Nothing Says ‘I Love You’ Like a Bit of Pocket Change

Victorians seduced their sweeties with “love tokens”

Coin Heart
145/Diane Macdonald/Ocean/Corbis

A bottle of wine. A dozen red roses. A handful of pocket change? For Victorians, “love tokens” made from repurposed coins were the ultimate expression of affection.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Collectors Weekly’s Lisa Hix describes a romantic fad of yesteryear—the exchange of talismans designed to remind their owners of their love. Hix explains that couples have always given each other loving gifts, including things like thimbles, spoons and even rolling pins. But in the 1800s, the desire for romantic memorabilia collided with new carving and engraving techniques that allowed people to customize coins with personalized designs. Throw in a dash of longing (for a loved one who was shipped off to a penal colony or sent off to war), and a sentimental trend was born.

Hix writes: chromolithography became more affordable and started to replace the letterpress in the late 1800s, wood-type engravers turned to hand-engraving coins as a way to survive. By 1870s, their elaborate, beautifully engraved love tokens became a full-on obsession for Victorians, in both the United Kingdom and the United States.

“If you went to a fair in Victorian England, someone would be scraping off the side of a coin and selling love tokens,” [Nancy Rosin, president of the National Valentine Collectors Association] says. “A fellow walking arm-in-arm with his girlfriend would take her to buy a little love token. I don’t know if it necessarily meant their love would last, but it was a big thing with young people.”

In the United States, the fad, according to some reports, created shortages of dimes because so many were being engraved.

Some collected the tokens and had them made into jewelry, while others used them to propose marriage or commemorate a dead child. The trinkets fit into a rich history of amulets and baubles meant to conjure up memories of a loved one (or inspire their devotion through magic means).

But if modified pocket change isn’t your thing, perhaps another gift will feel more appropriate this Valentine’s Day. The Christian Science Monitor has a gift suggestion: why not name a hissing roach after your sweetie this Saturday?

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