Exhibit of the Week: Love token, Scarborough Collections

With Valentine's Day having just passed, we thought we'd keep with the theme of love, so this week's object of the week is a Georgian love token. It was donated to Scarborough museum service in 1956 by Alderman Bird, but whether it was a family piece or not was not recorded.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 17th February 2018, 3:00 pm
Georgian love token in the Scarborough Collections.
Georgian love token in the Scarborough Collections.

People have been using coins to bring good luck or as a cure for disease for thousands of years. These coins were referred to as ‘touch pieces’ as they had to be touched or kept in close contact for their powers to work. Coins given at Holy Communion were rubbed on affected parts of the body as a cure for rheumatism, a tradition that can be traced back to the Roman Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD) who gave coins to the sick in a ceremony known as “the touching”.

Coins were also being used as religious devotional objects as early as the 13th Century. When prayers were offered to Saints, a coin would be bent when the prayer was made and the coin was kept as a physical reminder of the obligation.

One of the oldest forms of love token is believed by some to be the bent sixpence.

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A would be suiter would polish down a sixpence until it was smooth and then put an S-shaped bend in it. The coin would be given to his beloved, and if she kept it the love was true, but if she threw it away, the love was unrequited. Sometimes the initials of the loved one were scratched into the coin too. Some believe this to be the origin of the rhyme, ‘There was a crooked man, he walked a crooked mile, he found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile’.

As time passed, the bending of the coin became less important, and the inscription took on a more central role. From the mid-1700s engraved love tokens were being exchanged by sanding down one side of a coin and engraving a message of love on it.

The earliest examples often used a technique called pinpunching, where the design was made of a series of small dots hammered into the coin with a pin. The later technique of line engraving that can be seen on our coin is similar to its more famous contemporary, Scrimshaw work. Scrimshaw work was carried out by whalers who would engrave maritime scenes on whalebones and teeth as a gift for their loved ones. There were plenty of whalebones available to them, and it was a constructive way of passing the huge amounts of downtime inevitable on these long voyages.

Not only were these coins given to lovers, they could also be used to mark births and deaths, and even by convicts awaiting transportation. It is possibly by this route that the love token took hold in America, where it became popular around the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865).

The Victorians, in their typical sentimental way, embraced the tradition with open arms, and employed the new technology of machine engraving. Some more elaborate examples have enamelled fills, and even jewels and gems set into them.

Our example is a much simpler design, but the symbolism is fairly obvious.

The coin is a first bust George III halfpenny, the reverse has the name ‘E Gardner’ engraved over a pair of overlapping hearts. The hearts are pierced by Cupid’s arrows and have flames above representing the flames of passion. At either side there are tree stumps sprouting new growth, which is symbolic of new life springing from the old.

Folk art is a very collectable area, and original Scrimshaw work commands very high prices. Love tokens however can be picked up relatively cheaply and is a fascinating area of study.

The tradition of making love tokens seems to have died away, but in these ever hectic times, maybe it’s a tradition we should revive?

The love token is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact collections manager Jennifer Dunne at [email protected] or 01723 384510.