newspaper print of first wooden money On December 5, 1931, the Citizen's Bank of Tenino, Washington (pronounced 10-9-OH) failed and created a shortage of money. This left the merchants of the area unable to get change without traveling about 30 miles over mountainous roads in automobiles ill suited to that purpose, on roads that were built for horses and mules to traverse. The average round trip was about four hours. Much too long for merchants to be gone from their stores. A meeting of the Chamber of Commerce resulted in the local newspaper printing up the first issue of wooden money in the United States.
In 1933, Blaine, Washington issued round wooden coins when their bank failed. These were the first issues of wooden money in the U.S. Several other places, mostly in the Pacific North-West, issued wooden money after that. Some followed the flat format of Tenino and others used round pieces. The Century of Progress in Chicago in 1933 was the first place to use wooden money pieces as souvenirs. Several issues were made - all round. Some are the size of a silver dollar and others are about three inches in diameter. In 1934 a new use for wooden nickels was found-a combination of advertising for civic celebrations and providing souvenirs of the celebration. Binghamton NY was one of first places to embrace this concept. Wood continued to be used to enhance civic celebrations such as centennials through the mid 1930's and really started to be cranked out in 1938 when the J. R. Rogers Company of Fostoria, Ohio obtained a copyright on their design for wooden money. While the Rogers Company had competition and the competition also issued wooden money, woods produced for Rogers continue to be the most readily found.
Just when the adage "Don't take any Wooden Nickels!" was added to the American language is unclear, but the reasons are easy to understand. First of all, each wood had an expiration date and generally even a specific final redemption time. If you were in a possession of a handful of wooden nickels that expired at noon today and your best customer came through the door at five minutes to noon, it would be difficult to get to centennial headquarters to cash them in. Many Wooden Nickels also said they had to be unbroken, and the rectangular "Flats" were pretty fragile.
Probably the Rogers Company's use of wooden money should be studied as one of the great marketing schemes of the 20th Century. They had the wooden pieces printed up sometime prior to the actual celebration. They then sold the woods to area merchants for face value and the merchant in turn gave the Wooden Nickels, Wooden Dimes, and Wooden Quarters to their customers in change. The woods usually carried the time, date and place of the celebration. So in effect you had paid to take home an advertisement for the event.