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The Story of an Aluminum Token
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One sunny afternoon I found this token with a metal detector. At first, I thought it was a silver dollar (I wish), but I realized it was too thin and too light.
It was tough to find any information about it. There existed a few pictures, but nobody knew a date.
There had to be some way to piece together decent information. The history of aluminum is on the Internet, and it's pretty much common knowledge. As for the history of aluminum tokens, that requires a little bit of research.
Aluminum metal was once very rare on the market. Aluminum cannot be reduced from aqueous solution, since it is too strongly electropositive. The water in the electrolyte will decompose into hydrogen at the cathode before Al3+ will come out as metal. In other words, the Al3+ will remain in solution, completely unchanged. That's scientific language; translated into everyday speech: "You can't get there from here." In other words, you can't plate aluminum metal from of a water solution, the way you can plate out zinc or nickel. You can't refine aluminum metal from a water solution, either.
For a long time, the refining of aluminum was a laboratory curiosity. No one could devise a way around this technical roadblock.
That was to change, and with it would change the history of the entire world. This amazing discovery came from a young man named Charles Hall. With only a bachelor's degree in chemistry (sorry, credentialists...), Hall invented a revolutionary process to refine aluminum from a solution of bauxite in molten cryolite (Na3AlF6). We ought to pause here to remember that Hall's invention was primarily the result of amateur science, conducted mostly in his woodshed. His invention was an electrolytic process, but it didn't require an aqueous (water-based) medium. Thus, water decomposition was no longer an obstacle to large-scale production. Of course, the temperatures involved in the Hall Process are scorching, and the currents involved are enormous (100,000 amps!), but in heavy industry they can deal with these kinds of numbers.
It was in 1888 that Hall, backed by some financiers including Alfred Hunt, opened the first large-scale aluminum refinery in the United States. Russel Rulau (United States Trade Tokens 1866-1889) says that it was about 1890 when aluminum trade tokens started to appear en masse. If you find an aluminum trade token, it's probably wasn't made before 1890, and it's extremely unlikely to have been made before 1888. Another sourceplaces the earliest date at 1893. If I had to guess, I'd say the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago had a lot to do with it. Back then, World's Fairs were the way people got introduced to new technology.
After that, aluminum tokens were popular well into the 1930's and beyond.
So... what does this tell us about the sewing machine token?
First, the token depicts a treadle-powered sewing machine. It is clearly not an electric model. The company's own website says that they started producing electric machines in the 1920's. So, right there, it's earlier than the 1920's. That means, right from the start, we're looking at something that's probably more than 90 years old.
The White Sewing Machine Company's site also indicates that they began making furniture-style cabinets in 1900. This was an industry first. The sewing machine depicted on the token has just such a housing. It's probably a then-current production model, so we're looking at somehwere about 1900 or shortly afterward. Now we're past the century-old mark.
This was an advertising token that proclaimed "the White is sold everywhere". If an advertiser wants someone to go out to the store and buy something, he's probably not going to waste limited ad space showing a model that's no longer in production. Come to think of it, if it's the year 1900 and you just introduced the first sewing machine to have its own furniture-type cabinet, then why not coin an aluminum token to advertise it!
Third, I was able to learn of another White's Sewing Machine token bearing one of the same slogans mine has: "The White is King". That token dates from the year 1900 and was apparently for the Exposition Universalle Paris.
Finally, there is another clue that comes only from having looked at numerous ads in old Montgomery Ward catalogs and similar books. That clue is the overall style of the ironwork on the base of the sewing machine. It has a very strong, late-1890's-to-1910 feel to it.
Based on the evidence we have at the moment, it's reasonable to place this token between 1900 and 1910. That's another mystery solved, at least well enough for the time being.
It's fun to find stuff like this with a metal detector, and probably just as much fun to research it. Well, almost as much fun. But I like the metal detecting better. It's a great way to bond with your family, and it's a lot more interesting and skill-developing than sitting there watching TV. Turn off the tube, get outside in the fresh air, get some exercise, and maybe find some cool stuff!
This token was found with a one-frequency, knob-controlled (analog) metal detector. A Tejon, to be exact (in-depth review here). The thing is, this aluminum token wasn't that deep. You could have found it with any beginner metal detector, whether it be a Tesoro Compadre or a Garrett Ace 250, or a Fisher F2, or whatever. That's one cool thing about metal detecting; you can find interesting things even without a ton of experience.
And later, when you get more advanced, you can really start learning a lot of history through your researches.
If you liked this article, you can show your support for this website by shopping for your gear through the links, for pretty much anything from socks to home improvement gear.
Thanks for reading. Happy metal detecting!
1. American Chemical Society, "Commercialization of Aluminum", online article
2. Leonard, R.D. "Collecting U.S. Tokens: Challenges and Rewards". Chicago Coin Club, 1986. Online article at http://www.chicagocoinclub.org/projects/PiN/cut.html.
3. Rounsavill, B. "A Penny For Your Thoughts: the P.H. Morris Token". The Half Moon: Newsletter of the Newtown Historical Association 7(1): January 2008. Online at http://www.newtownhistoric.org/NHANewsletter(01-08).pdf
4. White Sewing Machine Company website at http://www.whitesewing.com/history.asp
5. Exonumia.com auction sale catalog, 2006, online at http://www.exonumia.com/sale11/allb.htm
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(In case you're just getting into the hobby, you can't go wrong with an Ace 250 or a Silver uMax!)
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