Taking to tokens: History buff trades pocket watch for pocket change


SALEM, Ohio – John Dunlap has his hand in his pocket, sifting jingling coins between his fingers.
He gathers them and withdraws the loot. His opened fist reveals a bounty of circular tokens, some with cutouts of apples or bell shapes, some with embossed stamps, others with freestanding letters.
They’re the size of nickels, dimes and quarters, but have more value to Dunlap, an avid historian from Columbiana, Ohio.
The transportation tokens remind him of a bygone era marked by the popularity of trolleys, subways, streetcars and railways.
The right time. Dunlap’s collection has accumulated for more than 20 years.
In 1982, the pocket watch and fob collector struck up a conversation with a flea market vendor. While he chatted, he discovered an ashtray filled with what looked like coins.
He was immediately captivated by the tokens and traded a pocket watch for 113 of the shiny souvenirs.
Raised in a small town with no mass transit authority, he didn’t know what he’d found.
He delved into history books and learned the tokens were used around the turn of the century to pay for transportation, groceries and other treats.
“They have a great deal of historical information. They’re a miniature look at a period of history,” Dunlap says.
Today, his collection has swelled to more than 4,600 tokens.
Examples. From his pocketful, he withdraws and studies one token.
Beaumont, Texas. It’s from a transportation company. There’s a picture of a bus on this coin, so it’s not from the earliest part of the century. The flip side says the token is good for one fare.
Another from Connecticut shows the state’s coat of arms.
A Michigan token has an apple cutout in the center, marking the state’s orchard industry.
Another the size of a dime has cutout letters ‘SF’ in the center; it’s from San Francisco. ‘L’ stands for Long Beach, Calif.
‘CS’ is from Colorado Springs, and this ‘T’ is from the Detroit tunnel from the Motor City to Windsor, Ontario, Dunlap explains.
Others are reversed cutouts, with the negative space around the alphabet removed.
They’re called hanging letters, and Dunlap’s prized collection has one of every letter except Q. He says that letter was never made. The 2-by-2 inch seat for it in his binder sleeve stays empty.
Long look back. Dunlap says the tokens originated in the 1500s in walled cities in Germany.
Protecting their towns from invasions meant the Germans issued tokens to those who belonged. To get in or out of a city, they showed their token.
There were also tokens used to cross bridges or moats, Dunlap says.
Immigrants brought the idea to Pennsylvania. Tokens soon allowed travel on turnpikes and plank roads in the Keystone State.
Consequently, the oldest Pennsylvania Turnpike tokens command hundreds of dollars from collectors these days. Dunlap recently saw one go on eBay for $800.
Reference. Several of Dunlap’s prized tokens are on display at the Salem Historical Society as part of a look back at the Stark Electric Railway.
The Stark railway connected Canton with Salem. Once riders got to Salem, they could transfer to the Salem Electric system.
He pulls his catalog of values to search for two Salem tokens.
The Atwood-Coffee Catalogue of U.S. and Canadian Transportation Tokens, at least 3 inches thick, tells Dunlap the Salem 785 rail had two fare coins.
The plastic red one is now worth $60; the aluminum one with the round cutout is worth $40.
He’s got the aluminum one. He picked it up at a local antique store, paid a dime for it.
Many of the current tokens found at flea markets and between collectors have values between 15 cents and hundreds of dollars, Dunlap says.
None of those in his pocket today are worth more than a quarter, he says. That’s part of the reason he carries them, to share a bit of history with passersby.
“Kids really love them,” he says. “And older kids, too.”
Moving ahead. The tokens soon raced past their limited uses in transportation.
Business districts popping up near the railways issued “good for” tokens, good for a paper at the newsstand or a cup of joe at the coffee house.
Berry pickers were paid with tokens, and at the end of a workweek traded them in to their bosses for cash. Real estate tokens were used for credit on buying parcels for homes.
Tokens were the predecessors of modern-day coupons, Dunlap says.
Rarity. Dunlap keeps his eyes moving at flea markets and coin shops, but admits the tokens are hard to find these days.
He subscribes to a new issue service group to add 50-70 new tokens to his collection every year. Most are for short line trolleys or shopping center carousels, he says.
“Tokens just aren’t used much anymore. These days you get on a bus or subway and swipe your [rechargeable] card. The tokens are becoming more historic all the time,” he says.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)


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