US Coins

Encased postage circulated during the Civil War

In terms of quantity and diversity, money of the Civil War has no equal in American numismatics.

In the four years from 1861 to 1865, tens of thousands of varieties were made of copper political and merchant tokens, fractional currency notes, Confederate notes, sutlers’ tokens, bills of state-chartered banks, paper scrip, federal legal tender notes, national bank notes and more. 

This week the subject is encased postage stamps.

By the second week of July in 1862, federal coins had disappeared from circulation as citizens, uncertain of the outcome of the conflict, hoarded them — even copper-nickel cents.

On July 17, the Treasury Department declared that ordinary postage stamps were legal tender for some transactions. 

John Gault, a Boston entrepreneur who came to New York City, felt that encased postage stamps would serve a need and secured a patent on Aug. 12. 

Basically the device consisted of a multiple-part arrangement displayed in an encasement made of brass. The back part could be blank or bear simply the name of Gault, or it could be sold as an advertising medium, the last being the usual style. Within the frame was a small piece of cardboard padding, then a regular postage stamp with its corners folded down, then a thin sheet of clear mica, then a top frame to fit around the back frame, in the manner that might be used to make a brass button.

The result was a colorful and attractive token, about the size of a quarter dollar, with a clear view of a particular postage stamp, usable in circulation at that value.

Most encased postage stamps bore commercial messages, such as for Ayer’s Sarsaparilla, Brown’s Bronchial Troches, Joseph Bates’s “Fancy Goods,” or perhaps the name of a hotel or the business of a hat manufacturer — more than 30 variations are found. Lord & Taylor, a name still familiar today, was among Gault’s customers.

Today these are very interesting to collect. Most show signs of some circulation, such as small cracks in the mica. If you only want Mint State 70 items, forget it! Very Fine is a typical grade.

Common varieties are available for $200 to $400, while great rarities such as B.F. Miles, A.M. Claflin, and Sands Ale can cost much more. Fortunately, a nearly complete set of merchants can be formed in the hundreds of dollars for each.

These were among the hottest items in the market in the early 20th century, and more people collected these than did Mint mark variants of Morgan dollars!

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