Conversations in Management: Wooden Nickels

Wooden Nickels Blaine“Don’t take any wooden nickels or cash any checks.”

Mrs. Bessie Pesch.

Mrs. Pesch called out this breezy farewell to reporters as her train pulled out of the Tacoma station. More about Bessie later, but first, what about those wooden nickels?  “Don’t take any wooden nickels,” while not as common a saying as it once was, it’s not entirely unfamiliar today. Sources point to its origin during the Great Depression. In December of 1931, the Citizen’s Bank of Tenino, Washington failed causing, among other things, a shortage of money in the remote rural community.  Without easy access to currency, local merchants struggled to make change for their customers. The Chamber of Commerce struck a deal with the bank and the newspaper printed the first wooden money. These were flat wooden pieces. Each was denominated, signed by Trustees, dated, numbered and included an expiration date.  A year later when the Blaine, Washington bank failed, wooden coins were issued and the wooden nickel was born. As the depression lingered on, more and more communities resorted to this unique solution. Though never standardized, wooden currency always carried an expiration date and some included an expiration time. This could create a problem for customers and merchants alike. A customer holding the coin beyond its expiration was left with a worthless novelty. Merchants who failed to redeem their wooden coins at the bank before their expiration were similarly out of luck. Given these problems, it’s not surprising that the admonition, “don’t take any wooden nickels,” became a popular slogan.

This brings us back to Mrs. Pesch. The reason she was being seen off by reporters, was that she’d just been arrested for cashing bad checks and was on her way to Seattle for trial. The warning not to cash any checks was a bit of humor on the part of the woman who was quoted as saying she, “delighted to make, monkeys out of men—all I had to do was smile at them, ask them to cash my check and the money was always forthcoming.” That explains the check part of her remark. The wooden nickel reference was such a common way of saying “so long” that the newspaper felt no explanation was needed. But Bessie didn’t say it in the 1930s, she said it in 1914! Going even farther back, The Salt Lake Tribune in May 1906 reported that Jack Herwig, formerly an outfielder for the Ogden team, sent his regards to his old team and hoped they wouldn’t  “take any wooden nickels.” Given that the U.S. didn’t even mint nickels until 1866, it’s a mystery how the expression worked its way into the vernacular in a span of only 40 years. How the saying came about remains unknown. But, the meaning is obvious—be careful of accepting things that only appear to have value. If you do, you might end up with something worthless.

Today we take a lot of wooden nickels. At the end of the day we have a pocket full. They’re the small aggravations we’ve faced, the annoyances, the disappointments, and the slights—real or perceived–that we’ve received. At the time, they seemed important. At the end of the day we realize they aren’t. The trouble is, once you take them, they’re hard to let go of. But we know better. If you’re holding on to any, let them go. Empty your pockets, sweep off your dresser and clean them out of the cup holder in your car. Start living the admonition and don’t take any wooden nickels. And while you aren’t taking any yourself, be careful not to pass any on.   —Ebert

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