It might surprise you to know that even into the 1940’s, some American coal miners weren’t paid in cash or with a paycheck. They worked for flickers, clackers, lightweights and bingles. They were a form of currency generally known as coal scrip.
Scrip was a private currency issued by a coal company that was generally good only a businesses owned by the coal company like the company store. It allowed the coal company to make an additional profit supplying needed household goods and food to their workers. Other businesses might accept the currency, but if they did, they did so at a discounted value. This eventually led to many states requiring that the coal mining scrip be accepted at its face value.
“It was extremely rare to find in Maryland to begin with because the state made it illegal to pay coal miners in scrip about 1908,” Ed George, a Maryland coal scrip collector. “Some companies got around the law by locating their mines in Maryland but having their company headquarters in West Virginia.”
Another reason that finding Maryland Coal Scrip is rare is that 75 percent of coal scrip was used in West Virginia and Kentucky.
Though the first coal scrip was originally made from paper like a bank note or check, by the 20th Century coal companies were having token companies manufacture “coins” from brass, copper, aluminum, zinc and nickel. Most were stamped with the name of the company and the value of the coin, which ranged from a cent to $5. Some companies were a little fancier, stamping pictures on the coins, using scalloped edges or two different metals in the coin.
The Childs Company in Chicago, Illinois, was the first company to apply for a patent for it scrip design and system in 1899, according to an article by John Freddie Wilson on Ancestry.com. Other manufacturers soon followed, including Wright & Sons of Cincinnati, OH; Southern Rubber Stamp Works of Richmond, VA; S. H. Quints & Sons of Philadelphia, PA and the Ingle Company of Dayton, OH.
According to an Jack Hepler’s article, “Bi-metallic Coal Company Scrip,” 29 states had companies that issued scrip.
“World War II marked a turning point in the use of scrip and within 15 years, virtually all coal-mining operations were using only legal, US coins and currency. Much of the scrip was melted, some buried or simply thrown away. Today, scrip is difficult to find outside of the issuing localities and even there, a collector needs to do some serious searching for Bi-metallics,” Hepler wrote.
Maryland’s coal mining region is along the North Branch Potomac River that runs between Maryland and West Virginia and within the Georges Creek Region in Western Maryland. Small coal companies sprung up that were isolated from larger towns.
While many collectors trade coal scrip and sell it online and at yard sale, some collectors try to hunt the old coal scrip coins at the site of these old coal towns, many of which are ghost towns now.
“The problem with searching there,” says Dan Whetzel, a Maryland coal scrip collector “is that a lot of the old towns are on private property or the locations are so remote that they are difficult to get to and often snake infested.” He tells the story of one old coal miner who told Dan that he killed 50 rattlesnakes one summer and that the last remaining house in a coal town was snake infested.
He says that the obvious place to search for scrip is around the locations of the old company stores, but those are the first places that most hunters search so they have been pretty thoroughly scoured.
Because of the rarity of the scrip because of the legal reason and previous hunters, it can be as hard to find as other hidden treasures. Maryland coal scrip collector Allan Shively has hunted the ghost towns for scrip without any success. One time he asked an old miner about where would be a good place to hunt for coal scrip. The miner pointed him to a set of cement steps.
“He said that bags of the scrip had been dumped into the cement, to give it more volume,” Shively said.
Shively started collecting scrip for the fun of it to show his high school students. However, he has had a lot more luck finding Civil War bullets near the high school where he teaches.
For those who find coal scrip nowadays, they aren’t as lucky as businessmen in the past who could accept coal scrip for less than face value.
“Almost always now coal scrip goes for more than face value,” Whetzel said.
Hunting and collecting coal scrip is not a way to get rich quick. Most collectors do it for fun and as a way to connect with the local history of an area.
George first got involved in collecting years ago when he was traveling with his wife through West Virginia. They stopped in Beckley, WV, where one of the local tourist attractions was the West Virginia Exhibition Mine. Around the mine is a reconstructed coal mining town complete with a company store. Inside the store, George saw coal mining scrip for sale from Glen Jean, WV.
“My wife’s name was Jean so I thought it would be a nice souvenir,” George said. “It got out of hand from there as I became more interested in the history of mining.”