When Rubber Checks Didn’t Bounce

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The dark Depression years of the logo’s were n time of economic hardship such as the nation has rarely known: by 1932, unemployment had risen to the thirteen million mark. As more and more banks failed- over five thousand closed their doors between 1930 and 1933—one of the most serious problems was the critical scarcity of money in circulation. In desperation, some communities turned to the barter system: but this hardly seemed a satisfactory solution. The magazine Judge probably summed up the general sentiment when it defined barter as “giving somebody u pig and a couple of ducks they don’t want in exchange for an overcoat that doesn’t fit for the benefit of the newsreel movie people.”

Something better had to be devised. One of the most resourceful answers to the problem was locally issued strip money which merchants could accept in place of hard currency. Scrip was generally backed by some asset, whether it was funds in a closed bank or corn piled in the streets. Printed by public and private agencies on every conceivable surface from shells to cardboard, scrip list caught the popular fancy in the winter of 1931-32, and soon spread to more than four hundred communities, some as large as Omaha, Nebraska, and even Detroit. Many examples are shown on these pages.

With the slightly sardonic humor so characteristic of that barebones era, individuals minted “rubber checks” and “wooden nickels” (upper left). Some scrip was printed on leather (lower left); “wampum” (lower right) was issued in the town of Grants Pass, Oregon, verified by the fingerprints of officers of a local organization.

Much scrip was technically illegal. Some of it did violate the U.S. Criminal Code, but so great was the need for negotiable currency that the government took no action. In fact, at least one court ruled scrip acceptable in an alimony case.

Scrip worked so well that it seldom caused any significant loss at the time of redemption. Its success was, in the words of a 1933 Collier’s editorial, “a magnificent testimonial to the courage, imagination and resourcefulness of the American people.” Looking back, it seems obvious that the use of wood, rubber, and leather was important to the success of scrip. So was a sense of humor—and unbounded confidence. For scrip was, as one writer commented, simply “an I.O.U. with a pedigree.”