When is a Coin not Really a Coin?

When is a Coin Not Legal Tender?  When It’s a Token.

Presented below are three different varieties of definitely not legal tokens intended for commercial promotion or as souvenirs:  elongated pennies, mill tokens, and wooden nickels.  Even though they may not have been created for legal tender, they can still have immense collectability beyond their face value, if you know what to look for.

Penny Pinching to the Extreme

They are called “elongated pennies” in the tourist biz.  You know them as the squished penny that costs about 50 cents or so to press a penny into an oval shape featuring an embossed souvenir token of the site you’re visiting such as the Niagara Falls or a local history museum. Disneyland, for example, has these machines all over their theme parks.  Collectors go on “squishin missions” specifically to add to their collections.  

It’s not known definitively how many of these elongation machines (as they are called) exist around the world, but there are collectors for any number of specific genres such as theme parks, museums, space travel, historical sites, and towns and cities everywhere.  You can even have specialty ones made for weddings, family reunions, birthdays or any personal event.

The most collected, though, may be the ones issued at fairs such as the 1893 Columbian Exposition where the practice of the penny press first became quite popular.  Called “exonumia,” these embossed coins, like any collectible, have specific periods that define their collectibility (Wikipedia): from 1893 to about 1965 they are “Oldies” derived mostly from fairs; from 1965 to 1985 they are “Modern Elongated” because they were primarily private issues and sold commercially; and from 1985 to the present they are “Contemporary Elongated” from the commercial penny presses where you make your own.  

The elongated penny that started the penny-pinching craze.

While collecting these pressed pennies (and they are mostly pennies) doesn’t add up to a lot of intrinsic value, certain early or scarce ones can bring more than the penny they started with at auction.  While most can sell at auction by the pound, many start at $5 and can go to as high as this Disney World one that sold for $1200, depending on scarcity and condition.  The ones from the 1893 Columbian Exposition that started it all have sold from $10 to as much as $180.  Check in with TEC, The Elongated Collectors, to know how to spot the most “pressing” collectible elongated penny.  

disneyland elongated penny

An elongated penny from Disney Land sold for $1200.

A Tax Paid by a Token

Officially called a mill token, you paid your sales tax with it.  The idea was that you didn’t have to pay a full penny for small purchases. Instead, you just used one of the mill tokens issued at 1/10 of a cent instead.  It’s a small savings, but every cent counted during the Great Depression. Most tokens were issued by a dozen states, some commercial outlets and smaller cities and towns, beginning in Georgia in 1929.  

While it seemed like a good idea, consumers didn’t appreciate it.  You had to carry these things around in pockets and purses after all and in the end really didn’t add up to all of the trouble they were meant to alleviate.  By the end of the 1930’s, the tokens were no longer used, except in Missouri where they languished until the late 1940’s.  A general sales tax was instituted instead.

Still, while millions of tokens were made overall, there were only hundreds made of others.  So generally the value of any of them would be worth less than a dollar.  Except any of them would have been scarce depending on whether they were made of “…cardboard, brass, bronze, aluminum, pressed cotton fiber, and plastic (Wikipedia)” with different shapes such as squares, circles, some with holes in the center and all in many different colors.  There were actual paper issues as well.  

paper sale tax token

An example of a paper issue sales tax token in the 1930s. Sales tax tokens were actually made from a variety of materials.

The Worthopedia shows boxes of 50 or 100 tax tokens being auctioned for $10 to $50 with an Oklahoma 5¢ tax coin selling for $11.39 which seems like a lot compared to others.  To get a complete list of all tax tokens issued by state, check in with this site.  A paper issued tax token from Illinois sold for $311 in 2016.  Visit the American Tax Token Society for more information about sales tax tokens.  Amazing what 1/10 of a cent can be worth.  

When to Take Wooden Nickles

You were told to never take a wooden nickel.  But it looks like there are times you should as the collectability of these curious tokens can be worthwhile. More common in the Depression era, the wooden nickel was more of a promotional piece for local businesses than anything else. In fact, according to Wikipedia, a bank in Tenino, Washington produced a promotional currency on actual wooden slats.  The Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 issued wooden nickels as a souvenir.  From there, 5¢ wooden nickels became the norm.  

But collecting them would be a challenge simply because there are so many of them, by the many thousands of different varieties, for so many different promotions.  Certain wooden slats, for example, have sold for $22 the pair, while a small bucket of actual wooden nickels sold for $21.50. Curiously, a more recent wooden promotional coin from In and Out Burger from 1992 sold for $15.  The Wooden Nickel Collectors Organization can help you sort them out.  

in-n-out wooden nickel

There were even wooden nickels from In-N-Out Burger. The one shown here encourages people to donate 50 cents to help feed the hungry.

So take a closer look at your wooden nickels even if they are slats of wood.  Somewhere there is a promotional bonanza that adds up to more than a nickel.  And these wooden nickels are worth having.

Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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