Wooden Nickel proves to be a priceless heirloom. Brief history of wooden nickels in the United States

I recently rediscovered these wooden nickels in a keepsake box buried in the back of a closet. They had belonged to my grandfather. While serving as Worshipful Master of Freedom Lodge #328 in 1998, he distributed them to fellow masons and friends. 

As I have few possessions that belonged to my grandfather, who died of ALS in 2010, these wooden nickels are particularly valuable to me. If interested, you can read his autobiography here. Recently I’ve wondered about the history of the wooden nickel and why people handed them out. 


Brief History of Wooden Nickels

Here in the United States, a wooden nickel was not (typically) legal tender but instead more of a novelty coin often redeemable for an item such as a drink issued by merchants or banks as part of a promotion. Wooden nickels became popular in the 1930s though they may date back to the 1880s. During the Great Depression, Tenino and Blaine Washington banks issued emergency currency printed on thin wood shingles due to coin shortages.

Usually, wooden nickels served more of a commemorative purpose, becoming a popular handout from banks to boy scout troops at grand openings and special events. A good example is the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair which issued wooden nickels as souvenirs.

1933 Chicago World’s Fair Wooden Nickel

The tradition of wooden nickels as tokens and souvenirs continues today. My grandfather had them printed to commemorate his year as Worshipful Master. More recently, wooden nickel trading has become more popular. Individuals can have their own personalized token made and then trade with others who have had their own made. It is especially popular in geocaching.

Wooden nickels come in a variety of designs. Several popular stock designs hearken to the Buffalo nickel struck by the United States Mint from 1913 to 1938. It featured the head of a Native American on one side and a bison on the other. Sculptor James Earle Fraser designed the coin.

The Buffalo nickel or Indian Head nickel

“Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

This lighthearted adage serves as a reminder to be cautious in one’s dealings and not permitting yourself to be cheated or duped. The saying likely predates the use of wooden nickels as a replacement currency, suggesting that its origins lie not in the genuine monetary value of the nickels but rather in their purely commemorative nature.

Office for Emergency Management, War Production Board. (circa 1942-43)


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