The nickel coin has been in use in the United States in the form of coins since 1866. The United States has seen many types of nickels in circulation throughout history. One such term that people often consider a legal tender, and a nickel that people often forget, is the wooden nickel.
As the name suggests, a wooden nickel uses wood as its prime source of the material (or make). An antique and rare wooden nickel in immaculate condition can fetch prices of up to $40 – $50 (for the rarest of nickels), depending on factors such as rarity, condition, and – of course – type.
Meanwhile, in other cases, wooden nickels can be sourced cheaply. So, you can expect to find excellent examples of old and antique wooden nickels for under $5 from specific auction sites and coin clubs, etc.
Before we discuss the different types of wooden nickels and their respective values, it is essential to shed some light on the wooden nickel’s history and prior use. We will learn how the wooden nickel helped the Americans, especially in the 1930s when the United States was overlooking the Great Depression.
Wooden Nickel Value History
There’s a vital distinguishment between a federally supplied nickel coin and a wooden nickel that needs to be addressed. At first glance, the wooden nickel seems to be a legal tender or a form of currency that can assist in trade and commerce. However, in practice, the wooden nickel doesn’t work like that.
The history of the wooden nickel can be traced back to the 1900s. The first wooden nickel was sourced in 1934 when it was used as a token for a fair in Birmingham, New York. The 1930s was also the time wherein the United States was facing the brutal consequences of the Great Depression.
During the Great Depression, the United States mintage experienced a decline in nickel-made coins, which caused issues at the bank’s end. However, the banks had a smart answer: printing currency on circular wooden pieces.
With the help of banks and newspapers, the local Chamber of Commerce regulated a provisional certificate of money that defined an individual’s ownership and possession of an item (scrip). Shingles of wood were used to put the Chamber’s ideas into practice.
Therefore, prominent banks in the States, including Blaine Washington and Tenino, started labeling currency values on pieces of wood, which were similar in shape and size to that of the already-circulating nickel coins – hence, the term “wooden nickels.” Other banks followed in pursuit of the smart (and relatively cheap) idea used by the banks based in Washington and Tenino.
The abundance of wood assuaged the burden on the United States Mint to produce nickel-made coins. Moreover, the changes made by the banks were widely accepted by local businesses, hence, promoting trade and progressing economic growth.
Several wooden nickels had an expiration date printed to avoid inflation and encourage economic spending – a positive sign for a well-performing economy. However, as pleasant (and cheap) as it may sound, the wooden nickel couldn’t kick off as a legal tender/ form of currency as accepted by the federal government.
Nickel coins have been circulating in the American economy as legal tender since 1866. Up until now, the United States has seen a total of 3 different types of nickels: Liberty Head nickel (1883 – 1993), Buffalo or Native American Head nickel (1913 – 1938), and Jefferson nickel (1938 – present).
A quick look at the first wooden nickels would reveal that they resembled the Buffalo or Native American Head nickels circulated by the federal government between 1913 and 1938. So, several antique wooden nickels are found with either a Buffalo or a Native American head imprinted on them. Such wooden nickels can be found listed on eBay as being sold for under $10, in good condition.
With that said, people used wooden nickels in important fairs, especially the 1933 Chicago World Fair. Wooden nickels appeared as tokens and allowed people to exchange souvenirs. The wooden nickels used in the 1933 Chicago Fair had varied sizes. The nickels closely impersonated the size of a normal-sized silver dollar/nickel-made currency and were 3 inches thick in diameter.
An excellent example of a 1933 Chicago World Fair wooden token was recently listed on eBay for an impressive $55.00. Nonetheless, many other third-party sellers and sites are selling a 1993 Chicago World Fair wooden nickel/token in good condition and offering appealing deals.
In other ways, businesses used wooden nickels to promote their sales. For example, Sambo’s, an American restaurant chain, allowed consumers to exchange a cup of coffee for a (Sambo’s) wooden nickel. Such wooden nickels, in original condition, are cataloged on sites like eBay for under $10.
However, the use of wooden nickels in banks was short-lived as the era of the Great Depression moved toward its end. Nevertheless, the tradition of using wooden nickel in special events like Fairs and festivals continues to date.
Modern uses of wooden nickels are seen in the form of souvenirs. Moreover, the wooden nickels can be customized to match customer preferences. Several sites sell various wooden nickels with different designs, including smiley faces and quotations.
The table below shows the values of certain (antique) wooden nickels used by clubs and fairs in the form of tokens:
|Wooden Nickels Catalog|
|Catalog Number||Description||Rarity||Catalog Value|
|WN-1.1||C. McNeese||S (7)||$5.00|
|WN-2.1||Club El Marino Natural Wood Blue ink||C (13)||$5.00|
|WN-2.2||Club El Marino Silver Nickel||R (3)||$20.00|
|WN-2.3||Club El Marino Natural Wood Black ink||RR (1)||$20.00|
|WN-3.1||Columbus Club Christmas 1970||S (5)||$5.00|
|WN-3.2||Columbus Club New Year 1971 Indian Head||S (5)||$5.00|
|WN-3.3||Columbus Club New Year 1971 Buffalo||R (3)||$8.00|
|WN-4.1||Crossroads Coin Club 1978||C (12)||$5.00|
|WN-5.1||Isthmian Numismatic Society 1966||R (3)||$8.00|
|WN-5.2||Isthmian Numismatic Society 1967 Indian Head||S (7)||$5.00|
|WN-5.3||Isthmian Numismatic Society 1967 Buffalo||S (9)||$5.00|
|WN-10.1||Expocomer 85||RR (1)||$20.00|
|WN-20.1||Krewe of Patriots 1978||S (6)||$10.00|
|WN-21.1||Warren Plumer Indian Head||C (128)||$2.00|
|WN-21.2||Warren Plumer Buffalo||C (136)||$2.00|
|WN-21.3||Warren Plumer Blank||RR (1)||$35.00|
Don’t Take A Wooden Nickel – Context
By now, you should be aware that the wooden nickel is not a legal tender or any form of currency that is acceptable anywhere. Nonetheless, one can easily be fooled into accepting wooden nickels as a currency.
For example, American restaurant chains such as Sambo’s used wooden nickels/tokens as a promotional strategy, allowing customers to exchange a wooden nickel for a cup of coffee. However, the same policy may not be applicable now.
So, one can easily fall into the trap of redeeming a free cup of coffee for a wooden nickel. Then, the term ‘take a wooden nickel’ indicates that the person is deceived.
In simple words, consider someone who gets fooled into accepting a wooden nickel as a form of currency as someone who has ‘taken a wooden nickel.’
Resultantly, people use the term “Don’t take a wooden nickel” to warn people of shady sellers who might scam customers. The term now has widespread applications in the form of phrases/idioms in America.
For example, when someone says, “Buy whatever car you want from the dealer. Don’t take a wooden nickel!” it means one is being warned not to get tricked/deceived by someone selling a car.
How old are wooden nickels?
The wooden nickels came into existence in the 1930s when the Great Depression took over the United States. However, other sources state otherwise and declare that wooden nickels date as far back as the 1880s.
What are wooden nickels (and their uses)?
Wooden nickels are tokens issued by local merchants, banks, fairs, etc., and used for promotional purposes. People can redeem the wooden nickels in exchange for prizes and certain promotional offers. For example, when the Great Depression hit the U.S. in the 1930s, banks in Washington and Tenino used wooden nickels to bring an emergency currency to the economy. Hence, it helped the economy remain somewhat stable.
Wooden nickels were (and are) used as tokens at fairs and important events/occasions. For example, the 1933 Chicago World Fair issued wooden nickels as tokens that people could exchange with specific souvenirs.
In addition, wooden nickel tokens were used by the American restaurant chain Sambo’s, which allowed customers to redeem a cup of coffee in exchange for a wooden nickel.
What’s the story behind wooden nickels?
When the Great Depression hit the U.S. in the 1930s, a shortage of minted (nickel and copper-made) coins pursued in the economy. The local Chamber of Commerce partnered up with certain newspaper agencies and started producing ‘minted’ coins in the form of wooden nickels to tackle the issue of the lack of coins.
What does it mean when someone says don’t take a wooden nickel?
“Don’t take a wooden nickel” is a phrase/idiom used to warn others of potential scams. The term originated during the early 1900s, specifically the 1930s, when the U.S. was facing the toll of the Great Depression.
During the Great Depression, Americans used wooden nickels to overcome the shortage of minted coins. Many local businesses accepted the wooden nickel for redeeming items. However, the same is not applicable now. Therefore, when someone ‘takes a wooden nickel,’ the meaning is taken figuratively.
When someone says, ‘don’t take a wooden nickel,’ it refers to being warned of getting scammed/deceived. Modern-day examples of the phrase include someone saying, “Good luck for the future. Don’t take any wooden nickels.”
How much is a wooden nickel worth?
A wooden nickel’s value can depend on several factors – rarity, condition, and type. The rarer a wooden nickel is, the more dollars you’ll be expecting to pay. For instance, an antique wooden nickel that celebrated Apollo-11’s tenth anniversary (directly from the Armstrong Family Collection) was auctioned and sold for more than $600.
Meanwhile, in other cases, an antique wooden nickel can cost you under $5 – $20 (depending on the condition). For instance, a wooden nickel, used during the 1983 Chicago World Fair as a token, can be bought for under $5 on eBay.
Nonetheless, if you want a newer wooden nickel, expect to pay less. For example, a (customized) wooden nickel can cost you $0.27. So, a total of $30.45 for 50 pieces of (customized) wooden nickels from specific sites (quoted prices at the time of writing).
Antique wooden nickels in excellent condition can vary significantly in terms of price. Different sites quote different prices. Therefore, investing your time and money in wooden nickels isn’t a bad idea if you are willing to add another collection catalog to your shelf.
Nevertheless, you can customize a wooden nickel to match your likings, which will only eat up a fraction of your savings.
For the best offers on antique (or otherwise, new) wooden nickels, ensure you’re not limited to sites such as eBay, Amazon, and Etsy. More importantly, avoid shady dealers/sellers – that is, unless you’re looking to ‘take a wooden nickel’…