A growing number of communities (Brixton, Totnes, Bristol) now use scrip (a community currency or loyalty programme) as a way to keep business activity local and increase community resilience to economic shocks we look at one of many historical precedents
In 1931, during the depression, the Citizens Bank in the small U.S. town of Tenino, Washington, closed its doors after running completely out of money. As it only had one bank there was no longer any cash currency available for the exchange of goods and services.
The Chamber of Commerce received permission from Congress to begin printing their own money. A committee was formed that included the town’s physician, Dr. Wichman, dentist Dr. Meyer, and Don Major, the publisher of the local newspaper the Thurston County Independent. After a few attempts with paper money, the Chamber decided to make currency out of wood, which was readily available.
Major began printing pieces of temporary currency on thin, 1/80th-of-an-inch-thick pieces of “slicewood,” two strips of spruce, laminated, with a piece of paper in the middle. He started with 25¢ denominations, and later produced somewhat larger amounts, including 50¢ and $1.
A number of other cities and towns across the U.S. ended up printing scrip notes or IOUs on slips of paper. Even after the Depression had finally abated, Tenino’s tradition of wooden money survived. The town continued to print souvenir and commemorative bills, usually annually, to meet the demands of collectors. Word of the wooden money spread quickly, and soon requests from currency collectors across the country poured in.
The Tenino Depot Museum, which now houses the original press, holds a number of “request letters” from people who would write to Tenino to see if they could get their hands on the unique currency. Loren Ackerman has been running the original printing press since the 1990s, when he took it over from the previous caretakers after they grew too old to operate it safely. “Running the press is… how should I put it… not OSHA-approved,” he says. “If you slip at all, you’re going to bite your fingers.” As he fires up the machine, he shares the history of the wooden money.
Recently printed wooden money can be bought at local businesses. Anyone can walk in to a local ‘50s style café, Scotty B’s. and buy wooden money in denominations of $1, $5, or $10, to keep as a souvenir, or spend in town. It can be used at most of the local businesses as legal tender, as intended in 1931.
Ackerman has taught one of his sons to use the press so that the tradition can continue when the time comes.