An Introduction to Collecting Antique Saloon Tokens
Authentic Saloon Tokens
Token Databases and Collector's Sites
- The Token and Medal Society
The Token and Medal Society, also known as TAMS, has its official web site here. The society hosts a 16,000 item maverick token database.
- NTCA - National Token Collectors Association - Home
The National Token Collectors Association (NTCA) is an educational, nonprofit, collector organization to further the hobby of collecting merchant trade tokens.
- Richard's Token Database
A searchable online Token catalog. The Public Catalog is available to all visitors. This is a user contribution site and tokens from all states are being added. This site has over 130 thousand tokens and continues to grow.
Long before the phrase "don't take any wooden nickels" was coined, saloons throughout the western United States, up the Yukon territories and through Alaska minted their own currency. Saloon tokens created for saloons were born out of the barter system that characterized the unsettled and sometimes uncivilized territories of the old west. Saloon owners returned change for their patrons' payments of real money for goods and services with tokens, which were "good for" drinks only at that saloon. Saloon patrons returned to use the tokens in lieu of real money.
These tokens, which were generally "good for" the goods and services at a specific place of business, were commonly used for business transactions in saloons all across the Western United States, according to one expert, beginning as early as the 1700s and lasting through the beginning of the 20th century when prohibition brought legal activities at saloons to a dead standstill.
Today, saloon tokens (a subset of bar tokens or pub tokens) are sought-after collectibles and hold a solid market in the coin-collecting world. Token-collecting is a subset of monetary coin-collecting—that is, coins and paper money used as legal tender—and has an avid following among history buffs, collectors of American Western memorabilia, and token and coin collectors. Tokens are classified as exonumia, a term that denotes the token's non-monetary nature. As an interesting aside, other forms of exonumia include military medals, tokens used in business to exchange for goods and services such as for carwashes or subway fares, commemorative coins, and personal tokens used to identify group affiliations, such as members of the Freemasons.
Saloon tokens are a type of trade token, a token used by businesses in exchange for a service. In the early 21st century, businesses that use tokens are less prevalent, but still exist. Modern day businesses that use tokens include car washes, pizza parlors, toll booths, parking garages and casinos.
Tokens were big business in the late 19th century and early 20th century, and were used by reputable businesses, not just saloons. My fascination with the especially interesting sub-specialization of token collecting was piqued by the obvious ties of saloon tokens to the fascinating American West and its lore.
I first saw a saloon token collection at a special exhibit of saloon memorabilia on loan to the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona. The small, framed collection of antique saloon tokens caught my eye, and my imagination ran wild. They were made from different materials and were different shapes and sizes, but all of them had the distinctive patina of history that exuded "old west."
Why were tokens needed?
In the late 19th and early 20th century, money just couldn't travel quickly into the remote locales that needed it. Banks had to send money on stage coaches like the ones used in Wells Fargo advertisements, and by the Pony Express. Even though many goods were transported by train as the west was settled, boom and bust cycles sent large numbers of men and fewer women into some undeveloped territories in Alaska, Arizona, California, and other remote parts of the American West. Many of the people who settled the American West were poor, if not penniless. As more people flooded the countryside with less money in their pockets, it was only a matter of time before circulating money became scarce.
Another factor that comes into play is where these saloons are often found. The answer is mining camps. Mining companies in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and other states would hire miners and put them on payroll. The miners then bought their food from a company grocery store, and often bought supplies needed to do their jobs from the mining company. These expenses were deducted from miner's pay. This system, commonly used by mines in the late 19th century, was called paying by scrip. The result was not much legal tender cash flowing through the mining community. So the saloon owners, grocery stores, and dairy owners did what they had to do--they coined their own tokens to expedite trade for their goods and services, and keep the money out of the pocket of the mining companies.
Tokens are like puzzle pieces that tell the story of the place where they originated. They bear the names of the saloons and sometimes their proprietors. Tokens that clearly identify a city and state of origin are more valuable, because they can be tied to a historical provenance. In other words, it is easier to determine from historical records and business paper trails if tokens with an easy-to-identify place of origin are authentic. Tokens can make history come alive.
When were saloon tokens used?
Authentic saloon tokens were "minted" during the heyday of western saloons, roughly from about 1870 to 1910--earlier in some locales, and later in others. The wild west is riddled with ghost towns that emerged from the activities of mining camps and mining companies, but also were found in more settled areas in Old Mexico and the Western United States, like El Paso, Fort Worth, and select cities in California. Some cities in Texas and other areas of the American West were "dry" towns, meaning that it was illegal to run a saloon in those locales. I searched for saloon tokens from Abilene, Texas, one of these dry towns, and found nothing.
With a finite supply of authentic tokens, copycat tokens have emerged for the tourist trade. You can find copycat tokens sold in places like Bisbee, Arizona, and anywhere a tourist trade exists for the old west.
Which tokens are most sought after by collectors?
Authentic tokens that identify the name of a saloon, a town and state, and sometimes even the saloon's business owner, are highly desirable. Some locales are much more sought after than others by collectors of mining memorabilia or western memorabilia.
Token collecting, as in coin collecting, relies upon supply and demand. Rare tokens are more desirable and more expensive, but the popularity of the mining camp, ghost town, or town, or city, also add to the token's collecting value. For example, tokens from towns like Tombstone, Arizona are highly desirable, due to the legendary history that surrounds that town. These tokens are called territorial tokens.
Tokens with ties to the legends of Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, and other outlaws have considerable value to collectors of western memorabilia in general, so the market for these authentic tokens is greater. Token-collecting expert Richard Greever, runs Richard's Token Database. (See my link on the sidebar). In this database you can view images of tokens from all over the United States. His database includes all kinds of exonumismatic tokens, not just saloon tokens. When you use his database, limit the search by typing "saloon" in the database. If you are interested in broadening the scope of your collection to include drink tokens from bars and hotels, you may want to browse the database, too, since hotel bars also used tokens, but are not technically considered saloon tokens.
Tokens that aren't easy to identify and don't have a place name stamped on the token are called mavericks. Dedicated collectors in the Token and Medal Society (TAMS) post images of these maverick tokens in online databases to help solve the mystery of these maverick tokens' origins. Richard's Token Database also has an area dedicated to mavericks.
Starting a Saloon Token Collection
So you want to begin a token collection? Start first by acquainting yourself with the tokens in the token-collecting databases. Get registered and become a member. You will become acquainted with other token collectors like yourself.
Next, join a token collecting society. The Token and Medal Society (TAMS) and National Token Collectors' Association (NTCA) sends out specialty token newsletters to its members. The newsletter, titled Talkin' Tokens put out by the NTCA is over 40 pages long and has specialty articles on tokens. A sample newsletter on the NTCA web site shows the membership dues to be worth the cost of the information in this newsletter alone.
Where can you get tokens to collect?
Get a subscription to the token collecting society's newsletters. Collectors advertise tokens for sale or trade in advertisements in these periodicals. This is a specialized hobby, and token collecting periodicals have an audience of interested token collectors.
Many tokens are sold by dealers on Ebay and other auction sites, such as the one run by Holabird- Kagin auctioneers. And occasionally, tokens become available at live auctions, too. Auctions of western items are advertised in local newspapers like that of Wickenburg Arizona's local paper in the classified section, with auction activity increasing in the springtime. Most auction companies post auction information online, and some even post auction catalogs before the auction, or host their auctions online.
- A special thanks to Richard Greever, Fred Holabird, Jerry Adams, and Linda Lantin, who granted me permission to use images from their excellent token collections for my article.
- This article was the result of approximately three months of research, and the token images used were by permission of the owners. These images are the copyright of their owners.