An article by Carol Bastable in the March/April issue of the TAMS Journal (a publication of the Token and Medal Society) sheds new
light on the origin of "box dollars" or "opium dollars", objects that look like ordinary coins but hold a secret
compartment within. -Editor
have been termed as opium dollars may never have really been used for the purpose of smuggling opium. Sure there are some James Bond style
spy coins in the world of exomunia and include various hidden compartment coins and magician’s coins. The compartment coins include both
single coins and boxes that resemble a stack of coins. Of the single coin style, the Great Britain two pence or “cartwheel” coin has the
largest interior capacity. These are threaded and come apart into two pieces as opposed to the countersunk hinge on the trade dollar box
coins. When closed, both resemble ordinary coins but the extra thick copper two pence allows much more space inside for “smuggling”.
As for opium dollars, that term has been used extensively when referring to the trade dollar hidden compartment coins. Trade dollars
were originally made to facilitate trade with the Orient.
Uncovering numismatic documentation after lying dormant for 120 years is extremely exciting. It certainly makes one question what other
discoveries are out there hidden from public knowledge. In the case of advertisements and catalogs, they are often thrown away…deemed as
unimportant junk mail. A debt of gratitude is owed to all the “pack rats” out there that save what others see as refuse.
An important new discovery confirms that these coins were not used for smuggling but were indeed lockets. An ad from an 1896
publication, Busiest House in America (BHA), had one of these coins in print and offered for sale (see Figure 1). The ad pictures
the reverse image of a trade dollar and below is the item number 1888 and a six dollar price. Most importantly it is titled as a “secret
locket” in the ad. Whether or not there were other companies making them is unknown but BHA called it a secret locket and sold it in a
section with sterling silver fine novelties.
So we learn from this discovery the true origin of some of these items, and the name their manufacturer bestowed on them - "secret
locket". I've been a fan of collecting numismatic ephemera for years, and this only redoubles my enthusiasm. One
generation's junk can be a gold mine for future collectors and researchers. Congratulations to Carol for locating this bit of
information and bringing it to light for other collectors. Thanks also to TAMS Journal Editor Bill Hyder for forwarding the
For more information on the Token and Medal Society, see:
THE BOOK BAZARRE
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Wayne Homren, Editor
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