Friday, January 29, 2010

Coffee-House Keepers' Tokens

Coffee House TokensThe great London fire of 1666 destroyed some of the coffee houses; but prominent among those that survived was the Rainbow, whose proprietor, James Farr, issued one of the earliest coffee-house tokens, doubtless in grateful memory of his escape. Farr's token shows an arched rainbow emerging from the clouds of the "great fire," indicating that all was well with him, and the Rainbow still radiant. On the reverse the medal was inscribed, "In Fleet Street—His Half Penny."

A large number of these trade coins were put out by coffee-house keepers and other tradesmen in the seventeenth century as evidence of an amount due, as stated thereon, by the issuer to the holder. Tokens originated because of the scarcity of small change. They were of brass, copper, pewter, and even leather, gilded. They bore the name, address, and calling of the issuer, the nominal value of the piece, and some reference to his trade. They were readily redeemed, on presentation, at their face value. They were passable in the immediate neighborhood, seldom reaching farther than the next street. C.G. Williamson writes:

Tokens are essentially democratic; they would never have been issued but for the indifference of the Government to a public need; and in them we have a remarkable instance of a people forcing a legislature to comply with demands at once reasonable and imperative. Taken as a whole series, they are homely and quaint, wanting in beauty, but not without a curious domestic art of their own.

Robinson finds an exception to the general simplicity in the tokens issued by one of the Exchange Alley houses. The dies of these tokens are such as to have suggested the skilled workmanship of John Roettier. The most ornate has the head of a Turkish sultan at that time famed for his horrible deeds, ending in suicide; its inscription runs:

Morat ye Great Men did mee call;
Where Eare I came I conquer'd all.

A number of the most interesting coffee-house keepers' tokens in the Beaufoy collection in the Guildhall Museum were photographed for this work, and are shown herewith. It will be observed that many of the traders of 1660–75 adopted as their trade sign a hand pouring coffee from a pot, invariably of the Turkish-ewer pattern. Morat (Amurath) and Soliman were frequent coffee-house signs in the seventeenth century.

J.H. Burn, in his Catalogue of Traders' Tokens, recites that in 1672 "divers persons who presumed ... to stamp, coin, exchange and distribute farthings, halfpence and pence of brass and copper" were "taken into custody, in order to a severe prosecution"; but upon submission, their offenses were forgiven, and it was not until the year 1675 that the private token ceased to pass current.

A royal proclamation at the close of 1674 enjoined the prosecution of any who should "utter base metals with private stamps," or "hinder the vending of those half pence and farthings which are provided for necessary exchange." After this, tokens were issued stamped "necessary change."

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