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As Good As Little ‘Bits,’ Tokens Were a Big Hit

By Rita Ackerman
5/15/2018 • Wild West Magazine

In saloons, tokens were convenient and valuable.

Tokens, coinlike objects that have a stated or implied value in trade, originated in the Ancient World, were used in Colonial America and are sometimes still used today in arcades, slot machines, car washes and video games. On the Western frontier, where minted coins were scarce and drawing customers was often highly competitive, tokens were especially popular.

For early pioneers and settlers, dealing with the shortage of coins was a challenge, which they met with their usual ingenious methods. One practice was to cut silver dollars or similar denomination foreign coins into pie-shaped pieces for making change. Since the currency was usually cut into eighths, one bit was worth 12 ½ cents. Two bits were worth 25 cents, four bits 50 cents and six bits 75 cents. Because there was no one-bit coin in circulation, a 10-cent piece (dime) was sometimes called a short bit.

In saloons, two bits were good for two drinks, a good cigar or a “smile” (a 2 ½-ounce bottle of whiskey). A cheap cigar or beer was 5 cents and a game of pool was usually 2 ½ cents. When a customer ordered a 12 ½-cent drink and paid with a quarter, he had the choice of receiving a dime in change or a token for another drink at 12 ½ cents. He would rarely pass on that second drink. Since the token was only good in that particular establishment, he hung around and spent his token, and probably a few more quarters as well. If a token wasn’t redeemed, the proprietor made even more money, as it only cost him 2 to 4 cents to have one made.

Tokens were also used for advertising. After the Civil War, when Texas Longhorns were driven to the railheads in Kansas for shipment east and saloons flourished in the various cow towns, saloon owners sent drummers along the trails to distribute tokens. When the cowboys reached the end of the trail, they had tokens in their pockets as well as cash. They would use their tokens to get free drinks and, hopefully for the proprietors, buy many more drinks in the same establishments.

Saloons weren’t the only Western businesses that regularly took advantage of tokens. Groceries, bakeries and ice companies all provided tokens. There were tokens for a ride on a streetcar, a meal, a shave and a bath. In fact, the earliest tokens in the West were issued by the traders connected to the military posts and date as early as 1860.

Besides being used for giving change or for advertising purposes, tokens were used to help keep track of bartered goods and services. A farmer brought in his vegetables or eggs to sell and received tokens in return. This made bookkeeping easier for the merchant, assured a customer since the farmer could only use the token in that store and helped the farmer to monitor his account. Proprietors also used tokens to give discounts, much like coupons today.

Token manufacturers sent out drummers with catalogs to show to the businessmen along their routes. From the catalog, the proprietor chose a size (somewhere between a nickel and a silver dollar), shape (circle with or without scallops, square, octagon, “guitar pick” or anything else) and the type of metal (brass, copper, zinc and after 1893, aluminum).

One side of the token usually had the name of the proprietor, the business name and type and the location (town, state or territory). The flip side gave the amount either in value or as trade: i.e., “good for one drink” or “good for one game of pool.” Decorations and pictures were also included in the design.

After the company received the order (usually a minimum of 100 tokens, sometimes as many as 1,000 tokens), a die was cut. Dies show the information in mirror image and are valued by collectors. Some tokens were punched with a hole or design to make it possible for the bartender to put them on a spindle behind the bar. Business owners in the Wild West were nothing if not ingenious.

Some of the companies that made tokens were the Los Angeles Rubber Stamp Company, L.H. Moise and C.A. Klinkner of San Francisco and the N.W. Stampworks of St. Paul, Minn. Some manufacturers—one of the biggest was Brunswick, Balke & Collender—provided tokens to the businesses they supplied.

John M. Brunswick opened his billiard table manufacturing company in Chicago in 1848. In 1874 he merged with Julius Balke and 10 years later with H.W. Collender to become Brunswick, Balke & Collender. The company also supplied saloon fixtures and other necessities to saloon owners. Their tokens had the name of the manufacturer and a picture of a pool table on one side and the name of the local saloon or billiard parlor with the value amount on the other. For example:


“Brunswick” tokens are popular with collectors. The Bellingham Bay Brewery, or 3B, of Washington state also supplied tokens to their customers with the offer of a free drink, thus advertising their beer and giving the local proprietor some new customers.

Exonumists, or token collectors, often specialize in tokens from a certain type of business (bakery, confectionery, restaurant, etc.). Saloon tokens are popular, and the time from the end of the Civil War to about 1900 is considered the Saloon Token Era. Saloon tokens continued in use until Prohibition in 1919, and some proprietors brought them back after the law was abolished, but not to the same extent. Others collect tokens from a certain locality, such as their hometown, or ghost towns of a certain state. Tokens that don’t state a location are called “mavericks,” and the research it takes to place a token or learn about the business adds to the challenge. But most states—including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas— have books published showing a catalog of the known tokens, sometimes accompanied by photographs and brief histories. There are also books on the different varieties of tokens, as well as many Internet sites with token information.

As in collecting most anything, the field is replete with fakes and fantasies. According to collector John T. Hamilton III, brothel tokens that state a definite purpose in bawdy terms are usually fantasies. As many saloons were connected to brothels, they might have given out tokens with a specific service in mind, but it wouldn’t have been stated as blatantly as on a fantasy. There are also counterfeits, which are duplicates of tokens actually used in the past. These are often available at souvenir shops. To learn more about tokens and meet others interested in buying and selling pieces of their collections, people can join such organizations as the Token and Medal Society, the American Numismatic Association or the Civil War Token Society.

Tokens circulated widely in the Old West for a variety of reasons—to provide change where coins were relatively scarce, to provide convenience for unusual amounts such as 12 ½ cents, to provide a discount or extend credit, to advertise and to bring customers back to a particular establishment. Collecting tokens can give someone a hands-on link to the Wild West, although it is doubtful that any road agent who cried, “Throw down your strongbox!” was ever looking for tokens instead of gold.


Wild West Magazine readers interested in tokens are invited to write John T. Hamilton III, Box 2619, Palm Beach, FL 22480 or visit the Web site tokenguy/tokentales/index.htm.

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here

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