Thursday, February 24, 2011

Saloon and Brothel Tokens

I'm Sandra Crowley, writer of contemporary romantic suspense. So, what am I doing as a member of this blog that specializes in The Wild West, The Old West, the just plain but still fascinating west? Well, I live in Colorado. My stories take place in various western states. John Wayne is my favorite actor. LOL OK, maybe that's hokey, but I don't care. I'm a half a bubble off plumb, and I like it that way. That's why my husband wasn't the least bit surprised when I bought three saloon/brothel tokens years ago.

Experts say that beginning in the 1700s and lasting through the early 1900s, when prohibition halted legal activities at saloons, establishments in the western United States, through the Yukon territories, and into Alaska minted their own currencies known as saloon tokens. Born out of the barter system necessary within those raw lands these tokens are prized collectibles now. 
How could I afford three valuable "coins?" Well, my tokens belong in the fantasy, or reproduction classification. They're usually more explicit or bawdy in their claims. Prices for fantasy tokens offered on eBay run from a dollar or two up to ten. What they actually sell for is a good question. We keep ours as conversation pieces. They’re usually in our guest bathroom by the sink for the observant to discover and comment upon.
A real token would fetch a price somewhere in the hundreds or higher. Some have holes in the middle, are octagonal shaped, or even scalloped edged besides the mundane round my fake ones are. Most have a tender value listed: 12 ½ cents equaled one bit or the price of one drink. When a saloon patron paid real cash for his whiskey or “service”, the owner returned change in the form of the tokens he had made himself or had forged. This ensured the customer returned to his place of business since other establishments accepted only their privately minted “change.” Because of this non-monetary value, they are considered exonumia which also includes military medals, commemorative coins, and personal tokens like those used to identify group affiliations such as the Freemasons.
Why were saloon or brothel tokens needed in the Old West? Money couldn’t travel with the ease and speed of our current banking systems. Banks sent money on stage coaches or by Pony Express riders, time consuming adventures. As trains took their places, delivery became easier, quicker but still suffered delays and outright robbery that could cause disaster for a business owner caught without funds. Especially when increased westward travel of the poor and penniless further shortened circulation of money.
Another reason was that saloons and brothels clustered around mining camps. Mine owners hired workers, allowed them to buy supplies from the company owned stores, and then deducted those amounts from the miner’s wage. This system is called payment by scrip. Its popularity curtailed the flow of legal tender (dollars and cents) in mining communities. Some of you may remember one of my favorite songs, Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Its chorus describes this vicious circle. “You load sixteen tons, what do you get, Another day older and deeper in debt, Saint Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”
So, saloon and other business owners did what was necessary for their survival; they minted their own tokens for their customers to use in exchange for goods and services. That kept their money out of the control of the greedy mining companies.
I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into Old West economics. Happy Ridin' 


  1. Fun information Sandra! Something I didn't read in a book about saloons.

  2. Sandra--I loved your post! The pics of the brothel coins were neat and I think it's great that you collect them--how fun!

  3. SANDRA--I remember Sixteen Tons!Oh, and how I loved Tennessee Ernie Ford and his deep, rich voice.
    I'd never heard of these tokens, so I thank you for this bit of informtation.
    Interesting they were used most around mining sites, but it makes sense because these areas would often be more isolated than anything else.
    Funny coincidence about "scrip." I have book coming out soon that features a coal mine in Texas. Yes, Texas had coal mines when trains used coal to fire the engines. The workers got scrip--pieces of paper--to use in the company store in the town.

    When this book is released, I hope to do a post about the mining town in North Texas I used in the story. I'll bet few Texans know about this town!

  4. Sandy, terifffic post! I love your tokens. I have a reproduction around somewhere that we bought in San Angelo, TX when we visited the museum/former brothel. Fun post.

  5. Thanks all. I'm glad you enjoyed the post/pics. They really are fun trinkets representing what must have been hard times.

    Yes, Celia, Tennessee Ernie Ford did have the most wonderful voice. You say a coal mining town in NT? You have my curiosity aroused! Look forward to your post.

  6. Loved your post. Lots of cool information. The close up pictures were great. You must have some interesting conversations when your guest find the coins.

  7. LOVED seeing the pics of the tokens. That kind of stuff is right up my alley for research. I'll have to look those up on E-Bay. Yes, now I want one or three. LOL
    Thanks for a great post!

  8. Sandra,
    I had no idea. Interesting bit of info on the old west. :-)

  9. Hi Kathy, thanks for stopping by. Yes, the tokens have caused quite a stir on occasion. They've also revealed aspects of people's personalities that were complete surprises--good ones, thankfully. VBG

    Jennifer, I hope you find some awesome tokens you can start collecting. Good luck.

    Jeanmarie, good to "see" you. I'm glad you enjoyed.

  10. What a interesting post. I love tidbits of history.

    We have a token from ghost town we visited in Arizona. We took a tour of what was once the Saloon and they gave us a token.

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. What a cool post! Kind of gives a whole new meaning to the saying about "using your last free token"?

  12. Hi Sandra, Interesting post. I didn't know about the tokens but so remember Sixteen Tons. Sang it often back in the 1950s/60s.

  13. Karen, I'm so glad you stopped in. It's great the saloon gave you a token. I wonder if they have many tourists redeem them for something--a drink or trinket? Do you know?

    Maeve, ROFL

  14. Sandra,

    The Ghost town was Goldfield, Arizona and my husband corrected me. (lol) It was a brothel not the saloon that gave us the token. They encouraged us to give the token to someone and have them come back for a visit. The person returning the token would receive a special gift. Now, what that would be, I'm not sure. lol.

    We decided to keep the token. It was too cool to give away.

  15. Very interesting post. I grew up in a Colorado mining town (Ouray), and I've heard of these coins before. Never seen one, though.
    Great post!

  16. Hi Sandra,
    LOVED your post--I had no idea there were such things as saloon tokens! My husband is from West Virginia, and one year when we went back to visit, we went to Beckley to a working coal mine where they give tours. We went to the company store and they actually had old scrip for sale there. I wanted to buy a bunch of it because it just fascinated me, but ended up buying only 4 or 5 pieces of it. I remember Sixteen Tons. I was just a little girl when Tennessee Ernie Ford used to have his show on tv. Loved that man! Thanks for a wonderful post!

  17. Linda and Cheryl, I've belted out Sixteen Tons to the birds, bees, and cattle around here. I just don't get the applause Tennessee Ernie Ford always earned. I do miss him. I'd love to see his show revived on one of the retro channels.

    Cheryl, Are your scrip of different designs or similar but of various demoninations?

    Karen, I do wish you had gone for that "special gift." Wouldn't that be a tale? Still, congratulations on having your own "cool" token to build a collection around if you so desire.

    Thank you all for coming and letting me know what you think. Thank you especially for responding to my questions.

  18. D'Ann, It's always a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks for reminding me of Ouray--geez, right under my nose. When I have some time, I need to research its possibilities.

  19. What an interesting post! Who knew? Wouldn't it be exciting to get your hands on an original coin? Enjoyed the information.

  20. Thank you, Wendy. We think of these tokens as curiosity pieces, bits of treasure from times past.

    But, what did a woman feel when some man she didn't know handed her a real token-a pittance for the right to her body?

  21. I have a madame ruth jacobs original $3 token... Whats the value


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