Experts say that beginning in the 1700s and lasting through the early 1900s, when prohibition halted legal activities at saloons, establishments in the western United States, through the Yukon territories, and into Alaska minted their own currencies known as brothel tokens.
Why were saloon or brothel tokens needed in the Old West? Money couldn’t travel with the ease and speed of our current banking systems. Banks sent money on stage coaches or by Pony Express riders, time consuming adventures. As trains took their places, delivery became easier, quicker but still suffered delays and outright robbery that could cause disaster for a business owner caught without funds. Especially when increased westward travel of the poor and penniless further shortened circulation of money.
Another reason was that saloons and brothels clustered around mining camps. Mine owners hired workers, allowed them to buy supplies from the company owned stores, and then deducted those amounts from the miner’s wage. This system is called payment by scrip. Its popularity curtailed the flow of legal tender (dollars and cents) in mining communities.
There are brothel tokens that are “real” in the sense that they were or are distributed by functioning brothels. Antique tokens are mostly French and are all highly prized. They do not circulate at flea markets for pocket change, but rather pass through auction houses and coin shops. These antique brothel tokens, which date as early as the 1890s, rarely promise the kinds of services referred to on novelty tokens, but instead advertise the business and occasionally offer the promise of a free drink.
Recent tokens distributed by legal brothels in Nevada have increased in value. Beginning in 1992, a number of Las Vegas casinos began issuing collectable “silver strike coins” made of silver valued at $10 each. Brothels across Nevada such as the PussyCat Ranch in Winnemucca and Sharon’s Bar and Brothel in Carlin began issuing similar collectible silver strike coins that featured distinctive artwork, unique to each establishment. But because a single $10 PussyCat Ranch silver strike coin is a mere fraction of the cost of services, their real value comes as a collectable.
While most of the tokens found today are fake replicas or fun vintage-y collectables they tell a fun story of what life might have been like in the wild west and during a time of prohibition.