Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Communion Tokens are often molded just like Fishing Lures

CTs have a particular look and feel. They are quite unlike other tokens made of copper, brass and nickel, particularly the older pieces.
     New collectors immediately notice the difference. They are thick, often chunky, with slightly rounded edges and soft lettering. They are cast lead! Just like a fishing lure.
     We have seen a few in the blog with deeply incused figures. This was the easy way to make a token: cast a shape and impress it with a few initials or a date. This production method was time-intensive and did not produce identical tokens.
A stone mold for single-
sided square from Salton
as illustrated in Brook.
     A better way was to cut a few figures (and perhaps some decorative elements) into the die. Of course, all this was done by hand with a small chisel. Often the letters were boldly made with thick stems and prominent serifs, as this was easier to do and allowed a certain amount of misjudged cuts to be swallowed up in a thicker line. Alternatively, we find extremely thin letters that appear to be not much more than rude scrapes in the metal. Indeed, inexpert hands were often coaxed to make the early CTs that we presently find quaint and charming.
     These backyard, or should I say churchyard, manufactures are romanticized by collectors. Handmade and primitive is a style nowadays. But back in the day, it was an expediency. Even the hired blacksmith or plumber probably struggled to make these diminutive objects. Shaping a clasp or stave or shoe was much easier -- these objects paid the rent.
An iron or brass pair of molds pictured
in Brook. Four pins (at corners) keep
the molds in alignment.
     Nonetheless, many molded CTs were produced from handcrafted dies. Many of them were marked on one side only, but a surprising number were two-sided pieces made from folding molds held together by a hinge and locked in alignment with a large pin. The Reverend Thomas Burns provided a nice illustration of a hinged mold in his book entitled, Scottish Communion Plate, published in 1892. So too, Alexander Brook provided several nice illustrations of these molds in his monograph entitled, Communion Tokens of the Established Church of Scotland, published in 1907.
     Lead was widely available in Scotland. It was relatively cheap. It was soft, malleable and had a low melt temperature. Perfect for CTs and fishing lures. Tin was added in the mix to produce a harder alloy. And of course, there were likely to be some impurities present just to make things interesting on the finished token -- like an unexpected fissure or an odd spot or two.
     A few early CT molds have survived and now reside in museums. I have not seen any them up close and personal. But there is a chance to see, touch and possess a CT mold coming up in the Bob Merchant auction described in previous blogs. This two-sided mold is quite interesting, as seen in the photos provided by Simmons Gallery.
Lot 1154 is a lead/zinc pair of molds from Duirness that is
part of the Bob Merchant collection. This auction closes
next month on October 15th. Please note that this photo
is copyrighted by Simmons Gallery.
     Looking closely, we can see that the mold is not hinged, but fits together with a raised rim on one side and a contoured surface on the other. There are no pins to keep the alignment tight. The relief is deeper on the lower mold (presumably the reverse with the date 1803 barely visible), whereas the top piece is shallowly etched. A tunnel is cut in the lower mold to allow molten lead to be poured into the mold (or to escape if over-filled). Only the top part has a handle -- a thick knob -- that allows the craftsman to adjust the fit. The composition of the mold appears to be soft metal -- the auction listing states that it is not magnetic and probably made of lead & zinc. All told, a very crude piece of machinery for a relatively late CT.
     This is certainly a relic worthy of a museum. But collectors will have a shot at it: it listed as Lot 1154. It is one of last lots in the auction that closes on October 15th. The reserve value is 500 BPs (or about $800); the estimate is twice this amount. The mold comes from Duirness Kirk in the northern shire of Sutherland. As you can see, it produces a straight rectangle (B2095).

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