Times of emergency such as war, recession, or other economic crises, often result in shortages of metal. Occasionally, this has led to the use of non-metal materials for coins and tokens, such as the wooden nickels of Depression-era Washington. One of the most interesting materials used in lieu of precious metal was porcelain. The two most famous instances of porcelain coins are the gambling tokens of 18th and 19th century Siam and the German notgeld of the early 1920’s.
Siamese Gambling Tokens
Siamese gambling tokens were produced in the mid 18th century and in use until 1875. They were made in China (hence the use of Chinese characters on the coins) for use in private gambling establishments in Siam. However, the locals began to use the tokens as legal tender.
According to a post on the Collectors Society website, “the gambling houses were ‘tax farms’ where every year, or some say every three years, the government accepted bids for the right to operate the gambling monopoly for the next period. There were between 500 and 1,000 different firms called ‘hongs’, that issued tokens. To reduce counterfeiting, issues were recalled frequently, and new pieces were issued to replace them. More than 10,000 different varieties are known. They were issued in denominations of from one Att to one Salung. It is believed that between 2,000 and 6,000 pieces of each design were minted.” The tokens were created in a stunning array of colors, shapes, and patterns.
In his monograph, Siamese Porcelain and Other Tokens (available in full online from the Cornell library), H.A. Ramsden quotes Joseph Haas’ book Siamese Coinage: “These counters being issued under authority granted in the gambling licence or concession, they rapidly became a medium of exchange, and were found to fill a long felt want of small money so well, that the circulation went much beyond its legal sphere.”
Ramsden continues, “It is mentioned by Haas that the control of these tokens by the Siamese government became more and more difficult, and at last in 1871, it became necessary to prohibit and stop completely all circulation of these counters […] Schlegel is more explicit, giving August, 1876 as the date on which an order was issued by the government prohibiting the further issue of porcelain ‘coins’ (Porzellanmiinzen) after December of the same year. Weyl is not very clear on this matter, but mentions that coins made of porcelain were current until 1876 [… ]They are all agreed, however, that the circulation of these tokens continued long after their prohibition.” After the turn of the century, gambling was prohibited everywhere except in Bangkok, and after a decade, gambling was prohibited there as well, rendering the tokens useless.
(Note: all gambling token images are courtesy of the British Museum. Please check out their extensive photo gallery for more of these exquisite coins.
German Porcelain Notgeld
Notgeld is a type of German emergency currency, issued when there was a problem using the standard currency. It took many forms, from base metal coins to colorful paper money, but one of the most unique is the porcelain notegeld. Porcelain notgeld was used between 1915 and 1923, during a coin shortage before the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic. Most of these coins were made from red Böttgerstoneware by Meissen, though some were made from white porcelain; a few even had gilt detailing. Primarily issued in Saxony, these notgeld coins were also used in Thuringia, Silesia, and other parts of Germany.
The porcelain notgeld met the need for small coinage, but proved impractical to use, due to the fragile nature of the coins. The red porcelain was the preferred material, since it showed dirt and grime less than the white china coins. The first porcelain notgeld are noted for having rougher surfaces and less sharp lines, due to being struck from plaster molds. Later coins, made with steel molds, have much sharper details.
The Meissen company continued to strike medals in stoneware and porcelain, even after the notgeld was no longer in use. Their mark, the cross-swards, can be seen on the notgeld and other items made by the company.