Small items sometimes make a big impact

By Terry Maurer, What's it Worth March 11, 2012 

No one seems to know where the saying "Good Things Come In Small Packages" originated. Guesses range from philosophers to a physician who had just delivered a baby.

We do know it is true; sometimes little packages or items contain very big ideas or surprises.

That is the case with two readers of What's It Worth? whose questions we answer today. One has a token to cross a Civil War-era bridge, the other an advertising tin that contains something that revolutionized communications in the 20th century.

Q. This little tin box measures about an inch in diameter. Inside are several small pieces of what look to be silver rocks. Wording on the box doesn't give much indication what they may have been used for; saying everything has been tested and they are "supersensitive." Can you give me some ideas as to what this is? -- Ed in Richland.

A. This tin contains small pieces of galena -- those little silvery rocks -- that were used in early crystal radio sets.

Crystal radios, powered by the galena crystals, were introduced in 1904 and are the simplest form of radio receiver. All you need is a long antenna wire, a copper wire tuning coil and the crystal. They require no electricity or battery. The sound reproduction was very low, so earphones had to be used.

Millions of kits were sold to build crystal radio sets and they were the only way to listen to radio up until about 1920. It was then that amplifying receivers with vacuum tubes were introduced and radio as we know it came of age.

These crystal radios are inexpensive to build, were favorite projects for Boy Scouts and are still fun for hobbyists today.

Crystals for these sets were key to the technology. Offered by many companies, most seem to have come packaged in cardboard tubes or boxes. This tin is a bit out of the ordinary and a collector would be interested at the $40 range.

Q. Going through a box of coins in settling a relative's estate, we found what at first glance seemed to be an American Indian Head penny. Actually, it is marked as a token to cross a bridge, issued in 1867 by the Cedar River Bridge Co. Is this valuable? -- Art in Kennewick

A. Here is the story, gleaned from the archives of Iowa's Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier newspaper and folks at the Cedar County Historical Society Museum.

The Cedar River flows through downtown Cedar Falls and in pioneer days people had either to ford it or swim to get from one side to the other. In 1854 a ferry was established. Today, the stream is spanned by the modern Medal of Honor Bridge.

The first toll bridge to cross the river was a wood structure built in 1857. By 1861 the bridge had deteriorated to the point a newspaper of the day called it "a disgrace to the town." In the summer of 1866, the Cedar Falls Gazette reported "no one drives a loaded team over it without fear of going into the drink." Nature solved the problem when high water swept the old bridge away late that year.

Enter the Cedar River Bridge Company, which built a solid new crossing in 1867, using some 23,000 pounds of iron. They issued tokens for the new toll bridge to allow crossing by people on foot, or one horse and buggy or one team with wagon.

The one footman tokens are the only ones seen today. They are fairly scarce and the Historical Society Museum says they do not have one in their collection.

Value is always in the eye of the beholder, of course. But this interesting token has been sold in the range of $40 to $250 in recent years. Your example is in very good condition and on the right day to the right buyer might be in the upper end of that range.

-- Terry Maurer, a Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by email to tchwhatsitworth@

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