Hand Engraved M on US Gold Liberty $3 Coin
Blackletter typeface, sometimes referred to as Old English, evolved in Western Europe from the 12th century, and was used in the Guthenberg bible, one of the first books ever printed in Europe. This style of typeface is recognizable by its dramatic thin and thick strokes, and in some fonts, the elaborate swirls on the serifs. It is no surprise that this elegant typeface was the choice of artisans charged with creating hand engraved love tokens as a declaration of romantic and familial love.
This example here, a beautiful M surrounded by swirl embellishments on a $3 US Indian Princess coin minted in 1856, 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.