George Kunkel was one of the first promoters of the 19th century genre of Minstrelsy in the United States. Born in Greencastle PA in 1821, Kunkel first arrived in Baltimore in 1855. There he became associated with three prominent places of theatrical entertainment in the city.
Minstrelsy were acts and shows which cast a negative light on American minorities. At the expense of non-whites, the shows unfairly depicted minorities as buffoonish, superstitious, feeble-minded, and clumsy.
A typical minstrel show consisted of comedic skits, accompanied by dancing, music, and variety acts; All performed by white entertainers who wore black makeup.
By the late 1840s, minstrel shows had become quite popular in America, with many shows having adapted once artful operas into cheap boorish parodies.
Given the adaptation of the opera genre, these companies of actors and their managers became known as ‘Opera Troupes.’
By the late 1850s, Kunkel’s company had become known as ‘Kunkel’s Opera Troup.’ There, at Baltimore’s Holliday Street Theatre, the group performed their skits to theatre-goers. In his troupe were several well-known actors of the day, including one who later became notoriously infamous.
Among Kunkel’s actors was John Wilkes Booth; The same John Wilkes Booth who fired his assassins bullet into Abraham Lincoln on April 14th 1865. In fact, it was right after Booth left George Kunkel’s troupe, that he took employment at the Ford’s Theatre.
Rulau lists several varieties of the Kunkel’s Opera Troupe Token. The tokens were struck for use as both an admission check, as well as to advertise Kunkel’s minstrel performances. The table below lists each variety:
Pictured below is a Kunkel’s Opera Troupe token, counterstamped on a 1788 Spanish-American 2 reales piece.
As per the table above, this token is a Miller MD-86A. Despite having been counterstamped around the same time of The Coinage Act of 1857, a 2-reale piece was equivalent to 2-bits, or approximately 25 United States cents.
Notes and Sources
Standard Catalog of United States Tokens 1700-1900 Fourth Edition, Russell Rulau, Krause Publications, ©2004
The Numismatist, Volume 20, 1907, pg.77
The Library of Congress Digital Archives