Most collectors are familiar with trade tokens such as Hard Times tokens and Civil War store cards. Born out of a necessity for small change, these non-government issued items could also display a small advertisement for the business that issued them, thus serving two purposes. Around the same time period, another novel form of advertisement was also taking hold, counterstamping government issued coins, to include a small advertisement on one side. These coins would then act as "traveling billboards" in the local economy where they circulated. This practice continued in earnest until the early 1880s, and continued to a lesser extent into the early 20th century. Counterstamped coins of the United States and other nations are well documented by Gregory Brunk in his (2003) Merchant and Privately Countermarked Coins.
In the early 1930s R. Stanton Avery came up with the idea of a self-adhesive label that could be affixed to anything, and a couple of decades later affixing advertising stickers to U.S. coins came into its heyday. Although no comprehensive reference books have been published, authors of state specific trade token references have included them in their listings. Besides collectors who collect by city or state, there are also a few that collect any new varieties they come across. Cliff Mishler regularly reports new finds in trade publications and David Gidcumb maintains the website www.stickeredsilverdollars.com that lists 80 or so examples; this site is limited to the silver dollar denomination where sticker advertisements are most frequently found.
Like their predecessor trade tokens, stickered coins were not exclusively made for business advertisement. There were instances of employers who paid employees with them in an effort to demonstrate how vital they were to the local economy. Some were used as premiums or prizes and still others commemorated a special occasion such as a town's anniversary. In Las Vegas, where the silver dollar has special significance, several casinos produced stickered dollars that were either won in a slot machine, or could be purchased as a souvenir in the gift shop. These are some of the most frequently found examples today. Most types of stickered coins, however, are actually rather scarce. Collector Cliff Mishler, who has collected in excess of 700 pieces, has said: "I believe that I have never encountered a second example of at least two-thirds of the pieces held in my collection." For a dedicated collector, that is quite the statement! The sad fact is, many circulated silver dollars have suffered the melting pot, and those with a sticker would be considered by many numismatists as damaged. There is no doubt that well-meaning collectors have also removed stickers to preserve the coin and, of course, some stickers simply wore away or fell off over time.
In the past and even relatively recently, stickered coins have come under federal scrutiny. In the late 1950s, Silver Springs, an attraction in central Florida, elected to pay employees with $20,000 in silver dollars, each with a sticker that simply said SILVER / SPRINGS / TOURIST / DOLLAR in yellow text over a black background. The intent was to promote the attraction, and show its importance to the local economy as employees spent their pay. Unfortunately, the counting machines in in the Federal Reserve regional bank of Atlanta were negatively impacted. A federal agent contacted Silver Springs and threatened criminal charges and fines. The company recalled as many coins as they could, and spent considerable manpower removing the stickers.
In a more recent instance, the Franklin Mint in partnership with 20th Century Fox affixed a sticker to 40,000 2005 California state quarters, in order to promote the Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer film. They reportedly released 800 such quarters in each state and they quickly caught the attention of the United States Mint. The U.S. Mint issued a press release stating: "This promotion is in no way approved, authorized, endorsed, or sponsored by the United States Mint, nor is it in any way associated or affiliated with the United States Mint." They further cited statute 18 U.S.C. § 475, which states (emphasis added):
18 U.S.C. § 475. Imitating obligations or securities; advertisements.
Whoever designs, engraves, prints, makes, or executes, or utters, issues, distributes, circulates, or uses any business or professional card, notice, placard, circular, handbill, or advertisement in the likeness or similitude of any obligation or security of the United States issued under or authorized by any Act of Congress or writes, prints, or otherwise impresses upon or attaches to any such instrument, obligation, or security, or any coin of the United States, any business or professional card, notice, or advertisement, or any notice or advertisement whatever, shall be fined under this title.
This statute certainly makes it clear that affixing stickers to coins and then placing them back into circulation is illegal. However, if the item is intended to act as a souvenir piece and not re-enter circulation, the matter may be a little grayer. The author is aware of one business in Hilton Head, South Carolina that currently gives out Kennedy half dollars with an advertising sticker as part of a happy hour promotion. In addition, there are several companies who add stickers commemorating a political figure or featuring a bit of Americana to coins (usually a half dollar or modern dollar) and sell them through numismatic channels. It would appear to me, that either the statute is unenforced, or perhaps only enforced when the coins end up circulating and attracting the attention of authorities.
While I wouldn't encourage stickering coins, I would encourage readers to keep their eyes open for these interesting pieces the next time you're looking through the junk bin of your local dealer or attending a show. Collectors should seek examples with the sticker whole and undamaged, keeping in mind that for the scarcer types, you may not find another example ever again. For silver dollars, 1921 Morgans and assorted Peace dollars seem to be more common hosts than other dates and types, which makes sense given what we know about the distribution of silver dollars and the time these were being made. Also worth noting is the condition of the host coin. In most instances, the host will be well circulated, as collectors were likely to save dollars in Mint condition, or remove the stickers from examples that were collectible in their own right. Other denominations are likely to be found in much better condition. While most of the silver dollar examples can be purchased for $30 to $60, some can command more, depending on the subject matter. Other denominations are not as widely collected and usually command less, though they are also much scarcer. In fact, my favorite piece in my collection is the I'VE / BEEN TO /AQUALAND / BAR HARBOR / MAINE example on a 1971 Lincoln cent. I've never seen another, and though the (now closed) attraction had a rather checkered past, that has never stopped me from enjoying the advertising piece.
If you have a stickered coin you would like to share, feel free to send a picture to me at [email protected] I look forward to hearing from you!