From the Blog

As a token of my appreciation

In the world of transit, tokens have long been associated with a coin-sized item that when sold in advance at a discount could be exchanged for a ride on a bus, subway, trolley, train, ferry boat, or in some cases to cross a bridge. They were made from cheap white metal, aluminum, or more costly bronze, and often featured relief drawings or cutouts in the shapes of letters to differentiate them from other coins.

According to Collector’s Weekly, the earliest transit token in the U.S. dates back to 1831, when brass coins were minted for John Gibbs’s U.S.M. Stage which ran three miles from Belleville to Newark, New Jersey and for eight miles from Belleville to New York. The reverse of the token said, “Good for one ride to the bearer.”

Other tokens in the 1800s were issued for horsecars or horse-drawn omnibuses and later for the first subway in Boston in 1897 and the New York subway in 1904.


RTD, like most transit systems in the U.S., Canada and Europe, relied on bus tokens as fare payment until December 31, 2013 when tokens were phased out for the new smart card payment system. RTD tokens were valued at $.25 to $1 and could be purchased at RTD sales offices, or grocery stores, and were highly valued by social service agencies to give to their clients.

RTD smart card and reader

Token's many meanings

All of which brings to mind, the several meanings of token.

It’s an Old English verb which means “to show.” In other words, a token serves to indicate a fact, sign or symbol. It can also be a physical object, as evidenced above, to show that money has been paid for transportation, or admission.

By the same token, a popular expression meaning “for the same reason” or “in the same way,” dates back to 1463. For example, one might say, “I don’t dislike elephants, but by the same token, I don’t want them in my house.”

Tokens might also indicate authenticity, authority, or a badge. Beginning in the mid-19th century, for example, fraternal orders (Masons, Odd Fellows, Eagles, and Elks) issued tokens as proof of membership.

Some circus acts also issued trade tokens called “good fors.” It’s rumored that George Washington used a copper token to gain admission to see Bill Ricketts perform tricks on horses. Ricketts, by the way, was an Englishman who brought the first circus to the U.S.

In the early 1800s, tokens were often issued by churches to their members who were required to hand it over before they could take communion.


During the depression of the 1830s and 1840s, “hard times” tokens (pictured at left, courtesy: Wikimedia Commons) were minted from copper and featured advertisements for merchants, or as political satire with commentaries on them about Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, or Daniel Webster. One Andrew Jackson token shows him in uniform holding a sword in one hand and a money bag in the other. “I take the responsibility” is printed on the edges of the obverse. The reverse reveals a donkey with words, “The Constitution as I Understand It.” Collectors today have valued this token at around $50.

As the Civil War raged in 1862, the government withdrew coins from circulation in the northern states. So private enterprise made copper tokens for merchants as advertisements, and some tokens looked identical to real coins which fooled people into thinking they held a coin with real value. Some of those tokens said, “Good Luck” or “Keep Me and Never Go Broke.”

After WWII and up into the 1980s, tokens were used more as souvenirs, or for gambling. Then as video games proliferated, tokens were used to play on machines in arcades. Tokens have also been issued for every state in the Union and Puerto Rico, and have been useful at car washes, parking garages, pay toilets, or to rent shopping carts. Today, it’s a popular hobby to find, collect and trade tokens. On eBay, for example, you can find some rare tokens that sell for hundreds of dollars.

And, there you have a few token examples.

Since you have been kind enough to read this far, I shall, as a token of my appreciation, bring this to a close.