Numismatic & Philatelic Exposition
Blaine, Washington Emergency Money
and the Great Depression
By Nancy & John Wilson
The wooden scrip from Blaine, Washington, was issued during the depression of 1933 by the Blaine Relief Association. This scrip came into existence in 1933 at the request of Albert Balch, then president of the Blaine Chamber of Commerce. Issued in denominations of 5₵, 10₵, 25₵, 50₵ and $1.00, it was backed by non-interest-bearing warrants and merchants’ notes. The warrants were issued as security for money, for redemption of wooden money only, and were redeemable in United States currency or gold. To distribute more of the scrip, the city actually designed work to be done by Blaine citizens. All the wooden scrip was redeemable at par for merchandise at any store in Blaine. It was also used in payment for labor on city improvement projects. Since the issue was nationally publicized, requests for the wooden nickels were received from every state in the union. Many of the requests were offering above par for this money. The most saved denomination was the nickel. Out of a total amount of $1,900 issued, which included 8,850 wooden nickels, only $350 remained extant. All issued pieces of Blaine depression scrip are very scarce.
This wooden scrip was designed by Whipple Y. Chester, an artist on the Bellingham Herald. It was press-stamped from three-ply sheetwood at the Blaine Journal. All coins are 42 mm. in diameter. The basic design is the same for all pieces, with denomination and text on the face, the Peace Arch at center, and the inscription around on the back. See example one, which contains a complete denomination set of Blaine, Washington, emergency scrip. The amounts issued were: 5₵ – serial numbers 1 to 3,000; 10₵ – serial numbers 1 to 1,500 or more; 25₵ – serial numbers 1 to 1,000; 50₵ – serial numbers 1 to 500. Each issued scrip note was serially numbered by hand or stamp and initialed by one of the officers of the Blaine Relief Association. These officers were Albert Balch, Chamber of Commerce president; Earle L. McKinney; Reverend Floyd C. Green, Relief Association president and town treasurer; and Whipple Yale Chester, designer of the scrip. See example two which has both hand and stamped serial numbers along with the initials F.C.G. (I asked Neil Shafer, an expert on depression money, if he knew of many examples initialed by other than F.C.G. and he said “very few.” Neil also told me that “Replacement” issues from Blaine were known. He told me that they had a handwritten “R” on the Peace Arch side. He considered these as a non-collectible item as they are very rare.)
The Peace Arch is located across the international border between the United States and Canada. The Arch commemorates 120 years of peace between the U.S. and England and was built in 1921 at a cost of $125,000. Blaine, Washington, is located just below the border.
Example three shows a very rare unissued 5 cent sheet of Blaine depression scrip. Depicted on this sheet is a trial or pattern design for the 5 cent denomination. It was prepared with two flags above the Arch. Since it was found that the flags interfered with the serial number, the design was altered to delete them both. The two-flag design did not enter into general circulation, though original plates left flag design pieces in each corner. Since original plates were used to make reprints of the 5 cent and other denominations around 1952, the pattern pieces depicting the two flags are sometimes available.
Example four features a scarce one wooden dollar flat issued in 1971 (third issue), by the O’Cathey family of Pomona, California. This flat was dedicated to the promoters, signers, and designers of the Blaine, Washington, wooden money.
The “Great Depression” of the 1930s brought about many financial problems after the stock market crash on October 29, 1929. Business and commerce virtually came to a complete standstill in the Unites States. Compared to any other hard time or economic crisis period in the U.S., the depression of the 1930s was absolutely the most severe. The period between 1931 and 1934 was a time of utter chaos with many individuals, businesses, and financial institutions going bankrupt. All money, hard or soft, was hoarded by everyone. This situation became even worse during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Bank Holiday” from March 6-10, 1933. Three of the major problems confronting the country in 1933 were 1. An unemployment rate in 1929 of 3 million going to 13 million in 1933. 2. Between1930 and 1932, there were over 5,000 bank failures and the whole monetary system was in grave danger of collapse. 3. Disorganized local and state governments due to non-payment of taxes and inability to borrow funds from local banks.
As a remedy to this situation, various forms of emergency currency or scrip were issued. First appearing in 1931, it took until 1932 for it to be issued in any appreciable amounts. The Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Affairs estimated that by February, 1933, there were over 400 communities using some form of emergency currency. Needless to say that after the banking holiday was declared by President Roosevelt, many more communities issued this type of money. Scrip came in many forms and was used in various ways. Some guaranteed assigned dividends of closed banks; others were used in exchange for services or commodities. Pieces resembling checks sometimes needed multiple endorsements before they could be cashed. Other forms included tax warrants, interest or non-interest bearing, self-liquidating stamp certificates, company payroll checks and notes, certificates of clearing houses, banks, trade associations, chambers of commerce, newspapers, hotels, and individuals. Some of the more unusual forms of Depression scrip were those printed on rubber, leather, fishskin, shells and wood. Reaching a peak in March, 1933, scrip quickly disappeared after the government started placing currency in circulation. The latest known piece was issued in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1939.
Numismatists, collectors, dealers, or investors are very remiss if they don’t add some Depression scrip to their collections. However, Nancy and I both feel you should buy the Mitchell/Shafer standard reference before collecting and investing in it. For the most part, the majority of Depression scrip is scarce to impossible to find. Most of the major collections have few, if any, duplicates. If it wasn’t for a private collector, Nancy and I would never have been able to add a set of Blaine notes to our collection.
I will mention that a few years ago a hoard of several hundred 1933 “Carmel by the Sea” depression notes surfaced that depressed the price from $12 to $3. Considering that this seaside community in California has a movie star as its mayor (Clint Eastwood), I bet the hoard would dissipate quickly if the owner promoted them.
In general, depression money from this period is priced under $100, with most selling for between $5 and $40. Now would be the time to add some emergency money from your locale, or others to your collection, as the price will never be lower. Nancy and I wish to thank Neil Shafer for his assistance in preparing this story.
Bellingham, Washington, Coin Club. “Club completes wooden nickel series.” Coin World, page 25, Amos Press, Sidney, OH., December 10, 1986.
Mitchell, Ralph A. and Neil Shafer. Standard Catalog of Depression Scrip of the United States the 1930s including Canada and Mexico. Krause Publications, Iola, WI., 1984.