Nothing new under the sun
July 2007, Volume 44 No. 7
NOT too far from our offices here in Honiton lies the picturesque town of Totnes, traditionally an “arty” some say “trendy” place that has been a firm favourite for tourists to this part of the world for years. Now it seems the town is in the news not so much for its quaint boutiques and galleries but rather for its, apparently innovative, approach to countering globalisation and helping local business. In an attempt to keep money in the local economy the worthies of the little Devon town have created the Totnes pound—300 of them to be precise—for circulation just in local outlets, with a view to a much larger print run later this year depending on the success of the scheme. The Totnes pound was issued in conjunction with 18 stores in the town that joined the TTT (Transition Town Totnes), a scheme developed “to prepare for a carbon constrained, energy lean world”. Part of that was an attempt to keep shopping and other trade as local as possible and thus reducing the “carbon footprint” of shoppers who would otherwise travel far and wide in their search for groceries, etc. It is based on a similar scheme run in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts, USA, where the alternative currency, Berkshares, can be swapped for real life dollars in local banks—possibly defeating the object, after all, if you’re just swapping them for real dollars why not use real dollars? But I’m sure they know what they’re doing!
Of course, such ideas are not new . . . far from it, and whilst the latest schemes might be touted against a backdrop of climate change, carbon footprints, anti-globalisation, etc.—all very 21st century—they are, as any numismatist knows, in effect from another age entirely. Any collector who has ever rummaged in a dealer’s “bargain tray”, checked a list or visited an auction site, will have come across tokens. They have spawned their very own branch of numismatics. Hundreds of books have been written about them and they are increasingly being drawn into the mainstream of our hobby. True many of the later issue tokens were advertising pieces, gimmicks designed to promote a particular business, event or attraction but I think it’s safe to say that the earlier tokens, those from the 17th and early 18th centuries, were issued very much along similar lines to the Totnes pound and the Berkshares. Back then a lack of small change was the driving force behind their issue but soon employers and businessmen, particularly those owning several properties, venues and businesses in a town, realised that these private coins were a way of keeping the money “in house”—pay your employees in a currency that they had to use in your taverns or your shops and as soon as you paid it out you got it back again —a fool proof plan! Just as with the Totnes pound today only certain establishments would accept the tokens. They weren’t usually redeemable outside of the town (in another big bosses’ tavern) and so the knock-on effect was a booming local micro-economy; an antidote to globalisation before we knew it even existed
Interestingly the Totnes note is actually a facsimile of a £1 note produced by the Totnes bank in 1810. In this case it’s uniface with a list of participating outlets on the reverse, along with space to mark down how many times the note has changed hands—very similar in fact to the earliest banknotes—and so in one deft move Totnes and the TTT scheme has managed to bring together two very different branches of our hobby and I wonder how long it will be before these notes become collectables in their own right.
A few years ago we were told that cash would soon be a thing of the past, credit cards, electronic transfers even chips embedded under our skin would all, in time, replace the need for old fashioned money. We were warned that the things we so love to collect would soon be consigned to the dustbin of history. Maybe that will still happen but it’s interesting to see schemes like this developing across the globe. A backlash perhaps? A desire not to forget the things of the past? Yes and also more I think. Not only a desire not to forget the past but also to develop an alternative future to the one we’re being told is inevitable. Certainly the Totnes pound, the Berkshares et al are only a small step but at last someone is taking it. Where we go from here remains to be seen. Maybe numismatics isn’t doomed after all!
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