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The World of Unconventional Love Tokens

Feb 14, 2013

by Lisa Butterworth handmade and vintage goods

You know Valentine’s Day is nearing when commercials for  jewelers take over the airwaves and you can’t throw a stuffed teddy bear without hitting a red and pink display of chocolates and roses. Now, don’t get me wrong. I like sugar, flowers, and all things gold as much as the next gal, but sometimes you want to get or give something a little more unexpected.


Vintage pressed pennies.

I don’t collect many things, but I go wild for a pressed penny. I have jars and jars of them, each a 51-cent souvenir from locations of varying degrees of awesomeness (Niagara Falls to Disneyland to the Sbarro Pizza in Times Square). During my last relationship, my boyfriend at the time took a cross-country trip and, upon arriving home, presented me with the most special gift I could imagine: a bag filled with squashed copper. He’d planned his route based on the locations of pressed penny machines and I cried tears that jewelry marketers suggest only a diamond could elicit. But that’s just it — those pressed pennies meant more to me than any ol’ gemstone, and even though our relationship ended, I still hold those little love tokens dear.


The front and back of an 1874 Victorian seated liberty dime love token coin charm.

As it turns out, at one point in time love tokens were actually somewhat literal, and not too far removed from the pressed penny. In the 1700s, it was popular in the United Kingdom for a beau to smooth one side of a coin and have it engraved with his initials before giving it to the apple of his eye. This trend made its way to the US and, according to an article in Pittsburgh Magazine, this practice “reached its greatest popularity in the States in the 1880s.” Thimbles, pin cushions, and carved wooden spoons were also popular romantic keepsakes according to the Love Token Society, a group of collectors dedicated to the artifacts. It was also during the latter half of the 19th century that a more corporeal type of love token was being doled out: locks of hair. Men who went off to fight in the Civil War would often give a chunk of their tresses to the lady they were leaving behind. And women would use their hair to fashion intricate designs to be forever displayed in a brooch on their husband’s lapel.

The Deeps

Victorian hair pendant.

Of course, the hair-swapping trend died out by the 20th century, but the practice of exchanging love tokens didn’t. As a writer for The Philadelphia Tribune noted, in the ’50s, “the class ring was a symbol of going steady. While it has been more than 50 years, I still have my wife’s class ring hanging on a chain.” He also touches upon the mid-century trend of girls wearing their boyfriend’s letterman jackets, a practice that is probably still somewhat in effect today. I remember watching The Goonies when I was a kid and, while the treacherous hunt for a dead pirate’s treasure was cool, what struck my little romantic heart was the moment in the movie when Andy’s boyfriend Troy gave her his letterman jacket to wear. Of course, by the time I was old enough to date a letterman, I’d fallen head over heels for a bad boy musician. He gave me his leather jacket (of course) and I wore it every day for months, 80-degree weather be damned.


1920s class ring.


1980s Varsity jacket.

Still, the love token that truly defined my high school years was the ubiquitous mix tape. I spent more time crafting perfectly nuanced playlists, recording songs on my dual-cassette boombox, and handwriting flirty liner notes than I ever did studying. And someday, when my mom finally forces me to clean out the shed full of my old things in my parents’ backyard, the mix tapes stashed there will be like wonderful little time capsules, proof of my heart’s wants and desires committed to yards and yards of plastic-encased polymer ribbon.

Obviously, a love token is more about the love behind a token than the token itself. So don’t feel hemmed in by the holiday’s stereotypes. Given with the right sentiment, anything can be a romantic keepsake. Leave the Whitman’s Sampler at the drugstore, and the object of your affection will only love you more.

  • Trench Art Necklace Pendant

    Made by a soldier for his sweetie in days of yore.
  • Human-Scale Anatomical Heart in Felt

    For a deeply felt love.
  • 10K Gold Class Ring

    DHS, Class of 1917. Wonder who wore this gem?
  • Willie and Millie Salt and Pepper Shakers

    Because penguins are known for fidelity, and salt and pepper belong together.
  • 1940s Varsity Football Letter Sweater

    For your steady.
  • Victorian Woven Hair Brooch

    Dramatic, beautiful, and a little macabre.
  • Antique Simon Bros Sterling Silver Thimble

    Adorned with chubby cherubs (or cupids)!
  • Victorian Acrostic Sweetheart Brooch

    Taken together, the first letter of each gemstone — diamond, emerald, amethyst, and ruby — spell "dear."
  • Vintage French Crowned Hearts Wax Seal

    Almost as good as sealing it with a kiss.
  • Custom Mix Tape

    Get the soundtrack of your love committed to analog.
  • Vintage Waechtersbach Heart Dishes for Two

    For a heartfelt cup o' joe.
  • For Those Who Have Everything

    A gag gift from the 1940s for your anti-Valentine.
Next Prev

What’s the best unconventional love token you’ve ever given or received?

2 Featured Comments

  • heatherfuture said 6 years ago Featured

    If I still had a tape deck, I'd make Etsy a mixtape full of sweet kitschy love songs. I'd draw a turtle playing a ukulele on the cover, and write the tracklist in my neatest printing.

  • puzzlemonkey said 6 years ago Featured

    This is too cute! Some of the things I treasure most are not expensive, but made with love and given with heart; like the pewter pendant my little brother made for me in his high school workshop, or the beads my mother bought in a junk shop becuase she knew I could upcycle them into something fantastic!


  • 3crows said 6 years ago

    That bow made of hair is really somethin' else..

  • Noellemabelle said 6 years ago

    I gave my man a jar of spicy pickles this morning. yes he will smell of garlic later - but I know what he loves, and I love him the way he is.

  • WellRavelled said 6 years ago

    I have to admit the hair tokens creep me out :) But the pressed coins are too sweet.

  • sarantos said 6 years ago

    Okay just remembered and it is not something I can say. LOL

  • Alwylan said 6 years ago

    An older man that used to hang out at my bus stop brought me an animatronic bear because he "didn't think my boyfriend would get me anything." The bear itself was kind of creepy but I will never part with it. Especially since the man disappeared a few months later, I think he may have passed way. That morning greeting changed my mind forever about this special day and from now on use it to remind me to celebrate all the love in my life, in all its varied forms.

  • MegansMenagerie said 6 years ago

    Love the salt and pepper shakers. I'm a big collector :)

  • rutheshop said 6 years ago

    Is it wrong to self gift inscribed jewellery [with life mottos or something]? I'm sounding desperate, I'm going to go now....

  • vintagetogoetsy said 6 years ago

    Thank you for writing "unconventional love tokens". I used to collect pressed penny coins too! As a matter of fact, I passed up a penny press at the Natural History Museum a couple of weeks ago, which as a hoarder was a big step for me. I used to leave pennies on railroad tracks too. Thanks for bringing back some nostalgia!

  • ArtDecoDame said 6 years ago

    Neat picks!I really like the mourning brooch!

  • EdelweissPost said 6 years ago

    Lisa, I loved the Goonies reference - one of my favorite movies, and the first movie I remember watching in the theater, not to age myself! .... I was going to mention that locks of hair are probably the most eco-friendly gift you can give on Valentine's Day ~ though al my close friends will receive repurposed vintage valentines in the mail inside a recycled brown kraft envelope, topped off with a love stamp~ Nothing beats *real mail*, this, the second most postal of holidays.

  • LivingVintage said 6 years ago

    Interesting! I'll pass on the hair jewelry.

  • etcetrix said 6 years ago

    Lou is short for Louise, fanciful yarn tho'

  • lbutterworth said 6 years ago

    @Patrick...Goonies was the first movie I saw in the theater too!! Real mail is definitely the best. Your friends are lucky!

  • gboliver said 6 years ago

    Nice picks, as they are much more sentimental.

  • KMalinka said 6 years ago

    I like this Antique Simon Bros Sterling Silver Thimble With Cherub Angels And Garland Border!

  • beachjewels72 said 6 years ago

    Love the pressed pennies!

  • gertieloo88 said 6 years ago

    My sweetheart gave me a jigsaw last Valentine's. I was over the moon.

  • gertieloo88 said 6 years ago

    My sweetheart gave me a jigsaw last Valentine's.

  • vinylclockwork said 6 years ago

    Neat Stuff

  • sofialindgren said 6 years ago

    I adore those Pressed Coins :>

  • natureguild said 6 years ago

    nice to see that a conventional red heart for valentines is swapped for deeper meaningful articles sometimes

  • WoodlandCottage said 6 years ago

    A dear, sweet friend (who, unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago) gave EVERYONE he met inexpensive (as in Dollar Store) kitchen utensils--spatulas, spoons, etc. Although his gift is long gone, I can't flip an egg or stir a stew without thinking of his kindness and generosity, and smiling at my good luck in having called him my friend. I still miss you, John!

  • MaruMaru said 6 years ago

    The heart cup set is so cute!

  • MissingHeirloom said 6 years ago

    I have the sweetest vintage ring - heart shaped onyx with a tiny diamond set in the center. Original engraving inside the band are two words: short stop. The more unconventional suits me fine!

  • GeorgieGirlLLC said 6 years ago

    The trench heart sure does bring back memories. Ain't Love Grand!!!

  • MissingHeirloom said 6 years ago

    Lisa, you spin a fun yarn!

  • yellowfishpaperie said 6 years ago

    Nice story Alwylan. Inspiring post, maybe next year!

  • AScrappyLife said 6 years ago

    Love the pressed pennies, they are so much fun! My husband and I don't really give gifts because we aren't good at keeping secrets or surprises, lol, but we love each day we have with each other. : )

  • jkmb4 said 6 years ago

    My daughter collect pressed pennies and you are so right, we go out of our way to find machined and we always pack extra quarters and shiny pennies on our trips :0)

  • heatherfuture said 6 years ago Featured

    If I still had a tape deck, I'd make Etsy a mixtape full of sweet kitschy love songs. I'd draw a turtle playing a ukulele on the cover, and write the tracklist in my neatest printing.

  • CafePrimrose said 6 years ago

    Wow, so wonderful!

  • TheDeeps said 6 years ago

    Love this article! Thank you.

  • TheDeeps said 6 years ago

    Sunday & Sunday has an amazing collection of old love tokens. So fond of these pieces made from the humblest means, with so much devotion. Really enjoyed your article.

  • RetroRevivalBoutique said 6 years ago

    Super sweet article! :)

  • isewcute said 6 years ago

    Interesting read! I have my Nana's thimble & it's a most precious treasure to me. :)

  • emwi said 6 years ago

    Fun idea! I especially love the pressed pennies. Reminds me of my childhood. Thanks for sharing!

  • aressa said 6 years ago

    I never knew about the hair exchange idea...Not sure I would have liked that!! I love seeing things like this, which bring back memories from the past....

  • LoveYourBling said 6 years ago

    Someone once made me a ring out of quarter.

  • needleandfelt said 6 years ago

    My husband and I started collecting pressed pennies on our travels for my son when he was just a year!

  • sugarnspike613 said 6 years ago

    My boyfriend has made me all sorts of things. The only thing I can think of that was a specific love token is a little heart he cut out of some sheet metal and stamped our initials in. He also made me a clockwork heart for my birthday. Lost in the depths of his room, I think there might also be a bracelet made of a string from his bass. He's pretty darn romantic ♥

  • ginew said 6 years ago

    Wow nice story :)

  • thevicagirl said 6 years ago

    Oh how cool. Such neat things.

  • messinabella said 6 years ago

    great post!

  • iwantpizzanow said 6 years ago

    Lovely story :) Here in Canada we've recently discontinued the penny, and now I think I know what to do with all mine!

  • gaiadesignstudios said 6 years ago

    Such a fun idea, love the pressed pennies!

  • pasin said 6 years ago

    Wow nice story

  • paigepitcher said 6 years ago

    For Valentine's Day about four years ago, my husband came home with a back scratcher and some chocolate. When I asked about the back scratcher, he said he knows how my back gets itchy. That turned out to be one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received.

  • RenataandJonathan said 6 years ago

    Great story ! :)

  • valeriephoto said 6 years ago

    Great story! Thanks. I still have the mix tape given to me by the first boy I ever kissed when I was 15. Every now and then my mom gets on a cleaning kick and asks if she can "throw out all these old tapes." No way!

  • WiseApple said 6 years ago

    Awesome post - I just love to speculate about the history of vintage treasures, and these romantic keepsakes no doubt have some truly awesome stories behind them!

  • rebeccagoebel said 6 years ago

    This is such a cute post ... I love the history and the unique treasures!!

  • puzzlemonkey said 6 years ago Featured

    This is too cute! Some of the things I treasure most are not expensive, but made with love and given with heart; like the pewter pendant my little brother made for me in his high school workshop, or the beads my mother bought in a junk shop becuase she knew I could upcycle them into something fantastic!

  • pheelphree said 6 years ago

    Thanks for this lovely little article. For V-Day, I gave my fiancee a book of the writings of Rumi and a handkerchief doll I sewed from recycled fabric. It looked like him. ;) Nice to know V-Day doesn't have to be cheesy, over-commercialised and hollow.

  • MaudeAndLola said 6 years ago

    I adore the pressed penny story. Fun thing to collect! Over a decade ago, when I was teaching 2nd grade, I received the an unconventional love token of sorts. On my birthday, I was showered with gifts from students and parents. At the end of the day, one of the scholarship kids from a poor family, quietly walked up to my desk, dropped a wadded up tissue and walked away. Inside were his little treasures, a plastic martian, a shell, baseball card etc. I wept. He gave me all he had, his treasures. Best gift ever!

  • dakotamaid said 6 years ago

    Oh ya I wore my boyfriends class ring with a roll of tape around it to make it fit, and his letter jacket. I regret that after we got married I threw the jacket away.

  • ekra said 6 years ago

    I just received the most wonderful non-traditional love token. My husband and I are working on a digital comic about cats together. We met 10 years ago and for our anniversary, he made a poster that recreated the scene of us meeting for the first time (in a music venue that no longer exists) with the cat characters as us and other people at the concert we were at. It was the best present I ever got.

  • FreakyPeas said 6 years ago

    love all your picks.

  • LittleWrenPottery said 6 years ago

    Ah I love sentimental gifts, always the thought that counts - I should totally make a mix tape sometime except I havent got a walkman anymore!

  • susiedobberpuhl said 6 years ago

    I adore the mixtape gifts. They would be a great thing to collect.

  • librarianmari said 6 years ago

    I'd take any of these over flowers or candy! Okay ... except for the varsity jacket; that's just not my style.

  • MelanieHollandArt said 6 years ago

    my sweetheart bought us a little pair of tiny spoons and each of us wears one as a necklace! but dont tell him that i returned the favor by buying us a set of anatomical-sized needle-felted human hearts! :)

  • nowvintage said 6 years ago

    This is such a great article!! quite past valentines and I could have read and read and read more!! thank you! my favorite old keepsake is a slice of wood with my name painted on it and then covered with clear coat of some kind that my eighth grade boyfriend made for me. So sweet!

  • boltandbutton said 6 years ago

    My husband doesn't think like this. {Sigh.} But, I'm always giving him little tokens-- drawings, things I find, etc. I know he appreciates them, because they are on his bulletin board over his desk. But, my favorite love token was actually from my Momma. The teddy bear she bought when she found out she was pregnant with me. Actually, she didn't even buy it. She collected labels off of Brawny paper towels and sent them in for the bear. Now, that's love. I still have that ragged old bear and some nights when things get rough and I'm feeling homesick, I cuddle up with him.

  • NinaRaizel said 6 years ago

    Locks of hair? Wow, odd but touching.

  • sairamalik said 6 years ago

    This is such a great article!! I love sentimental gifts..I love the history and the unique treasures!!

  • scottypotty619 said 6 years ago

    what is a tape deck please respond

  • droolerynmore said 6 years ago

    Over Christmas, my boyfriend got to go to Hawaii. When we saw each other again in early January, he gave me a jar of sand. He said that he saved me a pinch from every beach he visited, every landmark he saw. Just knowing that he was thinking of me everywhere he went really hit me hard, and it's a total treasure! I loved it more than the expensive gift he gave me as well.

  • yellowllama said 6 years ago

    Similar coin exist here as well. Before a convict was transported to Australia they often made a love token to give to a family member or sweetheart. They are incredible and sweet and touching...

  • curry47 said 6 years ago

    my girlfriend gave me a book she'd been writing in since before we started dating with a list of things she wanted to do together and typography phrases

  • catherinemaria said 5 years ago

    So cute

  • RuxSenMetaphysics said 5 years ago

    Gotta love that mixtape :)

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