Medal makers generally can strike a metal in any “medallic composition” – bronze, copper, brass, silver, gold, copper-nickel, nickel-silver, and such. To do this requires a heavy press – a screw press in the early days, knuckle-joint and hydraulic presses in the 20th century, and later coining presses when these became available to private mints.
Token makers generally struck tokens in softer metal, aluminum, white metal, and the like, because they did not have access to heavier presses. I believe some even struck tokens with the hand-lever “seal press” used for embossing documents. Others did not bother using a reverse die at all – they simply made one-sided, embossed “medals.”
Most token makers were a group of firms in the “stamp and stencil” industry. These firms offered a wide range of products, including rubber stamps, tags and checks, stencils, nameplates, seals, marking devices, and some even sold the seal presses in addition to making the embossing dies for use in those presses for notary embossing.
At first these stamp and stencil firms were located in cities of major industrial activity. But as business increased across America, these craftsmen followed, and soon they were in every major city.
The tokens these firms made were often struck with dies made entirely of hand-punched letters: “Good for 5c” or “Good for a loaf of bread” with the merchant’s name. These were the coupons of the 19th century, used as a way of increasing business. A few bore an illustration of the merchant’s product, but most were entirely lettering, with no design at all.
Merchant’s tokens by the millions were made by stamp and stencil firms. Because they exist, they are collected. While not priced quite as low as some common postage stamps, most merchant’s tokens are 10- or 25-cent items, even today. Some of these tokens did not mention the location of the merchant, thus an entire service is offered in the token field of identifying “mavericks” – the location of these mystery tokens issuers.
In contrast medal makers were mostly the engravers of the dies, often one- and two-man shops in the 19th century. Perhaps one proprietor was the engraver, the other operated the press. If a client wanted a decent medal, however, or one larger than what these shops could strike, the client had to go to the Philadelphia Mint. The U.S. Mint did this work at cost, even up to the Second World War, or the client could go overseas to have a large medal struck there.
It wasn’t until the Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1892, that a medal industry could be said to exist in America. This one event was a boon for one die-sinking firm, S.D. Childs & Company, which had been in Chicago since 1837. Other firms followed. August Frank came to America that year but wisely established his firm in Philadelphia, where workers knowledgeable in the craft were already located.
Medal makers were located in cities of great industrial activity. It required some service of the metal suppliers and metal-working industry for blanks, tooling and, in some cases, metal workers. Where a run of tokens could have been produced by one man doing every step of production, medals required more sophisticated equipment, management and craftsmen.