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In the study of numismatics, token coins or trade tokens are coin-like objects used instead of coins. The field of tokens is part of exonumia and token coins are token money. Tokens either have a denomination shown or implied by size, color or shape. In their purest form, currency tokens issued by a company crossed the boundary of merely being “trade” tokens when they were sanctioned by the local government authority. This was sometimes a measure resulting from a severe shortage of money or the government’s inability to issue its own coinage. In effect, the organization behind the tokens became the regional bank.
A classic example of this is the Strachan and Co trade tokens of East Griqualand in South Africa which were used as currency by the indigenous people in the region from 1874. Their initial success resulted from the scarcity of small change in this remote region from that time. Similarly, in times of high inflation, tokens have sometimes taken on a currency role. New York City Subway tokens were also accepted sometimes in trade, or even in parking meters, since they had a set value. A brothel token from the Red Dog Saloon.
Coin-like objects from the Roman Empire called spintria have been interpreted as a form of early tokens. Their functions are not known from written history, but they appear to have been brothel tokens or possibly gaming tokens. Medieval English monasteries issued tokens to pay for services from outsiders. These tokens circulated in nearby villages where they were called “Abbot’s money.
Also, counters called jetons were used as small change without official blessing. From the 17th to the early 19th century in the British Isles and North America, tokens were commonly issued by merchants in times of acute shortage of coins of the state to enable trading activities to proceed. The token was in effect a pledge redeemable in goods but not necessarily for currency. In England, the production of copper farthings was permitted by royal licence in the first few decades of the 17th century, but production ceased during the English Civil War and a great shortage of small change resulted. These tokens were most commonly made of copper or brass, but pewter, lead and occasionally leather tokens are also found.