Most of us know the basic history of “emergency money” that was
issued in both the United States and the Confederacy near the
beginning of the Civil War.
As it became obvious that the war was going to be a prolonged
struggle, the nation underwent its greatest currency crisis since the
Panic of 1837, also a period of economic and political uncertainty. As
occurred during the earlier panic, coins during the Civil War, even
the humble cent, started to disappear from circulation in 1861 and 1862.
In reaction to this widespread hoarding (one popular story of the
time suggested that the second floor of a warehouse collapsed under
the weight of kegs of cents being stored there), substitutes were
quickly devised and thrown into the breach. Some of the first humble
attempts involved circulating uncanceled postage stamps in order to
Post offices across the nation quickly ran out of stamps while at
the same time refusing to redeem sticky dirty piles of stuck together
stamps when the more aggressive segments of the population tried to
redeem them for more traditional forms of cash.
The next step was putting stamps in envelopes of various
“denominations,” which was OK until the more larcenous segments of the
population “shorted” the stamps in the envelopes (putting, for
example, only 35 cents worth of stamps in a 50-cent envelope, passing
it, and pocketing the 15-cent profit).
Salmon P. Chase is credited with inventing postage and fractional
currency, which were small notes that initially had pictures of stamps
on them. Ultimately these federal fractional notes broke the small
change shortage by about 1863 to 1864.
The private sector also offered several alternatives such as the
short-lived encased postage stamps, which featured a postage stamp in
a brass shell with a mica window so that the stamp could be seen but
By far, the two most popular alternatives were small copper
tokens, the size of the then current Indian Head cent, and private
paper scrip issued by thousands of local merchants, businesses and
municipalities. The Civil War tokens were composed of two types —
patriotic and store card types. The former contained patriotic images
and slogans but were issued anonymously. The latter were issued by
various businesses and contained information about the issuer as part
of their design.
I’ve always enjoyed the paper scrip notes; little scraps of
printed paper serving as IOUs for countless issuers. But far rarer are
the scrip issues that utilized cardboard rather than either metal or
paper. Most of cardboard scrip issues are relatively small and without
much ornamentation but I really like them.
Most issuers who selected cardboard probably did so because they
believed it had a longer circulation life than paper and was cheaper
than metal tokens.
A lot of the surviving cardboard scrip shows signs of circulation
like rounded corners, soiling and creases. It shows that these little
scraps of cardboard could really “take it.” Next time you run into one
of these, consider the odds against its survival, and give it a good
retirement home in your collection!
Wendell Wolka has been a paper money collector and educator for
more than 40 years. If you have questions or suggestions, you can
reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail at
Box 1211, Greenwood, IN 46142. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope
if a written response is required.