DAVENPORT (AP) — They are the kinds of things you’d toss in your junk drawer and then — in a cleaning frenzy perhaps years into the future — throw away.
They are called trade tokens, coin-shaped pieces of wood or metal that are given away by businesses as a promotional item, an incentive to come back because they are “good for” something of value.
While they’re still around today, their heyday began in the late 1800s, continuing through the 1950s, Merle Vastine, an inveterate Davenport collector, said. A dairy token might have gotten you a free pint of milk, or a grocery token could have allowed you 5 cents off a loaf of bread.
Given the easy-to-forget and throw-away nature of these tokens, it is amazing to consider that someone managed to amass a collection of nearly 30,000 tokens and similar variations.
But someone did, and a year ago, Vastine managed to purchase that massive holding. Because Vastine’s interest is in items relating to Davenport and Davenport-area businesses, he is keeping those and selling the remainder.
Collecting trade tokens isn’t simply the gathering together of small pieces of metal, wood or other material. It is the history behind them that makes them so interesting to people like Vastine.
Finding a metal token printed with the words “Model Dairy,” for example, could set one on a search for who operated the business, when and where. Business directories and other histories would be consulted for clues.
That’s what makes tokens so interesting, that’s what makes collecting them fun. And when you find a trade token with a name you’ve never heard of before, you’re off on another search.
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Among the thousands of Davenport tokens in the Vastine collection are those from the Zoller Bros., who sold beer; Little Bit O’ Heaven, which was an attraction of curiosities assembled by B.J. Palmer, of Palmer College of Chiropractic; Martin Cigar Co., located in the Blackhawk Hotel; and the Hickey Bros., a cigar company.
Variations abound: While most metal tokens are round, shapes include diamonds, squares, triangles and hexagons. Some of the round pieces are scalloped, making them look like flowers, and some have round holes or other shapes, such as a crescent moon, cut in them.
Two of Vastine’s most cherished tokens are actually small pocket mirrors from Becker’s Bar in Davenport, with a mirror on one side and beautiful colored art work on the other.
The mirrors qualify as tokens because they say “Good For 10+ In Trade” on the side with the colored pictures, one of a beautiful young girl holding red flowers and the other of a woman in a risque costume.
Many people begin collecting tokens because they run across them in their already established hobby of coin collecting. Trade tokens become a sub-set, if you will. Another sub-set is called “encased pennies,” which is exactly as it sounds — a penny set inside a metal ring printed with the name of the business and a saying such as “Keep Me and You’ll Never Go Broke.”
Vastine is definitely not alone in his interest. In 2010, Gary Henderson, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, published an inches-thick reference book titled “Iowa Trade Tokens” with 25,000 listings, listed in alphabetical order from the town in which the tokens originated.
Scattered among photos of tokens are pictures of some of the businesses that handed them out.
Tokens, and the places they take you, are “good for” the love of history.