Thursday, December 12, 2019

Don't Take Any Wooden Nickels

“Don't take any wooden nickels”  That adage or similar ones dates back to the 1800s when dishonest sellers of nutmeg would mix a wood piece made to look like nutmeg in a bag of real nutmegs which cost more than 15 times as much.   Also, as a nickel bought more then, some people did try to cheat an inattentive seller by “paying” with a wood disk the size of a nickel painted silver. “Wooden” then became associate with fake.  The adage was included in dictionaries by the 1920s.
It was in the state of Washington in 1933 that wooden money made its first real appearance. The bank in Tenino failed as did many others at that time. With the bank closed, merchants could not get change, making it difficult to conduct what little business they had.  Only by taking a long trip could they find an open bank and get the cash for their till. They banded together to issue scrip printed on thin slices of shingles.  They noted that “Confidence is essential if money is to circulate. When money flows freely, prosperity will return.” The wooden certificates could be redeemed for US currency but as long as people were confident that when they received one they could in turn used it to purchase items from other sellers in their community, there was no need to exchange them so these “coins” did indeed serve as money.

Other cities in the Northwest copied this idea and issued similar scrip in various denominations. The coins below came from the city of North Bend, Oregon and were signed by the mayor and city treasurer.
South Bend Oregon wooden coins
Later in the decade, promoters of civic events began issuing souvenir wooden nickels. These could also be used in exchange for merchandise or redeemed at a local bank but only for the duration of the event.

This wooden nickel was created for the New York State Fair's 100th Anniversary, August 25 to September 2, 1938. It could be used in trade in Syracuse New York or exchanged for a US nickel at any Syracuse Bank until noon of Saturday, August 31, 1938.
New York State Fair Wooden Nickel
Some stores also began issuing wooden nickels such as this one from Flowerland in Corvallis.
Corvallis, Oregon wooden nickel
Many of these wooden nickels were never used to buy things or turned in for regular US coins as people saved them as souvenirs and/or collected them. The ones shown above are only a few from
many in Benton County Historical Museum's large collection.


By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

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