Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Don’t Take Any Wooden Nickels

QUESTION: I was recently cleaning out drawers in my mother’s house after her death and came across a bunch of coins with the slogan “Millions for Defense, But Not One Cent for Tribute” impressed on one side. On the other side is the Liberty Head and the words ONE CENT. At first glance these look like pennies but are larger. What can you tell me about them?

ANSWER: What you have aren’t coins but tokens. Like the famous wooden nickels, merchants used tokens as a way to promote their businesses and some commemorated events. By 1900, tokens had become a common type of coinage by which merchants not only advertised, but created good will and repeat business. The token was in effect a pledge redeemable in goods but not necessarily for currency.

Tokens are coin-like objects used instead of coins and either have a denomination shown or implied by size, color or shape. The use of tokens dates back to Roman times. Back then, the Romans used coin-like objects called spintria to gain entrance to brothels and gaming establishments.

Medieval English monasteries issued tokens to pay for services from outsiders. Residents of nearby villages called these tokens "Abbot's money."

Though token manufacturers usually made them of cheaper metals, such as  copper, pewter, aluminum, brass, and tin, they also used fiber, bakelite, leather, porcelain, and wood.

Sometimes called merchant tokens or “good fors,” American trade tokens originated during the late 18th century, when early circuses produced them for admission to their performances. In the 1820s, manufacturers began commercially producing tokens and this led to a greater demand.

In July, 1836 Congress enacted President Andrew Jackson's "specie circular" law, requiring specie—that is, gold or silver—to be used to pay for government land. This caused people to believe that paper currency, at the time issued by state banks, was unsound. As more and more people began using specie, regular coins disappeared from circulation.

To make it easier for individuals to trade for goods, business men and various organizations began issuing tokens that could be used instead of coins. These tokens became a substitute for one-cent pieces, since they had the same metallic content and size. The token designs could be divided into four categories: those that mentioned the bank and the banking crisis; those that were satirical and sarcastic, the political cartoons of the day; those that were made in imitation of real money; and those issued by enterprising merchants carrying advertising.

The Hard Times tokens of the 1830s and 1840s continued to make merchant tokens popular. During the Civil War, tokens again came into wide use because of the coin shortages caused by it. After the war, merchants once again issued tokens and people continued to use these “good fors” to trade for goods.

Among the many tokens made in imitation of the coins driven from circulation were a number using the phrase, "Millions for Defense, but Not One Cent for Tribute." These tokens bore the familiar Liberty Head and on the reverse the wording was strategically placed to have an enlarged ONE CENT appear as it would on government issued coins. The phrase, "Millions for Defense, but Not One Cent for Tribute," was a rallying cry for America on two occasions in history.

Besides Civil War tokens, there were also wooden tokens, transportation tokens for bridges, toll roads, ferries, and the like, gaming tokens, political tokens, as well as those used by magicians for admission to their acts, churches for permission to receive communion, tokens for telephones, and to pay sales tax. Elongated coins—often pennies pressed flat and made smooth on one side to take etchings of the Lord’s Prayer, Scouts’ oath, and club insignias also were popular.

All kinds of merchants issued tokens for use in their own businesses, including general stores, grocers, department stores, dairies, meat markets, drug stores, saloons, bars, taverns, barbers, coal mines, lumber mills and many other businesses. The era of 1870 through 1920 marked the highest use of "trade tokens" in the country, spurred by the growth of small stores in rural areas.

Railways and public transportation agencies used fare tokens for years, to sell rides in advance at a discount, or to allow patrons to use turnstiles that only to took them. The use of transit tokens in America began in 1831, when John Gibbs issued them for use on his U.S.M. stage in New Jersey. The 1830s saw tokens used on horsecars and horse-drawn omnibuses. By 1897, the U.S. had its first subway in Boston, and in 1904 the New York subway system opened. Ferry, bus, and streetcar companies also produced tokens often out of cheap white metal, aluminum, or more costly bronze. Most of them featured cutouts in the shapes of letters to differentiate them from other coins.

Some churches used to give tokens to members passing a religious test prior to the day of communion, then required the token for entry. Most of these were pewter, often cast by the minister using the church’s own molds.

But probably the most well-known token is the wooden nickel. Merchants and banks gave them to their customers to redeem for a specific item, usually a drink. On December 5, 1931, during the Great Depression, the Citizen’s Bank of Tenino, Washington, failed and issued emergency currency printed on thin shingles of wood. Local merchants couldn’t get change without traveling 30 miles over mountainous roads which took four hours one way.  So the bank, at the insistence of the Chamber of Commerce, decided to issue it’s own money, some of which was in five-cent denominations.

The Chicago World's Fair in 1933 issued wooden nickels as souvenirs, and the tradition of wooden nickels as tokens and souvenirs was born. The phrase, "Don't take any wooden nickels," reminds people to be cautious in their business dealings since some unscrupulous characters tried to use them in their dealings with people.

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