April Artifacts of the Month: What is a token?

A token is usually thought of as a coin-like object used as money.  Tokens are not used much today but were common in the past when coins were in short supply.  But in thinking about tokens in the North Carolina Collection, I began to realize that such a simple definition falls short.  Let’s look at some of the NCC tokens.

Phenix Mills tokenPhenix Mills token

The trade token is perhaps the most common variety of token.  The token above was issued by the Phenix Mills Store in Kings Mountain, N.C., most likely in the early 1900s.  Denominated simply as “10,” it is about the size of a dime, made of base metal, and was good for merchandise.  It likely would have been given to company employees in exchange for work or as small change from a purchase in the company store.  It was issued by the company, and its purpose was to keep wealth in the company store.

Charlotte transit tokenCharlotte transit token reverse

About the size of a quarter and made of two different metals, the Charlotte Transit token from 2000 is denominated $1 and is good for the trolley or for street parking.  While it served as a transportation trade token, its attractive design both commemorates and promotes Charlotte Transit.

Civil War tokenCivil War token

The cent-size 1863 copper token is an example of a Civil War patriotic token issued in the North.  It might have circulated as a cent, since coins were very scarce during the Civil War because of hoarding.  The token also functioned as propaganda and perhaps also as a morale booster.

cotton bale tokencotton bale token

Another type of token is from the Wilmington Champion Compress & Warehouse Company. This token is made of aluminum and probably dates to the early 1900s.  These were issued to workers who loaded bales of cotton.  The quantity of tokens possessed by a worker documented the amount of work he had done, one token for each bale carried.  The tokens could be redeemed for money or perhaps goods in a company store.  While these tokens served as a limited kind of money, their use also constituted a simple work accounting system.

There is no comprehensive reference for this aspect of Tar Heel numismatics.  At least one researcher is working on one, and it will surely tell us a great deal more about this surprisingly complex topic.