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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What’s the best unconventional love token you’ve ever given or received?
Lisa Butterworth is a writer and editor soaking up the eternal sunshine in Los Angeles. When she's not on the hunt for the latest and greatest in girl culture as the West Coast editor of BUST magazine, she's flea marketing, taco trucking, and generally raising a ruckus.