In addition to diversity of design, world token coinage makes for a
fascinating topical area because of its interplay with history and its
vital role in the commerce of many nations.
Two of the most popular types are 19th century Canadian and World
War I-era German tokens. The coin shortages eased by these tokens had
very different causes but the end result was the same. Everyday cash
transactions were made possible until the national coinage system
could be created or repaired.
Colonial Canada had a severe cash shortage for most of the 1800s.
Neither France nor England, the area’s controlling governments, did
anything to ease the problem. Barter wasn’t practical for small
purchases; people needed coppers. Half penny and penny tokens came to
The colony of Nova Scotia blazed a trail with its Thistle token
series in 1814. Although King George IV of Great Britain graced their
obverse, they circulated without his permission, thus making them
tokens rather than coins. The 1832 issues also lacked a bit of
historical accuracy. George’s sibling, William IV, had been on the
throne since 1830 but his older brother’s visage was depicted on the tokens.
Various banks issued tokens in addition to colonial governments.
The Bank of Montreal was responsible for several series that were
known for their depictions of the bank building. Beginning in 1850,
the Bank of Upper Canada issued half penny and penny tokens featuring
the classic British coin design of St. George slaying the dragon.
Prince Edward Island was prolific about issuing a token series for
30 years beginning in 1830. The pieces include types with legends such
as SHIPS, COLONIES AND COMMERCE, SUCCESS TO THE FISHERIES and SELF
GOVERNMENT AND FREE TRADE. Some carried no value marking so that
consumers and merchants could ascribe the value needed in the areas
where the tokens circulated.
After 1870, Canada was issuing legal tender, leading to laws that
restricted token usage. However, tokens would return. From 1890 to
about 1940, for example, some Canadian merchants issued tokens for
common goods like bread and milk and services such as haircuts.
Since 1960, many thousands of municipal trade tokens (formerly
called “trade dollars”) have been issued throughout Canada by local
governments as “good-fors.” These have temporary local buying power
during fairs and celebrations of all kinds. This has become a popular
collecting field in Canada and with token collectors worldwide. Even
ringed bimetallic and colorized municipal trade tokens are available.
Tokens were a necessity in Germany for reasons that differed from
those in Canada. Notgeld, or “emergency money,” was used extensively
in Germany and Austria-Hungary during and after World War I. The cost
of the war drove up the value of metal, and coins were hoarded as long
as their metal value exceeded their stated denominations. Filling the
gap this hoarding created was notgeld, in both paper and metallic form
but also made from substances as diverse as porcelain, coal, leather
Inflation drove the evolution of these tokens in ways that could
scarcely have been imagined in 1918. Between 1922 and the end of 1923,
the inflation became hyperinflation. Notgeld notes were issued with
denominations in the billions of marks.
The suffering of the populace was immense as money purchased less
and less by the hour. This horrible history is aptly reflected in the
notgeld produced between 1920 and 1924.
In 1920, there were still plenty of tokens with pfennig (penny)
denominations such as the aluminum 50-pfennig token from the city of
Wattenscheid in the state of Westphalia. By 1921, inflation was
picking up steam. The aluminum 20-pfennig token from Nuremberg was the
same size as the 1920 Wattenscheid token, but was worth less than half
as much. Twenty suddenly became the new 50.
By 1923, people could hardly believe what was happening to their
spending power. The pfennig had been replaced by the mark on notgeld,
and the number of zeroes was growing almost daily. A 1923 gold-plated
tombac (copper-zinc alloy) Westphalia token with a horse design was
assigned the value of 10,000 marks early in the year. A few months
later, the same horse could be seen again but this time the notgeld
was made of a much less expensive metal, aluminum. The denomination
was now 50 million marks and would soon transform into 1 billion marks.
In recent years, the currencies of other nations, including Turkey
and Zimbabwe, have experienced similar episodes of hyperinflation.
Perhaps the citizens of these nations can take solace in the fact that
Germany eventually solved its inflation problem and went on to become
the present-day economic powerhouse of the European Union. ■