Prompted by an enquiry from an independent scholar, history curator Katie Cooper has been researching a series of 19th century tradesmen’s tokens in Te Papa’s numismatics collection. Here she provides a brief history of this fascinating colonial currency.
A shortage of change
In the early 19th century a variety of foreign coins were circulating in New Zealand, brought by whalers, sealers, traders, and tradesmen from all over the world.
British coinage was made legal tender in 1858, although the Colonial Government did not have the authority to strike its own coins. Settlers quickly found that lower denomination currency, needed for day-to-day trading, was in short supply.
Some business owners kept accounts for their customers and offered credit, while others gave change in the form of low value goods such as postage stamps and matches, rather than coins.
A few enterprising companies hit upon their own solution, and from 1857 they began importing unique tokens which could only be used for purchases in their stores.
Although never legal tender, these tokens were an important component of the circulating currency. In 1874 it was estimated that half of the copper coins in circulation in New Zealand were tradesmen’s tokens.
The tokens, usually issued in penny and half-penny denominations, were inconvenient for customers, as they could not be redeemed in other stores and if the issuer went out of business the tokens became worthless.
For merchants, however, they were a way of encouraging people to return to the store, and an effective form of advertising.
Most coins gave the name of the company, the location, and an indication of the types of goods and services offered. Some also provided visual clues, such as this token, issued by a Christchurch watchmaker and jeweller, which shows a clock, prize cup and watch face.
Many others depicted justice and fair trade in the form of Aequitas, the goddess of fairness and equity.
On this token, issued by Morrin & Co. of Auckland some time between 1862 and 1875, Aequitas is pictured standing in front of two traders, one Māori and one Pākehā, suggesting equity and egalitarianism in cross-cultural economic interactions.
It’s an ironic choice of imagery, however, for Morrin and Co. supplied provisions to military regiments stationed in Auckland in the 1860s, and thus profited from the New Zealand Wars.
Some tokens provide visual links to Home (Britain) such as these Auckland tokens which are inscribed with an arrangement of thistle, rose, and shamrock, representing Scotland, England, and Ireland.
Others feature symbols that connect them to a particular region, and highlight unique aspects of New Zealand’s flora and fauna.
These tokens from New Plymouth show a waka, kiwi, flax plant and tree ferns, with a mountain (perhaps Mt Taranaki or Paritutu Rock) towering behind.
This token, issued by George McCaul in 1874, shows the goldfields at Thames in full swing.
McCaul, lured by the promise of untold riches, travelled from Australia in 1861 to try his luck on the Otago goldfields. Having little success he moved on to Thames in 1868, a year after the goldfields opened, and made his money producing pipes, chimneys and colonial ovens for other miners.
Unique amongst the tokens is the 1874 issue by Samuel Coombes, an outfitter in Auckland and Grahamstown, which is inscribed with his likeness.
A distinctive New Zealand currency
In all, almost 60 traders issued their own tokens between 1857 and 1881. Their use declined rapidly after 1876 when a large supply of imperial coinage became available, and they were phased out in the 1880s.
New Zealand did not issue its own distinctive coins until 1933: it was the last British dominion to do so.
These 20th century coins, which featured native birds and Māori iconography on one side and the monarch on the other, allowed New Zealand to officially ‘proclaim its individuality to the world.’ The tradesmen’s tokens were used as inspiration for the designs.
Objects of interest
Around 1905 the Director of the Colonial Museum donated a number of tokens to the collection, noting that they were ‘palpable evidence of a peculiar phase of national life,’ and would ‘ever remain objects of interest to the collector and the historian.’
More than 100 years later the tokens remain objects of interest, providing insights into 19th century life and commerce. Inscribed into the copper and bronze are images of a young colony: images chosen by businessmen looking to cement their place in the community, the country, and the empire.
- Vaughn Humberstone, ‘Merchants Making Money: Biographical Articles on the Issuers of New Zealand Tokens’ (unpublished manuscript), 28. This manuscript includes a biography of each token issuer as well as information on the makers.
- Deputy Master of the Royal Mint, 1935-6, quoted in Allan Sutherland, Numismatic History of New Zealand: History Reflected in Money and Medals (Wellington: New Zealand Numismatic Society, 1941), 271.
- ‘New Zealand Tokens,’ Grey River Argus, 4 June 1906.