Greg Burns

(Note: this article was published in The Journal, a publication of The Canadian Numismatic Association, Vol. 39, No. 2 [3/94]. I was missing the chart of token weights referred to in the article. I had misplaced the file, and didn't replace it until recently; therefore it may not match the one originally publishedóbut it's close.)

I've been collecting Canadian colonial tokens for several years now. A United States citizen and resident of the southern coast of California, my collection grows slowly because I'm so far from much of the Canadian collecting scene, but my interest level remains high because of the many different kinds of tokens, the many different issuers, and the various historical circumstances surrounding each of the series.

I recently had the pleasure to acquire a group of Tiffin tokens, a series to which I hadn't had a lot of exposure nor experience. I spent many happy hours going over all of the tokens in the lot comparing the seller's attributions to the written descriptions of Courteau. An interesting series, I was soon pulling out previously acquired samples of the Tiffin tokens from my collection so that I could try attributing them by Courteau's numbers myself.

In dealing with the die pair listed by Courteau as number 24 I noticed with pleasure that I had one specimen in particular that was in a fine state of preservation and was an excellent example of the coiners' art. The devices were comparatively well engraved (considering the series) and clear, and the die pair diagnostics matched Courteau's description perfectly. Somewhat on a sour note, I noticed I also had four other specimens that, while they matched the written description for number 24 pretty well, were rather scruffy looking. They also had disconcerting differences that made me wonder if this group of four might not be a different variety altogether.

The dissimilarities noted from the first token were:

a. The four had heavy bubbling on the obverse and light bubbling on the reverse,

b. They also had differences in acorns and leaves on the obverse wreath from the first token,

c. There were slight differences in the folds of the obverse drapery, and

d. The two groups had markedly different weights.

Obverse original token die stateObverse recut token die state Click the pictures for full size images.

(Picture Caption: The original obverse die state on the left compared to the recut obverse die state on the right; notice the additional acorns added to the recut die [I've put an arrow at the most noticable one] as well as the extensive "bubbles" that rise above the surface of the token.)

However, despite the differences, the more I looked at all of them the more I noticed some very strong similarities that I wasn't able to overlook:

a. The quantity and orientation of reverse cannonballs were exactly the same, as was,

b. The position of the chignon on the allegorical figure of Commerce in relation to the "Y" of "HALFPENNY",

c. The three daisies in the cornucopia,

d. The recut "P" in "HALFPENNY" to the upper right of the letter, and

e. Some indefinable, but nagging look of kinship to the obverses.

Reverse original token die stateReverse recut token die state Click the pictures for full size images.

(Picture Caption: The original reverse die state on the left compared to the recut reverse die state on the right; lettering and devices exactly the same on both, also notice only minor "bubbling" on the recut reverse die compared to the recut obverse die state.)

The more I looked at the two different reverses, especially the cannonballs, the more convinced I was that at least the reverse die that had struck the two tokens had been the same. After a period of hours (at least it seemed that long) I started making measurements to the nearest .1 millimeter on the obverses to satisfy myself as to whether it was or was not the same obverse die. After perhaps a dozen measurements between the two groups that all matched, a picture started forming in my mind that might explain the differences and similarities between the two varieties.

I believe that the original die pair was probably produced and used in the early 1830's by a native minter to produce tokens weighing perhaps five grams or less (as many of them of that period did -- see histogram chart of halfpenny token weights) and was used extensively to produce what Courteau classified as a token with a rarity rating of "R. 1" -- a fairly common and easy to acquire token (at least back in Courteau's time).

Chart of token planchet weights - Canadian colonials of 1830's Click the image to enlarge the chart.

(Table Caption: I've come up with another chart, though it may not exactly match that one originally published; the main intent is to show the trend towards heavier planchet weights as the decade of the 1830's advanced. This chart was generated from a data file of measured random tokens of different, competing, series from the period.)

I imagine that dies were typically used until either the order that a merchant or other customer had placed was filled, or demand for the token subsided, or the die itself broke. Sometimes a generic styled die would be used for several orders (what would be called a "stock die"). So long as the die lasted it might be used on many orders, for the same or, sometimes, for different customers.

It appears that after some period of time in the mid-1830's the Canadian banks stopped accepting the Tiffin tokens as currency and would only take them as scrap metal. This would pretty much effectively eliminate the demand. Consequently, as was not uncommon for some of the less sophisticated coiners, the die pair was put aside in a poorly controlled environment without the protection of grease or heavy protective oil to await another day when its services might be required.

Time passes, perhaps two or three years go by. The time is now maybe 1835, 1836 or thereabouts. Heavier tokens have begun to come on the scene (again, refer to the histogram of halfpenny weights) and our coiner remembers his die pair sitting in the corner. Or perhaps some old customer comes around to order more tokens as he had in the past, but at a heavier weight so as to compete with contemporary tokens more effectively. Either way, our coiner pulls out the die pair to have a look, and what do you suppose he finds? They've rusted. The lack of grease when the dies were set aside for storage and the humidity in the atmosphere have gone to work on the die steel and eaten and etched their way into the surface of the metal causing pitting and loss of detail.

Hmm... (thinking) never one to let an unbroken pair of dies go begging, our coiner starts to polish the rust off. Some of the design comes off also, because, as our coiner polishes the surface of the die metal away to remove the rust, he also inadvertently removes some of the design details. Perhaps some of the lighter, more delicately engraved elements are polished off, perhaps some of the finer details are eroded entirely by the layer of rust. Either way, after he's done, our coiner decides it's time to touch the die up a little bit with some re-engraving to try to restore some of the lost details. Of course, the rust has gone very deeply into some portions of the die, but never mind, those pits that remain in the die are only minor distractions to our man. He doesn't care if those pits will result in a little minor "bubbling" on the surface of the tokens struck from these dies. After all, economy is the order of the day, and if the die pair can be serviced for further use, then the greater the profit our good friend the coiner will make on the order.

The reverse die must not have rusted as much, because there's less re-touching and only very minor evidence of bubbling. The obverse die must have had fairly heavy corrosion, because the retouching was pretty extensive, and even with the re-engraving, many of the original design details are all but obliterated. Also, the obverse has horrendous bubbling as a result of the extensive pitting in the die.

Of course, in order to compete with other circulating tokens of the day, the tokens minted by our friend the coiner are increased in weight. The original use of the die had seen token weights of around five grams, but that wouldn't do for the economic situation then current at the reintroduction of these dies. The Bank of Montreal had, by that time (1835), issued the "Bank Token - Montreal" tokens (LC-2A) weighing eight or nine grams. Our coiner therefore strikes his tokens with planchet weights in the neighborhood of six to six and a half grams; still underweight, but a generous increase over his previous issues.

The result of this use of the dies to strike two chronologically separated issues of distinctly different weights, surface characteristics, and design details, has given us two sub-varieties of Courteau's number 24. In addition, we get some confirmation of our assumptions on the crudity of certain early native mint operations. There's also a basis for establishing (though inaccurately unfortunately) the chronological gap between the two issuance's: after all, the rust had to have time to develop into the die steel. This is a reflection of the timing of the economic forces that necessitated the change from the lighter weight tokens to the heavier samples.

We also now have another question: are there other die pairings of this type or any other type that may exhibit this same chronological gap in issues? If so, are they discernible by die state, by re-touching of the details, or perhaps by planchet weight? This is an interesting avenue of investigation for the future. Of course, there are other possible explanations for the effects I noticed. Other readers, more familiar with the series, colonials in general, or other historical aspects of Canadian tokens, might have other information of greater accuracy. I invite any interested parties to comment further. In this way I'll keep my interest up and my knowledge expanding.


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