Trade Tokens

By: William E. Fowler

Type: General Entry

Published: July 1, 1995

Trade tokens have been used as a medium of exchange in Texas since the establishment of the republic. The scarcity of specie-and in particular the smaller denominations-was a formidable barrier to trade and traffic among the earlier settlers and pioneer business establishments. Barter, the direct exchange of commodities and services, was the common method of transacting business. It was awkward and slow, however, and the pressing need for a better means of exchange was met only partially by the continuing circulation of the Spanish eight-real coins in use during the prerepublic period, and by the few coins that filtered across the United States borders or were brought in by European immigrants. Most of the silver coins available corresponded in size and value to the American dollar and circulated as dollars. Smaller denominations were fashioned by physically cutting the larger pieces into eight, four, or two pieces. The eighth-sized piece was called a "bit," and the quarters and halves soon became "two bits" and "four bits"-terminology that is still a part of our everyday language. A bit was customarily valued at 12½ cents and was good for that amount in goods or services. Bits were the first Texas trade tokens. The first pieces specifically made for use as trade tokens probably were the saloon tokens. Liquor by the drink was a best-seller from the early days until the Volstead Act of 1919 lowered the boom on the open saloon. Saloons were plentiful, and competition was keen. As early as the 1870s, saloonkeepers in towns along the Chisholm and other northbound cattle trails were giving southbound drummers handfuls of their tokens to distribute to the thirsty cowhands driving cattle north to the railheads in Kansas. This same competitive spirit also accounts for the beauty and variety of the ornate pictorial tokens issued by rival liquor establishments in El Paso, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and elsewhere during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Coming to Texas about this time from Germany, Bohemia, Italy, Poland, and the other European lands was a steady stream of immigrants whose impact on the development of the state, both economic and cultural, was as significant as that of the pioneers who preceded them. They became storekeepers and contributed much to the Texas token story. They were the owners and operators of the general mercantile stores-some of which professed to supply everything their customers needed "from the cradle to the grave"-as well as proprietors of groceries, bakeries, dry goods stores, and other retail establishments and service facilities. Their token output constitutes the single largest category of Texas trade tokens. They were a thrifty people. They found in the token a device that gave them a competitive edge over rival merchants, and they made the most of it. Some used the small-denomination tokens as handouts to stimulate trade and bring customers into their stores; others purchased farm produce of many kinds for resale and paid more in trade than in cash, always in tokens, to assure that the trading took place at the proper location; while still others used tokens as a bookkeeping tool, advancing a sum in tokens to be repaid when the customer ginned his cotton or sold his cattle, thus avoiding the necessity of itemizing credit purchases every time the buyer came to the store.

Other widely used categories of Texas tokens included the lumber-company tokens of East Texas and the piecework tokens used by the shearing crews in the semiarid sheep and goat raising areas of Southwest Texas. The lumber companies advanced commissary tokens to loggers against their weekly or biweekly wages. Top prices were charged for commissary merchandise, and employees with extravagant tastes or large families often found themselves in a state of semislavery, deeply indebted to the company and unemployable elsewhere in the industry. Somewhat similar conditions existed at a later date in the coal mine commissaries in the lignite belt that runs through Central and Northeast Texas and the bituminous mines in the north central area and along the Rio Grande. The commissary system drew much unfavorable criticism in the 1890s, and the Texas legislature moved to protect workers against its evils. A law was passed in 1897 requiring that all wages be paid in lawful money of the United States. Again in 1901 a legislative enactment made it illegal to issue any ticket, check, or token redeemable in goods or merchandise and obligatory to any employee. These statutes were later declared unconstitutional but apparently were ineffectual even when in force as there was no letup in the use of tokens. Texas also had its share of piecework tokens. These are used primarily in agricultural pursuits where the worker is paid by the number of units accomplished rather than for the length of time worked. They are given for picking berries or fruit, gathering vegetables, plucking turkeys, and other services. Some of the most interesting are the shearing tokens used by the sheep-shearing crews working out of Del Rio, Uvalde, Sanderson, Rock Springs, and other Southwest Texas towns. Transportation tokens were used both for transporting people and goods. The early ones used on toll roads and bridges, on ferries across unbridged rivers and streams, and for drayage of goods from point of entry to point of use, are highly prized historical relics. The later fare tokens used on streetcars and buses in quantity in Texas towns and cities during the first half of this century have been dropped in large part for cash fares but are still being used at some points. Tokens were widely used in early military posts and camps, both by post exchanges and by independent post traders or sutlers. These bits of metal are poignant reminders of the days when strings of forts protected the settlers from hostile Indians and bandit raiders from across the border and made possible westward expansion to the outmost reaches of the state. More modern installations at many locations have continued the use of trade tokens as a fiscal convenience to post personnel.

The history of Texas trade tokens parallels the economic, social, and political history of the state from the days of the republic, through the depression years of 1929–33, and into the economic expansion of the Roosevelt years. The increasing supply of small change and currency in the middle 1930s, the extension of the rural free-delivery mail service, and better and faster transportation into the larger towns and cities combined to put an end to the day of the token, but not before it had made a substantial contribution to the growth and development of the state. Some tokens are still in use; those not still in use are a favorite collectible. The token, however, no longer maintains the strong influence in the state's commercial well-being that it enjoyed during the first century of its existence.

William E. Fowler and John H. Ribbe, "Second Supplement to the Trade Tokens of Texas," Token and Medal Society Journal 24.2 (April 1984). William E. Fowler and Harry L. Strough, "Supplement: The Trade Tokens of Texas," Token and Medal Society Journal 19.1 (February 1979). William E. Fowler et al., "The Trade Tokens of Texas," Token and Medal Society Journal 13.2 (April 1973).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

William E. Fowler, “Trade Tokens,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 26, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995