Have you ever looked at historical photos of your town and wondered what life was like back then? Photos are only part of the story of any town: trade tokens are an often overlooked part of local history in many places. Trade tokens from our town of Bellingham, Washington, also have a story to tell.
Tokens are technically exonumia: coin-like objects that are not truly coins. Tokens were usually locally produced, and intended for use in local businesses, which usually had their names stamped into the token itself. (Until the federal government took over all bill printing, local banks also issued notes, as seen in this $20 note from the First National Bank of Bellingham.)
Bellingham in the early 1900s was no different. Many downtown businesses had trade tokens, usually in the amount of 5 cents, produced and distributed to drive business. Local tobacconist J. M. Stinnett, described in a 1918 issue of the United States Tobacco Journal as a “live wire from that northern town,” was one of several tobacco and cigar store owners to issue such tokens. His store was at 114 West Holly St, where Opus Performing Arts is today.
In the latter half of the second decade of the 20th century, 5 cents had the equivalent worth of 87 cents today, though its buying power was higher. Many drugstores would sell ice cream cones or sodas for 5 cents, and it would make it worth a customer’s while to stop by a store she had a token for.
Though none of these old-time Bellingham businesses are still in operation, it’s easy to see how little the town has changed, in some ways. Many of the businesses listed were on Holly Street, still one of the main commercial parts of town. Bellingham still has a strong focus on local business as opposed to national chains, and tours of the historical downtown areas are a popular attraction.
Coins and tokens hold onto a specific kind of history that might otherwise be lost. The establishments may be long gone, but as long as the tokens survive, places like the Blue Moon, the Gold Nugget, and the Alaska Tavern will live on.