Trade tokens have been used as far back as Roman times, and in the United States, as recently as in the era of mining towns. These unique pieces are rare and highly collectible.
Trade tokens, sometimes referred to as “minor coinage,” are defined as coins lacking the intrinsic value of gold and silver, with a stated value of $1 or less.
Tokens were used as a substitute medium of exchange because of the scarcity of coin. The Roman Empire used a spintria, a Roman token used to pay for services in brothels.
In the United States, tokens were used during the Colonial era, the 1830s “Hard Times” era and during the Civil War.
The influx of prospectors to California and the West in the 1850s brought about increased demand for gold, silver and minor coinage.
Company stores and independent businesses often used trade tokens as a medium of exchange in Western mining towns and camps. The tokens were used the most between 1870 and 1930 with the expansion of stores that extended credit to their customers.
This unofficial money was also issued by mining companies as payment to their employees with the expectation that it would be used to buy things at company stores.
Tokens were a preferred method of payment in the company store or business that issued them for several reasons. First, they could only be redeemed at the place of issuance. Second, they acted as a secure substitute for gold and silver coin for stores operating in remote areas with little, if any, law enforcement. Third, if they were not redeemed, they were a financial gain for the business that issued them.
In Arizona, businesses that used tokens included saloons, mercantile stores, restaurants and pool halls. Arizona tokens usually included the name of the town. The acronym “A.T.” or “ARIZ.TY.” was used as an identifying mark signifying Arizona Territory, which represented the years between 1863 and 1912.
Tokens that lacked a defined locality or town are called “mavericks,” while others focused on advertising are known as “store cards.”
Trade tokens were manufactured using base metals such as brass, copper, nickel and aluminum. Company stores and businesses ordered them from several different die-sinking firms, including the Los Angeles Rubber Stamp Co., Patrick & Co., L.H. Moise founded in 1893 and C.A. Klinker & Co. based in San Francisco.
Although Moise bought Klinker in 1897, the Moise-Klinker Co. produced tokens under both names until 1904.
These companies often included their maker’s mark at the lower base on the obverse — or face — of the token while others left no mark. Many tokens are identifiable by their raised letters and numbers, while others are identified with incuse (sunken) lettering.
Tokens were manufactured in a variety of shapes, including octagonal, scalloped and triangular, but in most cases, circular. The cost to manufacture a token ranged from four to eight cents each, depending upon its size and denomination.
Usually, a minimum order of 100 tokens was required.
Tokens came in denominations of 5 cents, 10 cents, 12ƒ cents, 25 cents, 50 cents and a dollar, usually increasing in size as the value increased.
A common Western token may have had a count of only 50, in contrast to a rare token that had between five and 10 manufactured. This was due to the ephemeral duration of many Western mining camps and the tendency for extra tokens to be recycled at smelters.
The scarcity of tokens and their diverse history drives a market for today’s collectors.