By Kirsti Scott

definition of exonumia

When beachcomber Marylou Forrest bent down and picked up what she thought was an old penny on the beach, what she had actually found was a token. Tokens, badges, souvenir medallions, subway tokens, poker chips, tags, and similar items are objects known as exonumia.

united cigar metal token found on beach

United Cigar token found by Marylou Forrest

The name comes from the Greek word exo meaning “out-of” and nummus, the Latin word for “coin.” (The equivalent term in British English is paranumismatica.) These coin-like items are issued not by governments but by merchants such as general stores, grocers, dairies, taverns, casinos, transit authorities, and more.

united cigar store

New Grand Central Theater and United Cigar store in 1925 by W.C. Persons, Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collections

One of the fun parts of beachcombing is tracking down the story behind our finds. With exonumia, there are often clues printed right on the piece to help with that research. Generally, tokens have  the merchant’s name and/or logo on one side and a value on the other. Marylou’s token was marked with “United Cigars” and her online research led her to a nationwide cigar chain started by Brothers Charles and George Whelan in 1901 in Syracuse, New York. By the 1920s, the business had nearly 3,000 stores across the U.S.

united cigar token on the beach

United Cigar token found by Marylou Forrest

While some United Cigar tokens had a value such as “Good for 5¢” and a particular store location on the back, the one Marylou picked up just had the “Stores from Coast to Coast” tagline on the back. It may have had some value in shops, or may have just been a promotional token used as an advertisement. 

different kinds of tokens exonumia

Chauffeur badge found by Marylou Forrest. New York Subway token, by A Katz. Poker chip, Ian Dyball.

Many of these tokens are now worth far more than the original value marked on the back. So, the next time you’re at the beach and you consider leaving that penny where it is, check it out first and see if maybe you just found the first item in your exonumia collection.

tokens on driftwood

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2021 issue.

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