A lot of people have a stack of Sacagawea dollars in a sock drawer, not as some starter of their life-savings, but because the coins look collectible: their value is something more than what’s written on the front. We Americans haven’t experienced a gold-colored coin in quite some time, so the yellow metal dollar just doesn’t quite look like what we think of as money. Despite all the press, the buzz, the attempt at training US citizens to use the Sacagawea dollar as money, it didn’t quite hold.
While it’s illegal for anyone but the government to mint money, there’s a huge industry producing coins of all denominations and sizes. Most any coin-operated machine has the option to accept tokens of many sizes, shapes and weights. The variety of tokens available far exceeds that of national currency, now or ever made. Although collecting tokens fits into the general definition of numismatist – the coin collector – aficionados of these non-currency coins have taken their name from the word vecture, the technical term for tokens, and call themselves vecturists, while others prefer the term exonumia. When I was looking through my coins for examples to put in my article about the new dollars, I found I’m much more of a vecturist than I previously thought. I’ve got examples of quite a few types of non-monies:
Transportation Tokens are the most common and widespread form of alternative currencies, dating back to the early 20th century in the US. These tokens usually have a cut-out in the center, sometimes just a ‘dot’ like my Fargo MAT bus token from 1980, or have complicated geometric shapes like stars and letters. From buses to subways, custom coins for transportation were minted for cities all across the US. As time passed, fares changed rates and new coins were minted, causing obsolescence as the fare machines ate or jammed on the coins, or the coins were melted down and re-minted or sold as scrap.
Gaming tokens are more common since the origins of 1980s video game arcades, but extend back as far as coin-operated games have existed. Some, like the current Chuck E Cheese tokens, are the size of a quarter (their usual equivalent value), but a more common size is just a little smaller. Eurocoin and other companies make generic tokens without any identifying features, but many arcades opt to have their logos imprinted in them. It’s not limited to large chains: the dark token pictured on the lower left belonged to a very small arcade called JR’s in Fargo, ND that operated in the back half of the Mom’s Kitchen diner on Main Avenue. Chains like Chuck E Cheese alter their coin designs regularly, creating a desire for collectors, while the scarcity of small or long-gone arcades makes for rarity. Their size and value usually doesn’t change, so it’s possible for older coins to sometimes appear in the arcade change machines.
Casino tokens are issued by these grown-up arcades to drop into the coin-operated games or bet at the card tables. Younger players might not recognize that the unwieldy size of casino dollar tokens matches that of the Eisenhower silver dollar, which was discontinued in 1978. Other coins, like the commemorative “Calamity Jane” Deadwood coin pictured, are around the size of a poker chip. Because visiting a casino is often an event, and their tokens have a far greater value than a bus fare or video game, these coins are usually more detailed and higher quality. Clay chips from casinos are also collectible, for much the same reason.
These are the most common tokens that have found their way through my fingers — and ended up on top of the dryer after almost going through the laundry — but tokens have been issued for hundreds of years for an innumerable variety of purposes. In many economies where the value of the national currency has been difficult to fix, individual stores have issued tokens redeemable only for their own purchases, and monopolistic industries have paid their employees in interal currency which can only be redeemed at company-owned stores. In other cases, tokens have been issued as money-proxies to encourage spending, such as the Walgreen’s “Prosperity Token” pictured here, which was worth 10¢ off a quart of ice cream. These kinds of tokens are often referred to as “trade tokens,” as they work like a coupon and are only traded for products or discounts. I remember, from my childhood, the Country Kitchen chain of restaurants once issued small aluminum coins with the children’s menu, redeemable for a trinket at the end of the meal. Sambo’s restaurant issued the humorous ‘wooden nickel’, redeemable for a cup of coffee. Substitute coins have been around for a long time, giving collectors an endless source of items to get their hands on.
You may have noticed that I included a Sacagawea dollar in each photo as a size reference — if you didn’t, then you may understand why most people treat the Sacagawea dollar as something other than money. We’ve seen brassy and gold coins for decades, but have been taught that they belong in the subway turnstile or the casino one-armed bandit. Our opinion of money isn’t entirely shaped by what we take to the bank by the bucketful, but also by the coins that pass through our hands, from time to time, that only have value at one place or another. While tokens can be used at a particular place, our dollars don’t have the immediate recognition of a casino logo or animatronic rodent impressed in it’s obverse, confusing its purpose. Collecting money, whether it’s backed by government gold or not, revolves around the knowledge that it’s worth something anyway. That value isn’t always apparent, like a generic arcade token, but to a collector, there’s significant value if the coin fills a lonely, empty spot in an incomplete collection.