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Category: Exonumia


HISTORY: We think of coins as “of the realm” items issued by whatever government is in power and in control of the finances and minting at the time. Replete throughout Numismatic Nudes is the coming and going of nations and rulers of nations. Yet, threaded through the weft and warp of coinage history is the token—not a coin, per se, but nevertheless a trading, exchange, or bartering device.

My first encounter with tokens was when I moved to San Francisco in the mid ‘60s. Transportation on the buses, trollies, and cable cars used tokens worth 20 cents (Detail 1). Then, you also got a time-stamped transfer slip, which was good for several hours. I would travel from one side of the city to the other and back again with one 20-cent token.

Tokens have been in use, in one capacity or another, since early (c. 200 BC) Roman times. Known as spintria (spintriae, plural), these small (25-mm diameter) tokens were minted in either bronze or brass. The themes were of explicit sexual acts, usually heterosexual depictions. Unfortunately, I don’t own one of these pieces, so you will have to search another source for actual examples. Numerous theories attempt to decipher their use and intent (gaming or brothel, for example); still, these spintriae remain a mystery.

By the 16th century, spintriae were commonplace in trade and barter. Where currency was in short supply or unavailable in an ever-changing world of states and city states, tokens were used in place of currency. In recent centuries, they have been used for drinks, dry goods, gaming, slot machines, and transportation, at local events, or just for fun.

The line between a token and a medal can get a little fuzzy. For instance, the Mardi Gras token (see M051) is about the same size as the Pan-American Exposition medal (see M026), and both were essentially created as souvenir pieces for their respective celebrations. Of course, there are numerous examples to shade this gray area, but one thing is for certain: They all share a unique place in the world of exonumia.

Detail 1 – SF MUNI Token