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Britt Ransom with models of the Tawawa Chimney Corner house
Britt Ransom with models of the Tawawa Chimney Corner house.

CFA’s Britt Ransom Links Past and Present with 3D-Printed Tokens

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Peter Kerwin
University Communications & Marketing

Britt Ransom(opens in new window) calls her 3D printer a “fossil-making machine.” In a new project, she’s using it to link a relic from the past to things considered extremely modern — cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

In “Tokens for Current Times,” Ransom, an associate professor of art in Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Art(opens in new window), will create a series of 3D-printed, copper-plated coins that pay homage to “hard times tokens,” an alternate form of currency used in the United States in the 19th century. She became interested in the tokens while working to restore the Tawawa Chimney Corner house(opens in new window), a historic home and civil rights movement landmark that belonged to her family. 

Ransom draws parallels with life in 2024, exploring how people challenge financial systems and democratize access to value. 

“I got really interested in the coins because they started striking these hard times tokens during a moment when the country was in economic and political distress,” Ransom said. “We too are going through a real moment of disagreement, turmoil and economic uncertainty.”

What are hard times tokens?

Hard times tokens were copper coins made by groups or businesses and could also be used for marketing purposes, to share satirical or political messages or as IOUs. 

Token with "Am I Not a Woman and Sister.”

Token with "Am I Not a Woman and Sister.” Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

One of Ransom’s favorite examples is a coin dated 1838 (opens in new window)and commissioned by the American Anti-Slavery Society. It depicts a woman kneeling with raised arms and the words “AM I NOT A WOMAN & A SISTER.” On the other side of the coin, the “N” in “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” is backward.

“It's interesting to me to be able to put a message on something and covertly pass this on to someone else,” Ransom said.  “I'm thinking about the idea of a coin as a sculpture and what it means in the year 2024.”

Tokens were the crypto of their time

The tokens share some conceptual similarities with modern-day decentralized currencies like cryptocurrencies.

“Both the physical hard times tokens and digital cryptocurrency tokens reflect a desire for an alternative means of exchange during times of crisis,” Ransom said. 

Bryan Routledge(opens in new window), an associate professor of finance in CMU’s Tepper School of Business, agreed. He cited Bitcoin as a reflection of current and recent past life in the United States. 

“Bitcoin started in 2009, right at the peak of the financial crisis when confidence in the banking sector was at its lowest in decades. People were ready for an alternative money system something other than big banks. It popped out of that era and somehow now has come full circle — today Wall Street is investing in Bitcoin. It’s deeply ironic,” he said. 

Ransom also makes a connection between hard times tokens and NFTs, which are a way to certify ownership and authenticity of digital assets, such as art, music and virtual collectibles.

“There was an NFT boom within the contemporary art world during COVID when galleries and museums were not open. Contemporary art for a moment really shifted online,” she said. “Both hard times tokens and NFTs challenge conventional financial systems and democratize access to value, with the former playing a role in supporting social movements and the latter enabling artists and creators to directly monetize their work.” 

Ransom hopes to embed technology in her replicas to knit the present and past together. Her 3D- printed coins will have RFID tags built in so they can be scanned with a phone to access more information about the coins themselves or historical sites where the coins are distributed. Additionally, the tokens will come with an NFT on a blockchain, ensuring traceable ownership and authenticity. 

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