Before the U.S. government implemented national stimulus payments, the city of Tenino, Washington (pop. 1,800), came up with an interesting way to help its disadvantaged residents who had been directly affected by COVID-19. After screening for financial need, successful applicants received up to $300 per month. But the city government did not provide these grants in United States currency. Instead, it issued $10,000 worth of thin laminated wooden sheets stamped in values of $25 each. This substitute money, known as scrip, could be applied to pay utility bills or used to purchase goods and services from city merchants who agreed to participate in the program. The merchants could then redeem the scrip for cash at City Hall.
Tenino $25 wooden currency with the portrait of George Washington and the Latin phrase Habemus autem sub potestate, or “We’ve got this under control.” AP Photo/Ted S. Warren.
This is not the first time Tenino has turned to the use of wooden scrip to get purchasing power into the hands of its residents. It was also used in the midst of the Great Depression between 1931 and 1933 when the bank accounts of city residents were frozen. In fact, the 1870s press used to print that issue has been preserved in the Tenino Depot Museum and was put to work producing the 2020 issue. From all accounts, the program successfully provided support for its needy citizenry as well as for local businesses. It also created a sense of community identity. Programs of substitute money like this work best when the users share a belief in its value and the capital can be maintained within a defined population. Unfortunately, this system can also exploit a workforce, as in the isolated American mining and lumbering towns of the last century. In these situations, company monopolies strictly controlled the use of token currency to make workers dependent and to keep them in debt. The scrip issued to employees for their work and for advances on their labor was only redeemable at the company-owned store where management offered goods at inflated prices. This situation was reflected in lyrics about a Kentucky coal miner in the 1940s song “Sixteen Tons”:
You load sixteen tons, what do you get? /Another day older and deeper in debt/Saint Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store.
Monetary programs using scrip also date from the very first years of English transatlantic settlement. In 1616, a short-lived fiscal scheme involving token coinage was tried in Bermuda and archaeological evidence suggests that there had been intentions for a similar plan even earlier at Jamestown.
The Somers Island Company — the corporate entity administering the Bermuda colony — issued currency with no intrinsic value to provide an incentive to the colonists, some of whom were laboring on company projects while others were engaged in revenue-producing activities or employed in stocking the common food bank through agriculture, hunting and fishing. Supplies needed by Bermudans were shipped from England based on the profits generated by the colony. Goods were deposited in the company store where the exchange rates set by the governor were described as “cut throat,” just as in the American company towns 300 years later. By receiving weekly wages in Hogge money, individuals could not only purchase from the store but were free to buy goods from each other such as “Fishe corne tooles or any other thinge in the Islands where they can get the same.”
Minted in England, the issue consisted of copper coins that had been tinned to appear silver in four denominations of two, three, six and twelve pence. The iconograpy chosen for the coinage, which was only “to passe freely from man to man throughout the Islands and not otherwise” was intended to appeal to the Bermudan community’s sense of group identity. One side of the coins depicts the Sea Venture, which brought the first Englishmen to Bermuda in 1609. The other side illustrates a boar, in reference to the “abundance of hogges” the English found when they arrived. Appropriately, the issue became known as “Hogge money.” By 1619, a change in settlement patterns and increased exchanges valued in tobacco diminished the role of the company storehouse and, thereby, the purpose of the token coinage.
Token coinage for the Jamestown colony is recorded in a 1610 promotional tract written to entice investment and new settlers for the Virginia Company endeavor. The outlined fiscal scheme would reimburse individuals with debased coinage for their labors or for commodities they produced. Penned by Virginia Company member Robert Rich, the poetic verse stated in part that “copper coyne” would be paid to the settlers “for hyer or commodities.” Upon leaving the colony, Rich continued, individuals could exchange the debased coinage for its representative value in English sterling.
But what is this “copper coyne?” In 1610, there was no official emission of copper coinage in England and there would not be until the farthings issued in 1613 under King James I. Archaeological evidence from Jamestown Rediscovery’s excavations of James Fort suggests that the tools for this intended fiscal scheme were obsolete copper coins from Royal Mint stores. Over 100 copper Irish pennies and halfpennies dated 1601 and 1602 that had long been recalled from circulation in Ireland—and were not honored in England—were found by archaeologists amidst the trash that the colonists had thrown into the wells, pits and cellars of James Fort as they deserted the settlement in June 1610. The decision to leave had been made by the newly-arrived governor, Sir Thomas Gates after assessing the viability of the colony that had just suffered a winter-long assault by the Powhatan Indians. Gates had probably been charged with enacting the new fiscal plan to incentivize the labor force so integral to Jamestown’s survival. But with the total breakdown of society, there was little need for a local economy. The Jamestown society was immediately reconstituted under martial law and a strict code of behavior that would be in effect for the next ten years.
Bly Straube, Ph.D., FSA
Senior Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
Marjorie H. Akin, James C. Bard, and Kevin Akin (2016) Numismatic Archaeology of North America: a Field Guide. New York: Routledge, pp. 239-263.
Louis E. Jordan (2003) “Somer Islands ‘Hogge Money’ of 1616: The Historical Context.” The Colonial Newsletter 43:2, Serial No. 123, pp. 2465-2493.
Rich (1890)  “Newes from Virginia” in Alexander Brown (ed) The Genesis of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, pp. 420-426.
Beverly A. Straube (2019) “Uncovering and Early Seventeenth-Century Token Currency Scheme at Jamestown, Virginia,” in James A. Nyman, Kevin R. Fogle and Mary C. Beaudry (eds) The Historical Archaeology of Shadow and Intimate Economies. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.