You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
Tennessee Ernie Ford
Until the late 1950’s, when changes in federal and state laws, along with changing economic realities doomed the practice, many companies issued tokens, or scrip, for use by their employees in company run stores. This was especially widespread in the coal fields of Appalachia, where many miners also lived in company owned towns. In these company towns, or “coal camps,” the only store in town was usually owned or run on behalf of the coal company.
In theory, scrip was an advance against unearned wages and usable only by the employee to whom it was issued. In practice, many miners were never able to fully retire their debt to the company store and scrip became the unofficial currency of the community, even being placed in the collection plates of some coal town churches.
Scrip in the very beginning was more a trade credit or demand deposit at the single local general store. Ledger credit scrip, however, gave way to scrip coupon books, which eliminated the tedious bookkeeping chores involved in over the counter credit – transactions that must be followed by ledger entries.
The institutions that supplied coupon scrip were companies already in business printing tickets, tokens, and metal tags for various other kinds of enterprises. They advertised extensively in mining catalogues during the first half of the twentieth century touting the advantages of their own scrip systems.
The Allison Company of Indianapolis, for example, noted that when one of its coupon books was issued to an employee, he signed for it on the form provided on the first leaf of the book, which the store keeper tore out and retained for the company time keeper, who deducted the amount from the man’s next time-check. Then when the employee bought goods from the company store, he paid in coupons, just as he would pay in cash.
Other scrip producing ticket companies emphasized the safety of the scrip coupon system in coal mining communities where little or no police protection was available.
The Arcus Ticket Company of Chicago advertised a list of advantages of scrip for both the employer and employee, one of which for the employer was the fostering of employee good-will by eliminating misunderstandings on charge accounts. The advantages to the employee included keeping the head of the house better informed as to the purchases made by his family from day to day. This frequently put a check on extravagance and debt. Local scrip of this type was very similar to modern day traveler’s checks.
The transaction costs of coupon scrip eventually encouraged the increased use of metal scrip. This medium became cheaper overall than coupon scrip, in spite of metal’s higher initial costs, largely due to the invention and development of the cash register after 1880. Pantographic machines also were instrumental in reducing the unit costs of metal tokens.
In addition to metal tokens, there exist numerous examples of tokens made from “compressed fibre,” a paper-like substance, most issued during World War II to save the metals for the war effort.
Scrip was usually denominated in the same values as U.S. currency. However, at least two companies issued a piece denominated three cents. The largest tokens were most frequently $1.00 face value. Pieces with a higher face value are very common. Special tokens, called “exploders,” were used to facilitate the issuance of blasting powder, caps, and dynamite.
The obverse of the token usually indicated the name of the company or store issuing the scrip, and the value of the piece. A place name frequently appeared, not always where the token was used. Sometimes, the location of the general offices of the coal or store company appeared instead.
The reverse of the scrip usually contained the name and logo; designs changed fairly frequently. Other information, such as value and name of the issuing company is sometimes added. Pieces with no manufacturer identification exist in abundance and are termed “unattributed.”
This article is originally posted in Appalachian History website hosted by Author Dave Tabler