Advertising Tokens: A Short History

Advertising Tokens: A Short History

The word ‘token’ (also known as unofficials or checks) in this context means a coin or similar object which is issued for use in place of regular or official coinage, and for advertising purposes.

Tokens have a long history and forms of metal token have been identified from Roman times and appear to have been used for similar purposes throughout history.

In Britain token came into prolific use as a replacement for official coinage, which was frequently in poor supply. For example, during the reign of Charles I (1600 – 1649), when official coinage was in short supply, and coins issued under licence were of poor quality. Various unofficial coins were struck at a local level, often showing the issuers name and place of issue, and officialdom tended to turn a blind eye to this.

An official edict, issued in 1672 after the introduction of a proper royal copper coinage, meant the use of unofficial privately-issued coinage had to cease.

19th century tokens did not enjoy the official toleration accorded to the earlier tokens, and their use as small change was therefore legally precarious. In order to get round this problem, most pieces bore a description of their issuer’s name, address and business interest, and deliberately omitted the word “farthing”, so that the said issuer could plead in his defence if need be that the tokens were intended solely as advertising piece and made no reference to monetary value.

A number of the 19th century tokens, mainly later ones, were genuine advertising pieces without other intent. For example tokens struck around the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851. These usually feature a picture, either of the exhibition hall or the head of Queen Victoria on the obverse, the latter sometimes with a date below as per the coins of the period. Occasional the tokens had the head of the Duke of Wellington, hero of the Peninsular Wars.

Whilst the second side was frequently taken up with bare description of the issuer and his business, many pieces illustrate the latter pictorially; references to the grocery and clothing trades are common, tea dealers and bakers featuring particularly, and also other trades such as metalwork and saddlery.

19th century tokens have a strong geographical weighting towards the Midlands and other industrial counties, Birmingham being their chief place of manufacture; Lancashire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire are the three most numerous counties. Quite a number of other counties are represented, but many of them only by a very few pieces.

It is thought that most pieces were farthings because such a modest coin might pass as being beneath the line of significance, but that any attempt to produce higher values would be more likely to incur the wrath of the authorities. Occasionally it was attempted, as in the case of the penny of London lamp manufacturer John Clark in 1854.

Research source: The Token Society

Possible Uses of Tokens

Cotton mill owners payed their workforce with tokens instead of cash, which the workers could then use to buy goods from the cotton mills own shop – one way to ensure your workforce stayed loyal.

Charities issued tokens to the poor, these were marked with potatoes, bread, coal etc., which the person could purchase from a designated shop. This ensured any monies given out were not spent on drink or other salacious activities.

Traders used tokens in connection with deposits paid for returnable packages. During the nineteenth century goods were sold in various containers baskets, sacks, wooden boxes, earthenware jugs or bottles. To ensure these were returned a deposit was charged and tokens issued to the buyer for an equivalent value. When the containers were returned with the token the money was refunded.

Pub tokens (or checks) were used throughout the country, although predominately Birmingham and London. Tokens with values ranging from one half penny to one shilling and may be made of brass, copper, or zinc. It is thought the tokens were used for various reasons are listed below:

  • Prepayment, to prevent handling of cash by bar staff.
  • Supply by employers to employees for refreshment at approved establishments.
  • To obtain refreshment as part of an entrance fee to a place of entertainment.
  • To avoid the gaming laws rules against cash rewards.

Some theatres used tokens as a form of ticket. You bought a token for a seat or a box, and handed it to the attendant to gain access to your seat or box. A number of theatres in London used metal tokens in this way. There are also tokens that appear to have been used for prepaid admission to meetings, music halls and events.

Research source: Philip & Harold Mernick

Examples of Local Tokens

D. Hill, Carter & Co., 34-37 High Street:

D. Hill, Carter & Co. advertising token, which was likely to be used for advertising purposes only. This token was found by a metal detector in Great Dunmow, Essex. D. Hill and Carter & Co Ltd. had a store at 35 to 37 High Street, the shop eventually becoming Blacketts department store in 1938.

Inscription: D. Hill, Carter & Co Ltd North Shields Clothing Manufacturers General Drapers, Hatters, Hosiers, Shippers & c

Reverse Inscription: North Shields, Stockton-on-Tees & West Hartlepool. 1825, established. Makers of all kinds of Fishermen’s and Seamen’s Clothing, Boots & c.

token silver shillingChristopher & Jennet:

This 1812 Stockton Silver Shilling Token was issued on behalf of Christopher and Jennet, who were booksellers and printers in Stockton during the early 19th century. Robert Christopher (1751-1819) & Thomas Jennett (1769-1846) booksellers and printers in Stockton-on-Tees. Jennett was Christopher’s apprentice and on the completion of his indentures, he was taken into partnership.

Image Source: Picture Stockton Archive, image courtesy of John Callender.

token 1813 one pennyThomas Jennett, 72 a bookseller is shown on the 1841 Census as living on the High Street (no house number). Thomas Jennett is shown as an Alderman of the Corporation of Stockton, 1827. Also shown trading as Sun Insurance Office, booksellers and stamp office High Street.

Research Source: ‘History, Directory & Gazetteer of Durham & Northumberland, 1827’. Leicester University.

1813 One Penny Token, Image Source: Picture Stockton Archive

TOKENS Stockton Coffee PalaceStockton Coffee Palace, 1877: 

In 1877, Mr Dodshon held a public meeting to promote the establishment of the Stockton Coffee Palace Company Ltd. His proposal was to establish a number of these temperance venues throughout the town. Each “palace” was intended to be a teetotal working man’s club. The Mayor of Stockton formally opened the first venue at Bridge End, South Stockton (i.e. Thornaby) in November 1878.

A few months later, the main venue, the Victoria Coffee Palace, opened in Dovecote Street in February 1879. And the following month another outlet was opened in Portrack Lane. The Stockton Coffee Palace token is thought to have been of use in paying for non-alcoholic drinks.

Research source: Picture Stockton Archive, image courtesy of Richard Groves of Dumfries.

TOKENS Charles YoungCharles Young’s Hardware, undated: 

Charles Young’s was based at 39 High Street between 1882 and 1887, when the firm became Young and Smith (1887 to 1898).

Research source: Stockton Heritage Initiative.


TOKENS SainsburysThere are similar tokens for J Sainsbury, with the same coat of arms.

Image source: World of Playing Cards

Co-op Milk Tokens: And for those of us of a certain age, it would be amiss if the Co-op milk tokens were not mentioned. These tokens came into use around the end of World War I and were still in use into the late 70’s, and maybe longer.

Each token was the same value as one pint. You bought the tokens from the local Co-op store, and put them out with your empty bottles, to pay for your milk. One token for each pint you required. Because the tokens were plastic, they were lighter for the milkman to carry about, and were deemed a safer option than carrying money.

Research Source: BBC History

Stories from the High Street participant: Alec Moody.

The ‘Stories…’ project is part of the Council’s wider “Grants for Heritage Buildings’ programme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Council, to help promote awareness and understanding of the town’s heritage.

Visit for further information on the project.