Dr. Sol Taylor

Real Wooden Money

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, August 2, 2008

ost people aren't old enough to remember the communities in the early 1930s that ran out of money and resorted to a novel solution: using wooden money.
    The first such "money" was issued by the town of Tenino, Wash., in 1931. These were small (somewhat smaller than an index card) rectangular pieces of thin softwood imprinted with information indicating they were valued for a specific amount (such as 50 cents) and redeemable by the local city. Several denominations were issued by Tenino.
    These early issues in mint condition can bring several dollars each in a public auction. The issues of the 1930s often bring $1 or more on fixed price lists.
    Other communities by 1934 had issued similar pieces, following the same format of thin softwood and imprinted with values, dates, and redeemable information. By the mid 1930s, some communities and organizations issued round wooden nickels of a thicker material, usually imprinted with the denomination of five cents. This gave rise to the famous expression "Don't take any wooden nickels."
    Most such wooden nickels were issued by local merchants instead of small change and offered to redeem them for merchandise of cash later on; some were never redeemed. Many had the design of then-current nickels: an Indian on one side or a buffalo (bison) on one side.
    The practice of issuing private store wooden nickels proliferated in the 1940s and 1950s. They mostly have little numismatic value and can be found in many coin dealers "junk" boxes for 25 cents or even less.
    The wooden nickel is still used by merchants and especially by coin dealers as advertising calling cards — sometimes with a redeemable value for purchase. In 1976, many retail stores, coin dealers, small businesses and service providers issued a wide range of such wooden nickels with an American bicentennial theme. Today such pieces are not worth much more than their original value of five to 25 cents.
    The late "Corky" Ayers of Covina was one of the founders of the Society of Wooden Money Collectors and issued a newsletter to a dedicated core of collectors. His home was virtually a wall-to-wall museum of wooden money covering issues from the 1930s to date.
    The federal government actually prohibits the issuance of wooden "money." However, as a business card or a memento, they still are being created and issued for varied purposes.