North Carolina “Woods”

The history of wooden money in the United States began in the Pacific Northwest in 1931, in the small city of Tenino in the eastern portion of the State of Washington. The nation was in the midst of the Great Depression at the time and the severe economic conditions forced the failure of the city’s local bank – the Citizens Bank of Tenino; the failure occurred on December 5, 1931. The bank’s failure meant that all deposited assets were temporarily unavailable. This caused an almost immediate shortage of currency in Tenino for day-to-day transactions.

The city’s Chamber of Commerce, based on a suggestion by Don Major, the publisher of the local newspaper, decided to remedy the situation by creating emergency scrip for local circulation. The Chamber issued scrip to Citizens Bank customers in an amount up to 25% of the value of their deposits at the bank (i.e., an account with $1,000 deposited was eligible for up to $250 of scrip). The first scrip issued by the Chamber was printed on paper, but it was soon switched to thinly-sliced pieces of Sitka spruce and thus became the first wooden money issue in the United States.1, 2

The Tenino pieces generated interest and notoriety across the country, with a fair number of the pieces being purchased as souvenirs by non-residents via telephone and mail-order requests. In the end, the Chamber only had to redeem about $40 worth of the wooden money released out of a total issue of $10,308.3 Though the Depression continued in the US for several more years and additional banks failed, the use of wooden money as local “emergency money” did not become widespread in the US and was, in fact, very limited. This limited and brief use, however, did not signal the demise of the pieces. Instead, they transformed into a popular souvenir and fund raising vehicle for cities and civic organizations wishing to mark an important local event or historic anniversary. Literally thousands of souvenir commemorative woods have been issued in the US since 1933, with additional thousands issued in other countries.

How did the woods serve as a commemorative souvenir and fund raiser? Typically, the woods would be purchased by a sponsoring organization from a manufacturer at a price below their face value. The sponsoring group would then sell the woods at face value, either directly or through local merchants; the woods were sometimes used by participating local merchants as change for purchases made in their store. Many of those who purchased/received the wooden scrip would keep it as a souvenir of the celebration rather than redeem them at local participating merchants/banks or the sponsoring group’s headquarters. Once the expiration date for exchanging the woods passed, the net proceeds from unredeemed woods would be used by their sponsor to offset the costs of the celebration.

The largest manufacturer of the woods was the John B. Rogers Producing Company of Fostoria, Ohio. The company was created in 1903 as a supplier of costumes, sets and scripts for amateur stage productions, as well as to actually stage shows and train the actors participating in them – this was the company’s primary business.4 In the 1930s, however, the company copyrighted a design for the burgeoning wooden nickel market and was the largest producer of the pieces for the next couple of decades as evidenced by the number of woods that bear its printed notice.

Turning to North Carolina’s use of these commemorative souvenir pieces…

More than three dozen NC towns/cities/counties and civic organizations have issued souvenir woods since the first such issue in 1938. A survey of the state’s issues reveals that for almost the first 20 years of their use in NC, the woods produced were of the type called “flats.” These pieces are made of thin, rectangular pieces of wood, and generally have printing on both sides. The front of these woods features text – and often graphics – describing the event being celebrated, while their backs generally feature text explaining how to redeem the piece. It wasn’t until 1957 that a round commemorative wood was released in NC when Albemarle issued a set of three wooden nickels (valued at $0.05, $0.10 and $0.25) to mark the centennial of its incorporation as a city. From that point, round woods became the predominant form issued.5

As noted above, North Carolina’s first experiment with souvenir wooden money came in 1938. It was then that Pageant of Progress, Inc., located in High Point, NC, decided to create a wooden nickel to mark the Piedmont’s 50 years of manufacturing growth. Furniture manufacturing was central to the area’s development, as was the textile industry. High Point, with its central location and good access to transportation, was a key center for the region. Its importance to NC’s growing furniture industry was solidified in 1911 when the Southern Furniture Manufacturers’ Association decided to base its headquarters in High Point.6

The 1938 Pageant of Progress wood is shown in Figures 1 and 2. The wood is 4 inches in length and 2-1/4 inches in width (nearly all NC-issued rectangular woods have roughly similar dimensions). The front of the group’s nickels feature black printing with a green border; the back of each piece has only black printing. The wood is serial numbered, which makes it among the minority of NC’s wooden money as most woods issued in the state were not so numbered.

1938 Pageant of Progress Wood

In 1940, the Fourth Annual Tobacco Exposition & Festival was held in Wilson, NC; it was promoted by the Wilson Chamber of Commerce. At the time, Wilson, which billed itself as “The World’s Largest Bright-Leaf Tobacco Market,” was home to thirteen tobacco warehouses that had over one million square feet of combined floor space as well as ten tobacco re-drying plants. In 1939, more than 91 million pounds of tobacco were sold at auction in Wilson.7 The 1940 Festival’s organizers issued a set of three woods for the occasion; all were valued at $0.05 but each featured a different design and print color (green, violet or red). Shown here are the front and back of the green “Tobacco Leaf” issue.

1940 Tobacco Exposition & Festival Wood

North Carolina’s gold history has also been commemorated on wooden money. In 1949, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in North Carolina by Conrad Reed, the Cabarrus Sesqui-Centennial Gold Celebration, Inc. issued a series of woods as part of its celebration held in Concord, NC. The group had two releases of their woods, a “Special Issue” and a “Second Issue,” with three nickels in each. All of the woods were valued at $0.05 and each issue featured individual woods printed in brown, green or red. The Concord celebrations “included an outdoor drama, a beard-growing contest, a Miss Cabarrus Gold pageant, an air show, a midway, a performance by massed choirs and a visit by Gov. Kerr Scott.”8 Featured here are examples of the front and back of woods from the “Second Issue.”

1949 Cabarrus Sesqui-Centennial Gold Celebration Wood

To help celebrate Durham’s 1953 centennial and “100 Years of Progress,” the Durham Centennial and Historical Commission sponsored a variety of wooden script, with each individual piece being referred to as a “Wooden Nickel Certificate.” Most of the issues were co-sponsored by local Durham businesses such as Duke Power Company, United Department Stores and Belk Liggett Company; each was labeled as a “Special Issue.” In total, 10 businesses sponsored a “Special Issue” piece. The Commission reserved the “Official Issue” wood for itself. All of the Durham Centennial woods had the same value and redemption criteria. Shown below are the front of the Commission’s “Official Issue” piece, the front of a “Special Issue” piece sponsored by the Colonial Furniture Company and the common back of all of the Durham Centennial issues.

1953 Durham Centennial / Official Issue Wood – Front

1953 Durham Centennial / Special Issue Wood – Front

1953 Durham Centennial Wood – Common Back

I’ll conclude this brief survey of the souvenir woods of North Carolina with a look at the round 1958 Greensboro Sesquicentennial pieces. Greensboro was established in 1808 as the County Seat for Guilford County. As part of its 150th anniversary, a series of four round woods were issued, each with a different graphic on the front and each printed in a different color (blue, green, purple or red). The woods measure 1-1/4 inches in diameter. The nickel shown features a simple portrait of Captain John Sloan of the Guilford Greys, a militia company organized in Greensboro on March 15, 1860; John Sloan was elected Captain of the unit on April 20, 1861. The Greys began their service in the Confederate Army on June 20, 1861.9

1958 Greensboro Sesquicentennial Wood

I’ve discussed here only redeemable North Carolina wooden money that was officially issued as a commemorative souvenir by an event’s sponsor. NC woods used as advertising pieces by companies and/or promotional pieces for events such as coin shows are far more numerous, with issue totals likely being in the hundreds, if not the thousands. Personally, as a collector of historical commemoratives, I find the official souvenir issues and the stories behind them much more compelling.

The fascinating story of North Carolina’s wooden money is far too long to complete here, so I’ll have to revisit the topic at some point in the future and explore such commemorative souvenirs as the 1946 “Homecoming Celebration” pieces of Caldwell County, the 1955 “Polkorama” woods of Polk County, the 1939 Wilmington Bicentennial pieces and the 1954 “Wooden MacNickel” woods of Cumberland County.

Until next time, Happy Collecting!

-- David Provost

© Copyright D. Provost 2013. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Sources:

  1. Hudson, Thomas. Guide Book of Wooden Money, 6th ed. Gardena, CA: Payne Publishing Company, 1966. 1-3. Print.
  2. Dennis, MW. Guide Book of Wooden Money 1931 – 1994, 8th ed. Henderson, NV: Self-published, 1995. viii. Print.
  3. Dennis, viii.
  4. Foundation and Growth of John B. Rogers Producing Company. Fostoria, OH: John B. Rogers Producing Company. ~1930. PDF.
  5. Dennis, 96-97.
  6. North Carolina Business History. Communications Solutions/ISI. Web. 26 July 2013.
  7. Wilson City Directory, Vol. XIII, 1947-48. Richmond, VA: Hill Directory Co., Inc. 1948. PDF.
  8. Powell, Lou. “Glitter of gold once pulled Cabarrus together.” North Carolina Miscellany. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina Collection. 29 September 2011. Web. 26 July 2013.
  9. The Original Guilford Greys. Guilford Greys. Web. 26 July 2013.