It's easy to overlook the humble Forget Me Not flower, but this little beauty has a rich backstory, symbolizing both myth and history. According to one of many legends of the forget-me-not, a couple was walking along the River Danube when they saw a plant with beautiful blue flowers growing on an islet. The man leapt into the water, crossed the strong current safely and picked the flowers for his love. On his way back to her, he was swept away into the rapids, but not before he was able to throw her the flowers and proclaim his love. This humble flower was oft enseen in Victorian jewelry, as a symbol of true love and remembrance, more commonly on silver love tokens.
This example here, on a $3 US Indian Princess coin, itself a coin with interesting and troubled history. According to numismatic historian Walter Breen, three dollar pieces “represent relics of an interesting and abortive experiment; today they are the most highly covetable of American gold coins”, and by coin dealer Norman Stack “All are rare. There is no such thing as a common three dollar gold piece.” And as a love token with flowers, a unicorn among unicorns.
Love tokens are antique coins that were planed down on one or both sides and embellished with names, personal messages, images and bon mots.
The exact origin of this practice is up for debate: some numismatists trace the history back to 13th century England and the practice of bending coins. When asking a favorite saint for a favor, coins were bent and pledges were made as a physical token of the pledge made. The practice of engraving coins took off during the late 1600’s through the 1800’s, when coins were engraved with everything from primitive to highly skilled techniques in equal measure.
Typically, the minted words and images were removed from the obverse side of the coin - the front of the coin, or what we call heads when we flip a coin as they are commonly decorated with the bust of a prominent person. In some cases the reverse of the coin was used as the blank canvas for the embellishment, which is why you may see a love token of the same year with a different backside. While both sides of the coin are interesting, using the reverse side makes it difficult to determine the year in which the coins were minted.
Love tokens were executed on practically all denominations of coins in many countries. According to the US Mint, the love token phenomenon caused a shortage of dimes during the peak of the craze. Dimes were not a huge amount of money to throw away, thus their popularity. When other coins were used, the choice of coin communicated social and economic status: gold coins and larger denominations of silver coins were a sign of the givers’ wealth, whereas nickels and pennies were seldom used as they were considered common due to their composition – nickel and copper versus silver or gold.