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By: Julia Montlha – Curator, Numismatic Collection, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History


In numismatics token coins or trade tokens are pieces of metal or plastic, resembling a coin in shape, size, and type but issued privately, usually without government authority. Token coins are usually used as a substitute for official coinage as a pledge to be redeemed either in goods to the value it represents.

Tokens are often made of inexpensive metals such as copper, pewter, aluminium, brass, and tin. Most tokens are round, but they can also be found in square, heart, or octagonal shapes. They provide interesting and valuable historical records, with portraits of entrepreneurs, and engravings of local buildings of many kinds such as factories, town halls, workhouses, shops, and churches. They usually carry a date and provide a lasting record of their time.


Early period

During the Roman Empire period, the early form of tokens was coinlike objects called striae. The function of these tokens was not documented but they were used as gaming or brothel tokens. The Medieval period saw tokens circulated in nearby villages to pay for services from outsiders. They were referred to as “Abbot’s money, Jetons, etc. These tokens were used without official approval.

From the 17th to the early 19th century in the British Empire, tokens were commonly issued by merchants in times of acute shortage of coins of the state. These tokens were in effect a pledge redeemable in goods, but not necessarily for currency. These tokens never received official government sanctions but were widely accepted and circulated


Types of tokens

 Trade tokens

 These are real coins issued by traders in times of acute shortage of coins of the state to enable trading activities to proceed. The face of the token usually bears the name of the company and the value offered for the exchange of goods or services.


Barter tokens

These are issued by a trader in payment for goods (usually agricultural products) with the agreement that they will be redeemed in goods to an equivalent value at the trader’s outlets.


The transaction between the barter and the tokens played a role of convenience, allowing the seller to receive his goods at a rate and time convenient to himself and the trader to lock the holder of the token coin to his shop.


Trade tokens often change slowly and cautiously into barter tokens over time, as evidenced by the continued circulation of former trade tokens when the need for their use had passed.


Credit tokens

These are issued to employees to allow them to purchase goods to the equivalent face value from a specified supplier. The tokens are to be redeemed when the employee receives his salary.


In South Africa credit tokens were seen as unfair practices, especially in the manner they were issued to black employees, leading to opposition to tokens in general and they were abolished in 1932.


Monopoly tokens

 These are issued by traders to their employees in payment of part or all of their wages without the option of the employee to elect payment in official coinage only. By this practice, the trader ensures that his employees obtain at least some of their requirements from his outlets so that he effectively holds a monopoly on these commodities.


Discount tokens

 These were issued by traders as a discount in cash transactions and could be used in part or full payment in later transactions. The purpose was to induce the customer to return to a particular trader for his requirements. For example, OK Bazaars issued these staff discount tokens (below) which gave a 10% discount.


Other tokens

 There are several tokens that were issued to exchange goods or services, listed below are the examples:


Canteen tokens

These tokens were used for meal tickets usually by staff.


Prison tokens

They were issued to prisoners for use in prison shops.


Staff tokens

These were issued to staff who are allowed a limited amount of discount buying from a firm.


Commodity tokens
Like milk tokens, these were sold by a supplier of a given commodity to overcome the problems associated with handling small changes. 


Coupon tokens

These are issued by a supplier of services (e.g., bus companies) to avoid the difficulties of handling inconvenient amounts of small change in difficult circumstances. 


Machine tokens

These are provided by the owner of slot machines which were made to accept coin sizes incompatible with available coinage.


The most interesting is the South African Railways (Cape Town) catering tokens which are made from bone.

Examples of tokens

The Strachan & Co “in goods” sets are examples of trade and barter tokens. They were in circulation from about 1906 to 1932.


 Nu 3576, Tokens (DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History Numismatics collection).


 NU 1735, Jeton token (DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History Numismatics collection).


The South African Railways (Cape Town) catering tokens are made from bone.

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