Last week Wifey and I were hanging out at our local antique mall when a woman came in wanting to sell a Tupperware full of bits and baubles. Among the jewelry and silverware was a small jewelry-sized baggie full of tokens. Although I’m no help when it comes to jewelry, Wifey was glad I was around to evaluate the tokens. As you may have noticed, money and money-like things are one of the things I collect. The baggie held some generic arcade tokens, a nice Sioux City transit token that went into my collection, a few southeast Asia Playboy Club tokens went into Wifey’s collection, but the rest were a variety of trade tokens.
Today, some retailers have gotten all high-tech by distributing deals by texts and the internet, but even paper coupons are barely more than a hundred years old. Coca-Cola is considered the creator of the modern coupon, offering free drinks in hopes of hooking a lifelong customer, and once it proved effective for Coke other products followed suit.
Soap, of all types and uses, was a commonplace product that was just growing in demand in the early 20th century — regular washing and bathing was an uncommon experience until Victorian times — and each new entry into the market needed to elbow its way into people’s kitchens and washrooms. The reason people still watch ‘soap operas’ hails back to one of the most successful soap marketing methods, making Procter and Gamble one of the more successful television production companies today. Coupons for free products, like Coca-Cola’s successful plan, became one of the soap industry’s more successful efforts to get their products into the hands of customers.
The soap coupon tokens I have are also rooted in an earlier type of token: the trade token. Trade tokens were issued by a business, municipality, organization, or other group as a sort of fiat currency. Regular customers could earn a trade token through repeat patronage, or as an encouragement to shop at an institution. They were often marked with the business’ name, and a value in money or product. These were truly tokens, not just coupons, made of metal and sized to be similar to other currencies of the time. People carried them around in their changepurse and used them as currency when applicable. Quite often they were good for fifty or twenty-five cents — a couple dollars in today’s money — at a general store or specialty shop, but you can easily compare a saloon providing trade tokens good for one drink to Coca-Cola’s coupon plan. Trade tokens lasted through the end of the nineteenth century, but slowly faded out at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Coupon tokens did survive in some corners well into the twentieth century, particularly if you remember Sambo’s coffee tokens or Country Kitchen coins. Those soap companies, who offered all sorts of freebies and offers in many different forms, found the greatest value in making coin-shaped coupon tokens. One benefit the soap companies found was that the metal tokens could be easily included in the packages of soaps, which often lived in wet places, without running the risk of damage that a paper coupon might encounter. The tokens also found their way into customers’ hands via mail, and their portability and resilience made them easily pocketable and carried about.
The Palmolive company and James S Kirk Co were the biggest producers of these coupon tokens, mostly during the 1920s. The tokens were often called “coupon checks”, because they had an actual monetary value to the retailer that accepted the coin. Retailers were welcome to accept the tokens if they chose, and could get a banner to show off their participation, but a review of old newspaper ads showed that the attempt to redeem tokens was so common that retailers who didn’t participate said so in their ads, to avoid having to refuse the tokens in the checkout line.
These coupon tokens were mostly aluminum, and some bronze, and they came in a variety of shapes and formats. Some were circles, like their money counterparts, but soap tokens could also be square, rectangle, octagonal, or oblong ovals. Most were on the large side, an inch or more in diameter, and many even had a hole in the middle. The wide variety of shapes and sizes makes for a collection as varied and interesting as any foreign coin collection, and the tokens are surprisingly common. This makes soap coupon tokens a cheap introduction into the art of exonumia, from an antique and unique perspective, without breaking the bank.