Saloon tokens were used from the 1880s to the late teens when Prohibition closed all the saloons in the United States. A customer would enter the saloon and order a beer, whiskey, game of pool, or a cigar. When the customer paid for the item and needed change, the proprietor would give him his change in the form of a token issued from his business. This would force the customer to come back to the same business to spend the token. Other businesses would operate in the same way, and each saloon only accepted their own tokens. If the customer came back, not only did he spend the token but he also bought other items while he was there. If the customer never came back, the proprietor kept the difference between the cost of manufacturing the token and the amount it was good for.
A game of pool was usually 2½ cents, beer and cigars were 5 cents, and whiskey was 12½ cents. Some saloon tokens were good for a "smile" - a smile was a small whiskey. If the saloon owner was also the landlord of a brothel, the price was often negotiated.
Some saloon tokens are highly sought after and command three-figure prices, especially those with pictorial designs, ghost town tokens, and territorial issues (from Arizona Territory, Montana Territory, etc.).
Here is a selection of six nice saloon tokens for your viewing pleasure. Note the interesting shapes of some!
All photos in this gallery taken by David Ownbey.
References and sources for more information about Saloon Tokens
Trade Token Tales
Standard Catalog of United States Tokens: 1700-1900, by Russell Rulau, 1999..
Tokens and Medals - A Guide to the Identification and Values of United States Exonumia, by Alpert, Stephen P. and Elman, Lawrence E. Los Angeles, 1992.
Copyright © 2005 David Ownbey and the Willamette Coin Club