We are all obsessed with small change. Virtually every cash transaction involves cents, nickels and dimes. We hoard them in a jar, roll them and haul them to the bank. The coins that are currently used in the United States have been tokenized, that is the coins are no longer legal tender but convenient counters. Only Federal Reserve notes are currently legal tender for any financial purpose, that is, you can’t pay your taxes with change and such payments can be refused by other entities such as the power company or the mortgage company.
The reversal of roles between paper money and coins is probably a conscious effort by governing powers to supersede the use of private coinage that sprung up when governments failed to supply enough small change for commerce.
A bit of history:
The Ancient Romans were late in adopting coinage as a replacement for barter. The Romans were copiers and improvers of the technology of others and were disturbed by the seemingly chaos of the competing, Greek precious metal systems. When the Romans adopted coinage, they were determined that the coins would be intrinsic and fit into an orderly system. The “small change” coins were copper Aes Graves, so big they would break your toe if you dropped one and they certainly wouldn’t fit in your tunic. People readily adopted the smaller, base metal, token coinage of the As, dupondius and sestertius as a convenience as long as they could be converted to silver denari and gold aurei.
The British under George III (1760-1820) were totally distracted by their problems with the colonies, the French and longitude (whole fleets were crashing into the rocks), to notice that small change wasn’t being produced for the needs of domestic commerce. Out of desperation, storekeepers would make change with the counters they used to settle accounts, (Math was still often performed with Roman numerals. Counters, also called “jetons”, were placed on a two dimensional abacus to figure change). Jetons or counters were simply round disks but they eventually evolved to tokens with the name of the store and even became a vehicle for political messages. James Condor cataloged these interesting tokens in 1798 and today these British tokens are called “Condor” tokens in his honor.
In the United States, coin hoarding occurred during the “Hard Times” period (1832-1844) during the Presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) when he successfully blocked the renewal of the charter of the Bank of the United States and during the Civil War (1861-1865). The people compensated by creating copper penny tokens of their own. The U.S. government’s switch from the copper nickel cent to bronze in 1864, was an effort to supplant “illegal” token coinage.
During the Depression years, after 1929, many States issued sales tax tokens. Times were hard and sales tax often came to a fraction of a cent. Instead of rounding up, tokens in mils (10 mils= 1 cent) were offered in change, that is, if your bill with tax came to 10.2 cents you would tender 11 cents and receive 8 mils in change that could be used for future purchases. These tokens are often seen in plastic, metal and cardboard and from States such as Missouri, New Mexico and Alabama.
The government is constantly looking for competing token coinage; its experience in earlier eras has them watchful. Not too long ago, Las Vegas gambling tokens had become so generalized that they were being used interchangeably at any casino, not only for gambling, but also for any purpose in this city. This practice was quashed.
Is there a future for tokens? I’m waiting for the Dolly Parton memorial, Master Card, Plastic dollar – in high relief, of course!