The Mott Token 1789 (backdated): Introduction

The Mott token, like the Washington "Success" token, is currently a hotly debated item in colonial numismatics. Even the determination as to which side is the obverse has not been settled. Rulau and Yeoman designate the date side as the obverse while Crosby, Breen, Bowers and Alexander use the more standard numismatic practice of referring to the side with the firm name as the obverse. Following the standard conventions, the obverse of the token displays a regulator clock with the legend around the rim in two lines: MOTT'S N.Y. IMPORTERS, DEALERS, MANUFACTURERS, / OF GOLD & SILVER WARES. The reverse displays a spread wing eagle with an American shield breast plate, holding an olive branch and arrows in his talons; the date 1789 is above the eagle while around the rim is the legend: "CLOCKS, WATCHES, JEWELRY, SILVERWARE, CHRONOMETERS,". Even here there is disagreement on how to read the reverse legend, for the words are in a circle around the rim with commas between them but no ending point. Crosby transcribed the legend as CHRONOMETERS, CLOCKS, WATCHES, JEWELRY, SILVERWARE, while Bowers used WATCHES, JEWELRY, SILVERWARE, CHRONOMETERS, CLOCKS, ; I have followed Rulau as the word CLOCKS is in roughly the same position as MOTT'S is on the obverse. MOTT'S is certainly the starting point for the obverse legend so I have also taken that point to be the start of the reverse legend.

Mott tokens were issued in copper in both thick and thin planchet varieties, with the thick planchet being somewhat more common. There are a few examples in each thickness that have an ornamented edge rather than the usual plain edge and there is also a unique pewter trial piece now in the collection of John Ford. In 1920 Edgar Adams in his United States Store Cards (NY 613) listed an example with the edge lettering PAYABLE AT LIVERPOOL, LONDON OR BRISTOL; in 1988 Breen listed this as untraced (Breen 1026) while in 1997 Rulau (2nd ed., p. 37, NY 613) listed the variety with current market values slightly more than three times the value of the common thick planchet variety. Usually pricing is not added unless one has identified specimens and traced their value at auction. In all the different varieties later die states show a prominent die break at the top left corner of the clock (not present in our example). These tokens were regularly used, as most examples are in a worn, circulated state.

For over one hundred years numismatists relied on Charles Bushnell's account of the Mott token, published in 1859 in his work, An Historical Account of the First Three Business Tokens Issued in the City of New York. Bushnell identified the firm issuing the token as William and John Mott of 240 Water Street in New York City. Very little information challenging this view was brought forward before the 1980's.

In 1971 Cornelius Vermeule noted the eagle on the Mott token was quite similar to the eagle designed by John Reich in 1807 for the reverse of the half dollar and the five dollar half eagle gold piece (the eagle is found on silver half dollars from 1807-1891; gold quarter eagles from 1808-1907, gold half eagles from 1807-1908 and gold eagles from 1838-1907). Vermeule took this as an indication the "Reich eagle" was not a new design in 1807 nor was it of American origin, but rather that it had been created in 1789 in England for the Mott token. Others mentioned this similarity in later publications but none questioned the dating or origin of the Mott token. Then, in 1986 William Anton wrote a brief notice in Penny-Wise reporting his acquisition of a 1789 Mott token overstruck on a U.S. large cent. The date of the cent could not be read but from the words ONE CENT on the reverse of the cent (on the eagle or reverse side of the token) the coin was identified as the transitional small letter variety, found on large cents from 1837-1839.

The Anton discovery not only brought into question the dating of the Mott token but also the country of origin. Q. David Bowers followed up on the observations of Vermeule and Anton. In the winter 1987/8 issue of Rare Coin Review he published an article stating the Mott eagle exactly matched the eagle found on the $10 gold piece of 1838, the $5 gold of 1839 and the $2 1/2 gold coin of 1840. Based on these findings he suggested the eagle on the token was copied from one of these gold coins. This theory fit well with Anton's discovery of a Mott token overstruck on a large cent of 1837-39. From this Bowers concluded the Mott token was produced in the 1830's. He suggested it had been issued in 1839 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Mott firm, hence the backdating of the token to 1789. Thus, according to Bowers, the Mott token was part of the "Hard Times" storecard series rather than a colonial product.

Bowers had not actually solved the puzzle, but rather had made suggestions indicating the need for further research. He had explained the firm of William and John Mott were listed as grocers in 1789 and continued to be listed as grocers until 1830, not as watch and jewelry makers. In 1831 the firm was listed under Ann Mott, widow of John Mott, and continued in the following years as grocers under other members of the family. Bowers wondered how could a grocery firm be responsible for a token advertising a clock, watch and jewelry store?

Bushnell had identified the Mott grocers as the Mott firm mentioned on the token for he had only looked for firms with the name of Mott listed in the New York City register for 1789, as he believed the token dated from that year. Bowers understood this was problematic and suggested, "perhaps the Mott grocery firm was a different enterprise from Mott the jeweler." (Bowers, p. 62). Nevertheless, in assigning a date to the token Bower's suggested the fiftieth anniversary of the grocery firm! Eric Newman immediately picked up on this point and in the summer 1988 Rare Coin Review suggested further research was needed to find Mott clock and watchmakers in New York. In looking through a copy of the 1834 New York City Register, that happened to be available in his daughter's library, Newman discovered James S. Mott and Jordan Mott as clock and watchmakers. He suggested someone should systematically look through all the directories from 1789 onwards to clear up this problem.

Newman's suggestion was not taken up for a decade. During that time most standard guides accepted Bowers' thesis that the Mott token was a backdated product from the Hard Times token series. This explanation is found in Rulau's, Early American Tokens and in his Standard Catalog of United States Tokens 1700-1900 and in David Alexander's, Coin World Comprehensive Catalog & Encyclopedia of United States Coins as well as in the annual editions of R.S. Yeoman's,A Guide Book of United States Coins (known as the Redbook).

Several numismatists have not been convinced by the backdating arguments and still contend the Mott token is colonial. Indeed, two very different interpretations hinge on specimens that cannot be located for examination or authentication. Concerning the variety with the edge lettering PAYABLE AT LIVERPOOL, LONDON OR BRISTOL, Breen has stated, "This is unconfirmed, but if it exists and is not an overstrike on a British token, it would indicate a Birmingham origin for these pieces." (Breen, p. 102). The reasoning behind Breen's statement is: this lettered edge is commonly found on British tokens of the 1790's (called Conder tokens after James Conder who first described the series). It was made by using a specially inscribed retaining collar to hold the planchet in the dies during the stamping process. The collars for this and related edge legends are known to have been used to produce a few examples of lettered edge varieties for Conder tokens that were usually made without a lettered edge. This was done so there would be rare variants for the collector market. Thus, the use of this lettered edge on a Mott token could be an indication of British manufacture, if the example was not an overstrike. However this theory cannot be confirmed unless an example of a lettered edge Mott token is made available for examination. On the other hand, according to Pietri, the crucial Mott token overstruck on a large cent cannot be located. This example, of course, is central to the argument for an American origin for the token during the Hard Times era. Apparently the overstruck coin was never photographed nor is there any record it was ever authenticated. In Rulau (1997) it is listed as in the William Anton collection but several numismatists have not been able to trace this coin. They contend the whereabouts of the token is unknown and that it is not available for examination or authentication. Until the token is made available several numismatists will wonder if the story of the overstrike is a hoax and question the very existence of the item.

In the fall of 1998 Angel Pietri once again took up the question of the Mott token. Following Newman's suggestion he looked through all the New York City registers for the period. As a result of his research he suggested Jordan Mott was the most probable candidate for the Mott mentioned on the token. Both Newman and Rulau had mentioned Jordan Mott in their discussions of the token but neither had investigated the history of his firm. Pietri discovered Jordan Mott's advertisements closely match the wording on the token. His advertisement from the 1810 directory is reproduced by Pietri (Pietri, p. 40, figure 11). It locates Jordan at 247 Pearl Street and states that he:

     Has on hand an extensive assortment of CLOCKS,

Pietri explained Jordan Mott was first listed in the New York City Business Directory in 1796, then during 1797-1801 he was associated with the firm of Mitchell & Mott at 247 Pearl Street. However, he also had separate listings in 1798 at 104 Gold Street and in 1802-1803 at 39 Frankfort Street. In 1804 Jordan joined the cabinetmaker Jacob Morrell as Mott & Morrell at 247 Pearl Street. This partnership continued until Morrell died in 1808, in 1809 Morrell's widow is listed with Mott. Then Jordan is listed by himself until 1831 when he took on J.S. Mott (presumably his son James Stryker Mott). In 1835 the company was listed as J & Jordan Mott, Jr., with James S. Mott listed at another location (after 1835 James S. disappears from the register). Jordan Mott, Sr. died in 1840.

Pietri believes Jordan Mott produced the Mott token. If Jordan is the correct individual then it appears the 1789 token is indeed backdated, as Jordan Mott was not listed as a watchmaker until 1796. Pietri does indeed believe the token is backdated but suspects it originated before the mid 1820's and therefore predates the Hard Times token era. An interesting argument Pietri gave for an such a dating is the lack of an address on the token. Basically he stated that up to 1789 New York City was not as large as Philadelphia or Boston, however by 1800 it had surpassed both other cities and was continually growing. New York City's population in 1790 was 33,131, by 1810 it has climbed to 96,373 and by 1820 it had reached 123,706. Pietri also compared the name count in the annual city business registers from 1790 to 1808-9; this expanded from 4,250 businesses in 1790 to 14,350 businesses in 1808-9. From this Pietri suggested as New York City grew and competition increased it became necessary for merchants to include their location on advertisements. Thus Pietri surmised tokens without locations were probably earlier products.

Unfortunately there are very few datable pre 1820 New York City merchants tokens on which to test this intriguing theory. There are the Talbot, Allum & Lee tokens of 1794 and 1795 and the very rare Theatre at New York token dating to 1797 or 1798; neither have a street address.1 All other datable merchant tokens are from the 1820's or later. With the exception of tokens that were simply circulating coins on which the merchant's name was counterstamped, almost all other merchant tokens carry the business address. The few exceptions include the very rare J.P. token of ca. 1825 (Rulau-E NY 625); the Tredwell, Kissam & Co. token of 1823 (Rulau-E NY 920) and the C. Wolfe, Clark & Spies token of 1829 (Rulau-E NY 958; Baker 590). Interestingly, when the Tredwell token was reissued in 1825-6 (Rulau-E NY 921) the firm's address of 228 Pearl Street was added; also when the Wolfe token was reissued in late 1829-1830 (Rulau-E NY 961) the firm's address, at 193 Pearl Street, was added. The unanswered question is - Should the Mott token, which lacks an address, be categorized with these exceptions from the 1820's or with the earlier merchant tokens?

If one believes the eagle design on the token is an original work, independent of the Reich eagle, then it is possible to consider the token to be from a very early date. On the other hand, it should be noted several New York City merchants tokens from the 1820's use some variation of the Reich American eagle as a reverse, they include: J.P. of ca. 1825-32 (Rulau-E NY 625); Tredwell, Kissam & Co. of 1823 and 1825-1826 (Rulau-E NY 920 and 921, dropped wings); Richard Trested of 1823-1824 (Rulau-E NY 924); C.& I.D. Wolfe of 1823 (Rulau-E NY 957, dropped wings); and one variety of C. Wolfe, Spies & Clark from 1829, (Rulau-E NY 961, dropped wings). If one considers the Mott eagle to be a member of this group then a dating to the 1820's or later seems possible.

With the uncovering of the firm of Jordan Mott, Pietri seems to have discovered a more appropriate merchant to be considered as the originator of the token. If Jordan Mott was the person who ordered this token bearing the date 1789, it indeed appears the token is backdated. Beyond this fact the actual dating of the token is conjectural. Even the reason for the backdating is not understood, although Pietri has put forward a hypothesis. Pietri presumed that Mott (who was born in 1768) had completed his apprenticeship at age 21, which would have been in 1789, and later celebrated this date on the token. This is a very weak and highly conjectural argument, especially since Mott is not listed as being in business until 1796. There is no proof as to the time period of Mott's apprenticeship nor is there any reason to suspect several years later Mott would include that date (whenever it was) on a token. Indeed the appearance of a date on early American New York City merchant tokens is quite rare.2 In fact, only the Talbot, Allum & Lee cents include the current year (1794 or 1795). The only other early New York City merchant tokens to carry a date, other than the Mott token, are three tokens (in four varieties) with a generally known historical event; they include the date 1823 (with an eagle displaying dropped wings) and the legend NEW YORK GRAND CANAL OPENED (these are: Tredwell, Kissam & Co. (Rulau-E NY 920 and 921); C. & I.D. Wolfe (Rulau-E NY 957); and C. Wolfe, Clark & Spies, (Rulau-E NY 961). Thus, it would be unprecedented for a merchant token to include an historical date relating to the company. Certainly the public would have no idea of the connection to Mott's apprenticeship based on the evidence on the token. In fact, when seeing the date 1789 over the American eagle the general public would most likely assume it celebrated a significant national historical event, as the foundation of the federal government under the Constitution on March 4, 1789 or the inauguration of Washington as the first President of the United States, which occurred in New York City on April 30, 1789.

Since the Mott token does not have an address it could be rather early, or it could be considered one of several New York trade token from the 1820's (or even possibly the 1830's) that used the Reich eagle design. Certainly, any lettered edge specimens and the specimen overstruck on a large cent needs to be examined and authenticated; also, Bowers needs produce overlays to verify his assertions that the Mott eagle exactly matches the eagle on gold pieces from 1838-1840. With this evidence a more precise dating might be forthcoming; it may also help determine whether the token was produced in England or the United States. Clearly further research is needed to clarify this intriguing numismatic mystery.

Latest update: Nov. 3, 1998


1The only other datable pre 1820 New York City tokens are not merchant token and therefore would be unlikely to have a street address in any case. These include: a 1786 communion token of A.S.C. (Rulau-E NY 169); a 1799 communion token of the New York Associate Church (Rulau-E NY 622); two varieties of Park Theater admission tokens from 1817 (Rulau-E NY 41 and 41A) and a token dated 1818 that was made as a members badge for the Washington Market Chowder Club (Rulau-E NY 930). None of these carry a street address.

2Although early American New York City merchant tokens were not usually dated, early communion and admission tokens were frequently dated as were some commemorative tokens. From New York City I have found the following items. COMMUNION TOKENS: A.S.C. of 1786 (Rulau-E NY 169); New York Associate Church of 1799 (Rulau-E NY 622) and A.F. of 1824 (Rulau-E NY 167); ADMISSION TOKENS: Park Theater tokens of 1817 (Rulau-E NY 41 and 41A); Peale's Museum of 1825 (Rulau-E NY 632); and Rathbone & Fitch's Castle Gardens of 1825 (Rulau-E NY 654). COMMEMORATIVE TOKENS: Pitt tokens of 1766 (Rulau-E NY 176 and 177) and the Washington Market Chowder Club member's badge of 1818 (Rulau-E NY 930).


On this token see: Q. David Bowers, "Re-evaluating a Famous American Token: the Mott Token Gives Up its Secrets" Rare Coin Review  no. 67 (Winter, 1987/8) 60-63; Eric Newman, "Did the Mott Firm Deal in Clocks in 1789?" Rare Coin Review  no. 69 (Summer, 1988) 57; and Russell Rulau, Early American Tokens  3rd ed., Iola, WI: Krause, 1991, pp. 37-50 on New York City with the Mott token on pp. 43-44; and his Standard Catalog of United States Tokens 1700-1900   second edition, Iola, WI: Krause, 1997, pp. 31-44 on New York City with the Mott token on pp. 37-38; Crosby, pp. 334-335; Breen, pp. 101-102; Alexander, p. 81; Yeoman, 1998, p. 54; Cornelius Vermeule, Numismatic Art in America: Aesthetics of the United States Coinage, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 32; William J. Anton, "Was the Mott Token Backdated to 1789?" Penny-Wise, vol. 20, no. 6, (November, 1986); Angel Pietri, "The Mott Token Revisited," The C4 Newsletter, A quarterly publication of the Colonial Coin Collectors Club, vol. 6, no. 3 (Fall, 1998) 25-43.

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Section Contents Mott Tokens

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