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What is a Trade Token? by Al Erickson (1939-2009)

About 1885, merchants all over the United States started using a form of advertising called a trade token (or chit, or bingle, or "good for"). When a customer bought something, they were given a token that resembled a coin. On the obverse, the token gave such information as the name of the business, address, town, state, etc. On the reverse, something like "good for 5¢ in trade" or "good for 1 cigar" were often used. When the customer returned to the store, they were given credit or their purchase was discounted by the amount stated on the token.

The sizes, shapes and materials that were used to make trade tokens varied widely. The sizes ranged from smaller than a dime to larger than a silver dollar. Common shapes were round, square, scalloped, oval and rectangular. (The majority were round.) Although most tokens were bronze or aluminum, other materials such as paper, fiber, zinc, copper and bi-metals (bronze and aluminum) were also used.

The merchandise that the token was "good for" would make an interesting collection of its own. Some of the common "good fors" were in trade, in merchandise, in cash, a cigar, a pint or a quart of milk, a tune, a shave, and a drink. Many others such as 1 box of peaches, one card game, 1 pack of cranberries, one manicure and one loaf of bread are known.

Some collectors have assembled interesting collections of the different denominations represented on tokens. The most common would be "good for 5¢ in trade," with 2½¢, 6¼¢, 10¢, 12½¢, 25¢, 50¢ and $1.00 also reasonably common and easily found. Although many other denominations exist, they are harder to come by and often command a premium.

Most collectors have one or more particular topic they collect. Probably one of the first that many collectors choose is tokens from the town where they live. Cities such as Tacoma, Seattle or Spokane each have quite a few hundred different tokens and quite large collections of these cities are possible. Other towns such as Ashford, DuPont, Kapowsin, Parkland or Ruston had less tokens and can be harder to find.

Another favorite (and more difficult) topic is tokens from the towns in one or more counties such as Pierce, King or Thurston. Each county in the state might have 10 or 20 or 30 different towns that issued trade tokens. It will be easy to find tokens from some of the towns, but the smaller or extinct towns may prove much more difficult and challenging.

Another favorite is collecting one or more tokens from each town in the state. Washington State has about 900 different towns or locations that issued trade tokens. Tokens from many of the towns are easy to find, while others may be difficult or even unique. Other popular topics include saloons, military bases, dairies, bakeries, confectioneries, lumber companies and cigar stores. The possibilities are limited only by one’s imagination. Happy hunting!