By Wayne Homren for The E-Sylum eNewsletter….
Each week, CoinWeek, in collaboration with the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, brings you a highlighted feature from the current volume of the E-Sylum eNewsletter.
Bruce Smith submitted the following history of food stamp change tokens and their collecting. -Wayne Homren, Editor
For those who weren’t collecting in the 1970s and don’t remember these tokens, a little background.
From the 1930s onward, food coupons were available to individuals and families whose income was below a certain level. The system is still around today, but the coupons have been replaced by a SNAP card similar to a credit card. The coupons used during the ‘60s through the ‘90s were the same size as and similar to currency, and were probably printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (they were shredded along with currency and sold in bags to visitors to the Bureau). The coupons were colorful and well-made and attracted the interest of collectors. However, possession (or collecting) of food stamps by those not registered in the program was illegal.
In the 1960s the lowest value “food stamp” was 50 cents. About 1970 that value was eliminated and one dollar was the lowest value coupon. By law, stores weren’t allowed to give real money in change for food coupons, but the government provided no means to solve this problem.
As a result, each store came up with its own method. Many stores, especially smaller ones, simply wrote out the amount of change due on the register receipt, initialed it and gave it to the customer to be used on his next visit. Other stores had paper scrip printed with which to make change. Some stores had metal tokens made to use for change. Some stores had plastic tokens made. The earlier plastic tokens came in sets of four values — 1, 5, 10, and 25 cents. The only tokens I’ve seen in this series were dollar size.
When the 50 cent coupon was discontinued, stores began using five-piece sets that included a 50 cent token. The vast majority of these five-piece sets are in a standard format — 29mm with a common reverse reading: FOOD STAMP CREDIT / (value) / IN ELIGIBLE FOODS. The colors were also standard: 1c black, 5c green, 10c blue, 25c orange, 50c pink. All were made by the Plasco Company in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The style of the reverse changed from time to time, all with white lettering, except on the last issue, which has no colored lettering but has raised lettering instead.
The law was changed beginning in January 1979, allowing stores to give out actual coins for amounts below one dollar and the food stamp change tokens disappeared. Plasco is still in business today–still making 29mm plastic tokens for bars–but now offers other sizes and styles of tokens.
There is a catalog of food stamp tokens used in California, and such tokens are listed in the supplements to the catalog of Wisconsin tokens, and possibly in the Pennsylvania token catalog. I have recorded food stamp tokens in my catalog of Missouri tokens (not yet published). In my collection I have over 50 different sets from St. Louis alone, and probably 100 to 200 sets from other towns in the state. The tokens were used in all 50 states and in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Though there has been little collector interest in them, most food stamp tokens are actually RARE. Why? When the tokens were discontinued, Neil Shafer in Milwaukee went to the manufacturer in LaCrosse and purchased all the samples kept by the company for reference. All uncirculated and mostly in full sets, thousands of these sets were sold around 1980 through auctions by Christensen & Stone (Temple City, CA) and later by other token dealers. I tried to buy every Missouri set in the C & S sales, but I missed a few — and never saw them offered again until the past year or so.
Back in the 1980s these tokens were generally only sold in full sets, for $2 to $3 a set. The ones I missed that’ve turned up on eBay in the past year I was unable to buy at $15 to $20 a set. The reason most of these tokens are rare is because most of them only exist as samples from the manufacturer — who was unlikely to have kept more than two or three sets from each issuer. The stores most likely threw away the ones they had on hand. Many store owners believed, incorrectly, that the tokens were also illegal to own (or collect) if you were not registered in the program.
I was living in Stevens Point, Wisconsin in the late 1970s. Three IGA food stores there used these 29mm sets. Two of the stores would sell me all the tokens I wanted — once I pointed out that I would be cataloging and selling them to collectors, and every token sold (except the one cent) would be complete profit for the store (the tokens cost the store about 3 cents each at that time). I of course paid face value for the tokens. One store refused to sell me any tokens because the manager believed it was illegal. The other two stores were particularly happy to sell me tokens from other stores in the area which they had accepted my mistake. In the end, I put together a collection of about 60 different tokens from the three Stevens Point stores, which had used seven different series of tokens (though the store was undoubtedly unaware of this).
Neil Shafer submitted the following history of his involvement with food stamp change tokens. Thanks! -Wayne
I’ve been interested in this vast collecting field since 1966 when Milwaukee went on the Food Stamp Program. I believe I was the first one to cross the bridge between collectors and individuals on the Food Stamp Program; they couldn’t save their food stamp change and collectors by and large were not involved with the Program so they had no knowledge of what was being issued to food stamp customers.
Another strong attraction to me was that such issues existed only because the government said they had to be used instead of coins, even though no store wanted to use them. It didn’t matter what form this mandated store change took, as long as it served the purpose of keeping such change within the limits of the Program.
I wrote several articles in the Whitman Numismatic Journal (two in 1966, one in 1968) barely scratching the surface of this area. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said no more special food stamp change was necessary as of the end of 1970, I scrambled big time and located a good number of then-obsolete issues from all over the country.
They came in all forms: scrip in denominations, various one-time-usage forms, and many different kinds of tokens. Some were plastic. Others were made of aluminum, brass, cardboard, or wood (the wooden tokens were the size of regular wooden nickels).
Then in March 1972, the USDA surprised everyone with the announcement that the food stamp change requirement was to be reinstated, and the scramble was on in earnest. That’s when Personalized Plastics came to the fore. The La Crosse-based company put out what must have been thousands of flyers promoting their plastic token sets, and the response was tremendous.
They were also sympathetic to my request for samples, as they sent me pieces from so many different locations that I had to send some to Christensen and Stone in California so they could sell them to help me pay PP for such a quantity. I did save a set from each store.
Their shipment to me covered the approximate years from 1973 through around 1975. The company was then sold to Plasco and I was refused any more cooperation whatsoever, so I have no firsthand knowledge of anything they produced after they took over. I imagine it was in the thousands of sets to various stores around the country.
There has been some literature on the subject from time to time. Jerry Schimmel put out his Food Stamp Change newsletter for a while. He published a listing of food stamp tokens only (no paper scrip or forms) at the time he began his newsletter in 1980. I know various state listings have also been published but I don’t have more exact information (I think Florida is one).
In the Dec. 1972 TAMS Journal I wrote an article titled “Food Stamp Tokens, Scrip and Due Bills Nationwide”, in which I illustrated a number of different tokens (including one of the wood issues) and paper issues. In the April 1989 Numismatist, an individual named Harold F. Nelson wrote an article titled “A Collector’s Feast of Food Stamps”. He shows some tokens and paper change as well. I have also written various articles in Bank Note Reporter on the subject from time to time.
I firmly believe this area of collecting is virtually limitless. It can never be complete, that is obvious, and any listing of any sort is always subject to revision and additions. That being said, it still doesn’t limit the fun of collecting something with strong social connotations, plus the very possible discovery of previously-unknown issues to the numismatic world.
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see: FOOD STAMP CHANGE TOKEN INFORMATION SOUGHT