In the 1930’s, our country was smack dab in the middle of a huge depression. Banks were failing, factories closed and people stopped spending. All of these things meant very little money was in circulation. Many cities in our lovely State of Washington had an interesting response; Wooden Nickels.
In 1933, the bank in Tenino, Washington failed and closed its doors. Suddenly, merchants from around the area had no way of cashing checks or getting change without traveling to a different city. Today, this might not seem like the end of the world, but in the 30’s, this meant traveling up to 30 miles through rugged terrain. What cars they had were not made to handle the mountain roads in this area, meaning a trip to the bank took around 4 hours. Most merchants could not leave their stores for this long, or they would risk losing what little business they had.
One thing that Washington State did not have a shortage of was trees. A man named Albert Balch, of Blaine, Washington, had been going around promoting a new printing product, called slicewood. Produced in Aberdeen, WA, this thin, pressed wood was made out of Sitka Spruce, Port Orford and Red Cedar. It was rolled out into flat sheets that measured 1/80th of an inch. Balch had intended for this product to be used for printing Christmas cards (see above), but in light of the circumstances, thought it might be great for printing emergency money. The Chamber of Commerce in Tenino agreed and wooden money was issued as legal tender. It was backed by non-interest baring warrants, mostly in denominations of 25 cents. Pieces worth $10, $5, $1 and 50 cent pieces were also available. Merchants could redeem them for US currency or gold.
When the same need arose in Balch’s hometown of Blaine, Washington, a similar idea was adopted. This time, the wood was rolled out and cut into circles to more closely resemble coins. On one side was an image of the Peace Arch Monument and the words, “Acceptable at par for MDSE. 1933.” The other side said, “Peace Arch, Wooden 5¢ Nickel, Blaine, Wash.” These wooden nickels put Blaine on the map. Some were even sent to President Roosevelt where they eventually made the national news.
A few years later, after the depression, wood was outlawed as a form of currency. Merchants continued to issue wooden nickels for things like promotions, advertising and souvenirs.
Today, Wooden Nickels from Blaine are worth a bit more than their denomination might tell you. On Ebay, depression era wooden script sells for between $20-$30, making them a relatively affordable thing to collect. Although you can not cash them in at your local store, they do carry the history of a very tough time in American history and the story one town’s unique solution to an overwhelming problem.