Don't Know Much About History
Sitting in a classroom, listening to a history lecture has never appealed to me one bit. To me, it was like a bitter vegetable: one which needed to be minimally tolerated to reap its purported benefits (for the vegetables, nutrition; for history lessons, a good grade on a test) and then jettisoned far from my memory. I always thought I hated history, and only recently through collecting and researching love tokens realized it wasn’t history I hated, but the method by which I was learning.
I grew up in New Orleans, a place steeped in history and tradition. I learned about those through food, drinks, traditions, entertainment, trips to historic homes and museums, at the supper table listening to family stories interwoven with events that my relatives lived through. It was history on a larger scale than my life in New Orleans.
In 1977, the New Orleans Museum of Art hosted the Tutankhamen exhibit, and I still to this day remember begging my parents to take me. I had a thirst for knowledge about it and I don’t remember why I didn’t get to go, but I do remember that I pored over the slide carousel and pamphlets my parents brought back from their viewing of the exhibit and of course, studied the souvenir jewelry my dad bought my mom.
As I got older, I started visiting museums, first art museums, and then later on when I traveled to London and New York, any museum I could find. There I learned history from a piece of art, an artifact, a stamp, a fragment of a statue, a piece of jewelry. After my sophomore year of college, I participated in an archaeological dig and learned how much information and – gasp – history could be learned from the soil. These tactile experiences excited me in a way a book and a teacher never could.
But I still thought I hated history.
It was pure accidental luck, and dare I say destiny, that I stumbled upon love tokens. They appealed to me immediately and I started to look around the market and see if anyone was using them. No one was, at least not on the scale that I thought they deserved. I then decided that they are too precious to languish in a safe or a meltdown pile and I would be the person to bring them back to leave. When I started collecting them, I was only interested in the decorative side of the love token – not what was on the back. At my second trunk show, I started getting a lot of questions about the host coins themselves. People really were keen on knowing what the coins were before they became adornments. I started to study and I learned how the mintage of currency was sometimes influenced by dysfunctional political agendas and contemporary events such as the gold rush, and of countries that no longer existed.
After learning enough about Victorian currency, I reverted back to the front side and what stories were there. Initials, names and nicknames provided few clues, but the imagery and symbolism in some of them reflected many thoughts of contemporary Victorians. One love token I have is engraved Chocolate, and while we may not think twice about the availability of chocolate, it was not widely available outside of the upper class until the Industrial Revolution when advances in production brought the cost down and it became available to the masses. While we see chocolate candies at the gas station and grocery store, for some their first taste of chocolate was a revelation and I completely understand the enthusiastic response that culminated in commissioning a love token.
In a post from May 14, 2020, I posted five love tokens along with this question: What do Ice Cream, Bicycles, Christmas Cards, Rubber Tires, Paddle Steamships and Sewing Machines have in common? The answer: these were some of the many inventions borne of the Victorian Era - most of which are still relevant to our lives 100+ years later. I would never have bothered to learn this if not for my curiosity about my treasure trove.
I was starting to understand the appeal of history!
With each piece I post, I try to include historical and social context that may offer a clue as to why the love token was made. This worked well for some love tokens, but not for the names, so I approached it from a different angle and dug into the meaning of names.
I have one love token engraved Maman which I, a student of French starting age 4.75, solely thought was the French equivalent of Mama. Oh how partially wrong I was: there was more! Maman is also an ancient Garlic surname, dating back as far as 1119, derived from the word for bear. The historic coat of arms for the name Maman includes a bear and the phrase Sic nos sic sacra tuemur - thus we guard our sacred rights. Mama, bear, protector - all things that mothers are. A story within a story.
With some of the love tokens, I may never get close to the story so all I have is the history of the coin. I have one in my personal collection, which is an 18 line menu written in French.
Few clues to the restaurant or what drove someone to commission this love token. So I made up a story and tell anyone who asks. It is as follows: on return from a blissful honeymoon in France, the young bride so longed to return and relive their trip that her husband decided he would take her back one day, commissioning this love token inscribed with the menu from their favorite restaurant as his promise to do so.
I always say if these coins could talk, what stories they could tell. And even if we have to make up the story, the overarching history of Victorians and their love of engraving coins is quite a great one, and one that I am extremely thankful for.