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A Brief History of Challenge Coins

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There are many examples of traditions that build camaraderie in the military, but few are as well-respected as the practice of carrying a challenge coin—a small medallion or token that signifies a person is a member of an organization. Even though challenge coins have broken into the civilian population, they're still a bit of a mystery for those outside the armed forces.

What Do Challenge Coins Look Like?

Typically, challenge coins are around 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter, and about 1/10-inch thick, but the styles and sizes vary wildly—some even come in unusual shapes like shields, pentagons, arrowheads, and dog tags. The coins are generally made of pewter, copper, or nickel, with a variety of finishes available (some limited edition coins are plated in gold). The designs can be simple—an engraving of the organization's insignia and motto—or have enamel highlights, multi-dimensional designs, and cut outs.

Challenge Coin Origins

It's nearly impossible to definitively know why and where the tradition of challenge coins began. One thing is certain: Coins and military service go back a lot farther than our modern age.

One of the earliest known examples of an enlisted soldier being monetarily rewarded for valor took place in Ancient Rome. If a soldier performed well in battle that day, he would receive his typical day’s pay, and a separate coin as a bonus. Some accounts say that the coin was specially minted with a mark of the legion from which it came, prompting some men to hold on to their coins as a memento, rather than spend them on women and wine.

Today, the use of coins in the military is much more nuanced. While many coins are still handed out as tokens of appreciation for a job well done, especially for those serving as part of a military operation, some administrators exchange them almost like business cards or autographs they can add to a collection. There are also coins that a soldier can use like an ID badge to prove they served with a particular unit. Still other coins are handed out to civilians for publicity, or even sold as a fund-raising tool.

The First Official Challenge Coin…Maybe

Although no one is certain how challenge coins came to be, one story dates back to World War I, when a wealthy officer had bronze medallions struck with the flying squadron’s insignia to give to his men. Shortly after, one of the young flying aces was shot down over Germany and captured. The Germans took everything on his person except the small leather pouch he wore around his neck that happened to contain his medallion.

The pilot escaped and made his way to France. But the French believed he was a spy, and sentenced him to execution. In an effort to prove his identity, the pilot presented the medallion. A French soldier happened to recognize the insignia and the execution was delayed. The French confirmed his identity and sent him back to his unit.

One of the earliest challenge coins was minted by Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn, 17th Infantry Regiment, who had them made for his men during the Korean War. The coin features a buffalo on one side as a nod to its creator, and the Regiment’s insignia on the other side. A hole was drilled in the top so the men could wear it around their necks, instead of in a leather pouch.

The Challenge

Stories say that the challenge began in Germany after World War II. Americans stationed there took up the local tradition of conducting “pfennig checks.” The pfennig was the lowest denomination of coin in Germany, and if you didn’t have one when a check was called, you were stuck buying the beers. This evolved from a pfenning to a unit’s medallion, and members would "challenge" each other by slamming a medallion down on the bar. If any member present didn’t have his medallion, he had to buy a drink for the challenger and for anyone else that had their coin. If all the other members had their medallions, the challenger had to buy everyone drinks.

The Secret Handshake

In June 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates toured military bases in Afghanistan before his impending retirement. Along the way, he shook hands with dozens of men and women in the Armed Forces in what, to the naked eye, appeared to be a simple exchange of respect. It was, in fact, a secret handshake with a surprise inside for the recipient—a special Secretary of Defense challenge coin.

Not all challenge coins are passed by secret handshake, but it has become a tradition that many uphold. It could have its origins in the Second Boer War, fought between the British and South African colonists at the turn of the 20th century. The British hired many soldiers of fortune for the conflict, who, due to their mercenary status, were unable to earn medals of valor. It was not unusual, though, for the commanding officer of those mercenaries to receive the accommodation instead. Stories say that non-commissioned officers would often sneak into the tent of an unjustly awarded officer and cut the medal from the ribbon. Then, in a public ceremony, they would call the deserving mercenary forward and, palming the medal, shake his hand, passing it to the soldier as a way of indirectly thanking him for his service.

Special Forces Coins

Challenge coins began to catch on during the Vietnam War. The first coins from this era were created by either the Army's 10th or 11th Special Forces Group and were little more than common currency with the unit’s insignia stamped on one side, but the men in the unit carried them with pride.

More importantly, though, it was a lot safer than the alternative—bullet clubs, whose members carried a single unused bullet at all times. Many of these bullets were given as a reward for surviving a mission, with the idea that it was now a “last resort bullet,” to be used on yourself instead of surrendering if defeat seemed imminent. Of course carrying a bullet was little more than a show of machismo, so what started off as handgun or M16 rounds, soon escalated to .50 caliber bullets, anti-aircraft rounds, and even artillery shells in an effort to one-up each other.

Unfortunately, when these bullet club members presented “The Challenge” to each other in bars, it meant they were slamming live ammunition down on the table. Worried that a deadly accident might occur, command banned the ordnance, and replaced it with limited edition Special Forces coins instead. Soon nearly every unit had their own coin, and some even minted commemorative coins for especially hard-fought battles to hand out to those who lived to tell the tale.

President (and Vice President) Challenge Coins

Starting with Bill Clinton, every president has had his own challenge coin and, since Dick Cheney, the vice president has had one, too.

There are usually a few different Presidential coins—one for the inauguration, one that commemorates his administration, and one available to the general public, often in gift shops or online. But there's one special, official presidential coin that can only be received by shaking the hand of the most powerful man in the world. As you can probably guess, this is the rarest and most sought-after of all challenge coins.

The President can hand out a coin at his own discretion, but they are usually reserved for special occasions, military personnel, or foreign dignitaries. It’s been said that George W. Bush reserved his coins for injured soldiers coming back from the Middle East. President Obama hands them out fairly often, most notably to soldiers that man the stairs on Air Force One.

Beyond the Military

Challenge coins are now being used by many different organizations. In the federal government, everyone from Secret Service agents to White House staff to the President's personal valets have their own coins. Probably the coolest coins are those for White House Military Aides—the people who carry the atomic football—whose coins are, naturally, in the shape of a football.

However, thanks in part to custom coin companies online, everyone’s getting in on the tradition. Today, it’s not uncommon for police and fire departments to have coins, as do many civic organizations, such as the Lions Club and the Boy Scouts. Even the Star Wars cosplayers of the 501st Legion, Harley Davidson riders, and Linux users have their own coins. Challenge coins have become a long-lasting, highly-collectible way to show your allegiance anytime, anyplace.

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Food
The Gooey History of the Fluffernutter Sandwich

Open any pantry in New England and chances are you’ll find at least one jar of Marshmallow Fluff. Not just any old marshmallow crème, but Fluff; the one manufactured by Durkee-Mower of Lynn, Massachusetts since 1920, and the preferred brand of the northeast. With its familiar red lid and classic blue label, it's long been a favorite guilty pleasure and a kitchen staple beloved throughout the region.

This gooey, spreadable, marshmallow-infused confection is used in countless recipes and found in a variety of baked goods—from whoopie pies and Rice Krispies Treats to chocolate fudge and beyond. And in the beyond lies perhaps the most treasured concoction of all: the Fluffernutter sandwich—a classic New England treat made with white bread, peanut butter, and, you guessed it, Fluff. No jelly required. Or wanted.

There are several claims to the origin of the sandwich. The first begins with Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere—or, not Paul exactly, but his great-great-great-grandchildren Emma and Amory Curtis of Melrose, Massachusetts. Both siblings were highly intelligent and forward-thinkers, and Amory was even accepted into MIT. But when the family couldn’t afford to send him, he founded a Boston-based company in the 1890s that specialized in soda fountain equipment.

He sold the business in 1901 and used the proceeds to buy the entire east side of Crystal Street in Melrose. Soon after he built a house and, in his basement, he created a marshmallow spread known as Snowflake Marshmallow Crème (later called SMAC), which actually predated Fluff. By the early 1910s, the Curtis Marshmallow Factory was established and Snowflake became the first commercially successful shelf-stable marshmallow crème.

Although other companies were manufacturing similar products, it was Emma who set the Curtis brand apart from the rest. She had a knack for marketing and thought up many different ways to popularize their marshmallow crème, including the creation of one-of-a-kind recipes, like sandwiches that featured nuts and marshmallow crème. She shared her culinary gems in a weekly newspaper column and radio show. By 1915, Snowflake was selling nationwide.

During World War I, when Americans were urged to sacrifice meat one day a week, Emma published a recipe for a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich. She named her creation the "Liberty Sandwich," as a person could still obtain his or her daily nutrients while simultaneously supporting the wartime cause. Some have pointed to Emma’s 1918 published recipe as the earliest known example of a Fluffernutter, but the earliest recipe mental_floss can find comes from three years prior. In 1915, the confectioners trade journal Candy and Ice Cream published a list of lunch offerings that candy shops could advertise beyond hot soup. One of them was the "Mallonut Sandwich," which involved peanut butter and "marshmallow whip or mallo topping," spread on lightly toasted whole wheat bread.

Another origin story comes from Somerville, Massachusetts, home to entrepreneur Archibald Query. Query began making his own version of marshmallow crème and selling it door-to-door in 1917. Due to sugar shortages during World War I, his business began to fail. Query quickly sold the rights to his recipe to candy makers H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower in 1920. The cost? A modest $500 for what would go on to become the Marshmallow Fluff empire.

Although the business partners promoted the sandwich treat early in the company’s history, the delicious snack wasn’t officially called the Fluffernutter until the 1960s, when Durkee-Mower hired a PR firm to help them market the sandwich, which resulted in a particularly catchy jingle explaining the recipe.

So who owns the bragging rights? While some anonymous candy shop owner was likely the first to actually put the two together, Emma Curtis created the early precursors and brought the concept to a national audience, and Durkee-Mower added the now-ubiquitous crème and catchy name. And the Fluffernutter has never lost its popularity.

In 2006, the Massachusetts state legislature spent a full week deliberating over whether or not the Fluffernutter should be named the official state sandwich. On one side, some argued that marshmallow crème and peanut butter added to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The history-bound fanatics that stood against them contended that the Fluffernutter was a proud culinary legacy. One state representative even proclaimed, "I’m going to fight to the death for Fluff." True dedication, but the bill has been stalled for more than a decade despite several revivals and subsequent petitions from loyal fans.

But Fluff lovers needn’t despair. There’s a National Fluffernutter Day (October 8) for hardcore fans, and the town of Somerville, Massachusetts still celebrates its Fluff pride with an annual What the Fluff? festival.

"Everyone feels like Fluff is part of their childhood," said self-proclaimed Fluff expert and the festival's executive director, Mimi Graney, in an interview with Boston Magazine. "Whether born in the 1940s or '50s, or '60s, or later—everyone feels nostalgic for Fluff. I think New Englanders in general have a particular fondness for it."

Today, the Fluffernutter sandwich is as much of a part of New England cuisine as baked beans or blueberry pie. While some people live and die by the traditional combination, the sandwich now comes in all shapes and sizes, with the addition of salty and savory toppings as a favorite twist. Wheat bread is as popular as white, and many like to grill their sandwiches for a touch of bistro flair. But don't ask a New Englander to swap out their favorite brand of marshmallow crème. That’s just asking too Fluffing much.

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The Hospital in the Rock
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History
Budapest’s Former Top-Secret Hospital Inside a Cave
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The Hospital in the Rock

At the top of a hill in Budapest, overlooking the Danube River, sits Buda Castle, a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site visited by thousands of tourists every year. Directly underneath the castle, however, lies a less-frequented tourist attraction: a series of ancient, naturally formed caves with a colorful and sometimes disturbing history.

The entire cave system is over six miles long, and most of that has been left unchanged since it was used as cold storage (and a rumored dungeon) in the Middle Ages. Between 1939 and 2008, however, a half-mile stretch of those caves was built up and repurposed many times over. Known as Sziklakorhaz or The Hospital in the Rock, its many uses are a testament to the area’s involvement in World War II and the Cold War.

At the start of World War II, the location served as a single-room air raid center, but operating theaters, corridors, and wards were quickly added to create a much-needed hospital. By early 1944, the hospital had officially opened inside the cave, tending to wounded Hungarian and Nazi soldiers. After less than a year of operation, the facility found itself facing its largest challenge—the Siege of Budapest, which lasted seven weeks and was eventually won by Allied forces on their way to Berlin.

As one of the few area hospitals still operational, the Hospital in the Rock was well over capacity during the siege. Originally built to treat around 70 patients, close to 700 ended up crammed into the claustrophobic caves. The wounded lay three to a bed—if they were lucky enough to get a bed at all. Unsurprisingly, heat from all those bodies raised the ambient temperature to around 95°F, and smoking cigarettes was the number one way to pass the time. Add that to the putrid mix of death, decay, and infection and you’ve got an incredibly unpleasant wartime cocktail.

A recreation inside the museum. Image credit: The Hospital in the Rock 

After the siege, the Soviets took control of the caves (and Budapest itself) and gutted the hospital of most of its supplies. Between 1945 and 1948, the hospital produced a vaccination for typhus. As the icy grasp of the Cold War began to tighten, new wards were built, new equipment was installed, and the hospital was designated top-secret by the Soviets, referred to only by its official codename LOSK 0101/1.

Eleven years after facing the horrors of the Siege of Budapest, in 1956, the hospital hosted the casualties of another battle: The Hungarian Uprising. Thousands of Hungarians revolted against the Soviet policies of the Hungarian People’s Republic in a fierce, prolonged battle. Civilians and soldiers alike lay side-by-side in wards as surgeons attempted to save them. During the uprising, seven babies were also born in the hospital.

Surgeons lived on-site and rarely surfaced from the caves. The hospital’s chief surgeon at the time, Dr. András Máthé, famously had a strict "no amputation" rule, which seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but in the end reportedly saved many patients' lives. (Máthé also reportedly wore a bullet that he’d removed from a patient’s head on a chain around his neck.)

The Hospital in the Rock ceased normal operations in December 1956, after the Soviets squashed the uprising, as the Soviets had new plans for the caves. With the Cold War now in full swing, the still-secret site was converted into a bunker that could serve as a hospital in case of nuclear attack. Diesel engines and an air conditioning system were added in the early '60s, so that even during a blackout, the hospital could still function for a couple of days.

The Hospital in the Rock

The official plan for the bunker was as follows: In the event of a nuclear attack, a selection of doctors and nurses would retreat to the bunker, where they would remain for 72 hours. Afterward, they were to go out and search for survivors. Special quarantined rooms, showering facilities, and even a barbershop were on site for survivors brought back to the site. (The only haircut available to them, however, was a shaved head; radioactive material is notoriously difficult to remove from hair.)

Thankfully, none of these nuclear procedures were ever put into practice. But the hospital was never formally decommissioned, and it wasn’t relieved of its top-secret status until the mid-2000s. For a while, it was still being used as a storage facility by Hungary’s Civil Defense Force. The bunker was maintained by a nearby family, who were sworn to secrecy. In 2004, it was decided that responsibility for the site fell solely on St. John’s Hospital in Budapest, who were seen as the de facto owners in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By 2008 the bunker was renovated, refurbished, and ready to be opened to the public. Today it operates as a museum, with exhibits detailing life in the hospital from various periods of its history, as well as the history of combat medicine as a whole. The sobering hour-long walk around the hospital concludes with a cautionary gaze into the atrocities of nuclear attacks, with the final walk to the exit featuring a gallery of art created by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Another part of the caves beneath Buda Castle. Image credit:Sahil Jatana via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The caves beneath Buda Castle have certainly had a bumpy history, and walking through them now is chilling (and not just because they keep the temperature at around 60°F). A tour through the narrow, oppressive hallways is a glimpse at our narrowly avoided nuclear future—definitely a sobering way to spend an afternoon.

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