My Recent Buy: A Grocery Store Charge Coin
“My Recent Buy” will be a regular feature in The Insider. What did you buy recently that brings a smile to your face? Share the object and your story with our readers. Send the story of your buy and two to four images to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your recent buy might appear in a future issue. This week we bring you a recent buy made by our very own expert, Harry Rinker.
A proprietary charge coin from the grocery store of Berkshire Knitting Mills located in Pennsylvania.
As a historian, I always have been fascinated by the concept of how merchants extended credit to their customers. Whether watching a movie featuring a general store scene or reviewing the entries in an eighteenth, nineteenth, or early twentieth-century merchant’s day book, it quickly becomes evident that not everyone paid cash. Merchants survived by extending credit. Throughout the nineteenth century, merchants extended credit to farmers and ranchers allowing them to avoid paying bills until their crops or animals were sold.
In the 1950s and 1960, my mother did the monthly billing for Prosser’s Drug Store, located on the southwest corner of Main and Depot streets in Hellertown, Pennsylvania. Prosser’s was a short jaunt up the hill from 55 West Depot Street where my family lived. I remember my mother sitting in the kitchen nook organizing the unpaid bills, writing summary statements for each customer, and getting them ready for mailing. My family paid cash or settled all bills on a monthly basis. This was not true for all of Prosser’s customers.
A Hess Brothers charge plate. The plate resembled a GI dog tag and was stored in a leather pouch with “Hess Brothers” embossed on it.
One of my youthful experiences was shopping at Hess Brothers in downtown Allentown, Pennsylvania. My mother had a Hess Brothers charge plate. The plate resembled a GI dog tag and was stored in a leather pouch with “Hess Brothers” embossed on it. When a purchase was made, the metal place was inserted in a device that printed the information from the plate onto the bill. Once a month, a Hess Brother’s bill arrived in the mail.
On February 16, 2019, during a visit to Hellertown, Linda and I visited with my cousin Bud Prosser and his wife Nancy. During our conversation, Nancy indicated she had a present for me. It was a Hess’s metal charge plate minus its leather carrying case. A person who knew I collected the strange and unusual gave it to her and asked her to pass it along to me if I was interested. I most definitely was even though the case was missing.
A wealth of Hess Brothers memories flooded my mind – the Christmas windows, Toy Land, the flower shows, the fashion shows, and eating Navy bean soup and the best strawberry pie in the world in the basement restaurant. There was no need to shop in Philadelphia when there was Hess Brothers.
In the late 1980s, I became fascinated with the history of credit cards. Bank-issued credit cards first appeared in 1946. Diner’s Club issued the first universal credit car in 1950. When American Express launched its first credit card in 1958, it issued paper credit cards the first year. The company was not certain the concept would catch on. The first American Express plastic credit card was issued in 1959.
Collecting involves tangible things. I quickly learned that credit coins preceded the metal charge plates. These coins could be used only in the department store, hotels, or oil company stations that issued the coins.
The first charge coins were issued in the second half of the 1860s. Initially, they were made of celluloid. Eventually, aluminum, copper, steel, and white metal were used. Most coins had the store logo or name above a strip with a number. Each customer had a different number.
Not all charge coins extended credit in the customary manner of today. In some cases, the holder of the coin deposited a sum of money with the store. Charges could be made against this sum. When exhausted, the holder of the coin was required to visit the store and make another deposit.
Charge coins came in a variety of shapes. In addition, some featured elaborate designs, often picturing the department store or hotel on the back.
Over the years, I assembled a modest collection of charge coins, charge plates, and early plastic credit cards. There is an American Credit Card Collectors Society. I am not a member. I prefer a “closet approach” for my secondary and tertiary collections.
The sense of discovery is a source of joy when interacting with things. No matter how much I think I know, I am constantly reminded of how much I do not know. Such was the case on March 8, 2019, when Eugene Kemp walked into the appraisal clinic that I was conducting at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Home and Garden Show at the Morgantown Center in Morgantown, Pennsylvania.
When it was Mike’s turn to show me what he brought, he placed a serrated edged, 1 1/4-inch round metal coin in my hand. The front featured an enameled surface with an outer green band with gold letters that read “CO-OPERATIVE SERVICE GROCERY DIVISION” and a white center with gold letters read: “TEXTILE / MACHINE WORKS / [line] / THE NARROW / FABRIC COMPANY / [line] / BERKSHIRE / KNITTING MILLS / WYOMISSING / PA.” The back contained the number “1363” plus information on what to do if the coin was found by someone other than its owner.
It was a proprietary charge coin. I asked Mike if he knew the history of the charge coin. A former employee of the Berkshire Knitting Mills, Mike explained that during World War II, the company created a grocery store for its employees. Buying produce and other products by the boxcar load, the company was able to provide its employees with grocery products normally unavailable in stores during rationing.
Mike also had a copy of “Partners: A History of the Development of the Wyomissing Industries” published by The Wyomissing Industries, Reading, Pennsylvania. Pages 143-135 contained a detailed history and several pictures of the company’s Cooperative Services and its Delta Store.
Photos of The Delta Store, established in 1920.
As I offered my opinion on the charge coin and the book, Mike saw from my passion and expression that I was experiencing a “coveting” moment. I asked Mike how he acquired the coin and book.
When he informed me that he had encountered a hoard of several hundred coins and a large number of books, I could hardly restrain myself. I want to yell at the top of my voice, “I want one of each.” I kept quiet.
Mike stayed an watched the appraisal clinic for an hour. During a break, he came up and offered to give me the coin and book. I told him that I could not ethically accept the gift. Not willing to give up, he told me he was selling the coins for $5.00 each and the book for $15.00 at a local flea market. I gave into temptation. I bought a coin and book for $25.00, the higher number because Mike was undervaluing the coin.
In less than a month, I had added two new items to my credit card, coin, and plate collection. Of course, the next thing that happened was that I dug out my collection from storage and started thinking about adding to it. I did not tell my wife Linda. Collecting decisions such as this are kept to one’s self.
Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site. You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network. “Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to email@example.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.
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