This section will deal with all those tokens – term used in Numismatics to refer to privately issued pieces – issued in Cuba since colonial times up to the present day, with the exception of the big collection of sugar tokens, the importance of which earned them a separate chapter. Even though, as we will later explain, these pieces originated for numerous uses and as a result of different causes, we have decided to call them “commercial tokens”. In our opinion, this term somehow covers such dissimilar group. Let’s see how their history begun:
Shortage of coin was a common phenomenon in Cuba during colonial times, resulting in abnormal situations that interfered with commercial transactions and had a tremendous negative impact on the development of domestic economy. Since the early 19th Century, gold and silver coins began to be smuggled out of the country. In addition, shipments from the Vice-royalty of New Spain were cancelled once the Mexican nation obtained its independence in 1821, which further increased difficulties given the fact that since 1754 Hispanic legislation prevented coins minted in Spain from entering the island. To make things worse, there was also a shortage of small denomination copper coins for personal transactions, because the smallest circulating coin was the billon real, equivalent to half a silver real, and the price of many everyday consumer products was inferior to this coin’s value. According to Pezuela, “one orange, one banana, one sugar cane can’t be purchased by the piece in any store, in any fruit stall, becuase such low denomination coin can buy 4 or 5 oranges, a dozen bananas, and two or more sugar canes“. Therefore, buyers would either go home without what they wanted or pay more money for it; and if such was the case, the storekeeper would open a tab for them or give them change in the form of a note or a metal piece worth the value of what had been paid in cash, to be used for a future purchase at the same establishment.
And that was how a private currency began to circulate, extra officially but tolerated by the authorities, among retailers of fruit and other cheap products in order to make transactions easier. These tokens were made of tin or other cheap raw material and they were called quartillos, worth a quarter of a silver real or half a billon real. The disadvantages of these quartillos were that they could only be used at the establishment which had issued them and that their value was merely enough to purchase the essentials.
Within this panorama, reality proved the need for coins smaller that half a real, so the Spanish government ordered to ship copper coins to the island in 1829 and 1833. However, such provisions were not reinforced on time, and it wasn’t until the last decades of the 19th Century, after the 1868 reform, that copper coins in denominations of 5 and 10 cents, known as “perras chicas” and “perras gordas” among the local population, were available in Cuba. And still these didn’t bring a final solution to the shortage of coin.
Therefore, the use of privately issued coins made of cheap metal, nowadays known as tokens, continued to expand throughout the second half of the 19th Century, and their value adapted to the needs of retail at the time. They were used in numerous commercial establishments, such as cafés, eateries, groceries, clothing and hardware stores, pharmacies, etc. Others issued them for own use: educational and entertainment clubs, fraternities, and leisure centres.
Although these pieces originated, as previously stated, mainly to substitute scarce low denomination coins and were given as change to costumers in retail outlets, many of them were used in other branches. So, they appear as a form of payment for wages, tickets, etc. and also as advertisement for shops and factories, tamper seal of cigar trademarks, stimulus of consumption of certain products, etc.
That being said, in order to organize the pages of this collection, we will group tokens according to the branches in which they were used. The following are some of the most relevant:
Cafés and restaurants
It is very likely that tokens originated in these sorts of commercial establishments, which used them the most. So, two of the oldest tokens known nowadays, issued in 1859, are those of the Café Escauriza, property of the Catalonian José Pablo Xiqués, located on Alameda de Isabel II or Paseo del Prado, which was one of the most famous at the time because it had a ballroom on the top floor. From then on, many cafés in Havana and other areas of the island issued tokens to substitute coins, which were scarce, and so be able to give them as change to people who went there looking for sodas and ice-creams to mitigate the suffocating tropical heat. In addition, this method would force those costumers to return to the same establishment in order to use the tokens in further purchases. Among the many cafés and restaurants in Havana that issued tokens we could mention the Louvre, which baptized the famous Sidewalk, the Cosmopolita, La Dominica, Ambos Mundos, Marte y Belona, Colla de San Mus, Las Flores de Mayo, La Diana, Méndez Núñez, El Suizo, Siglo XX, Salón Albisu, La Zambumbia, and others; and in the rest of the island, the Café Las Delicias and the Salón París, in Matanzas; the Malakoff and the Salón Louvre, in Cárdenas; La Marina in Pinar del Río, El Louvre in Cienfuegos, etc. We shouldn’t fail to mention a group of cafés owned by Americans who had settled down on Isla de Pinos in the early 20th Century, which issued tokens in the denomination of 12½ cents, half a quarter. The U.S. dollar was the legal tender in Cuba before 1914, when the Ley de Defensa Económica was enacted, establishing a Cuban currency. This interesting value of 12½ cents only appears in tokens issued by thsese cafés, and it was the price of a drink at the bar (“Good for 12½ drink at the bar”). Known tokens of this kind are those of the Garden Cafe, in Santa Bárbara; Little Rock Cafe, in Santa Fe; Old Oaken Bucket, in McKinley; Old Virginia Cafe and The Star Cafe, both in Nueva Gerona.
Following the example of cafés and restaurants, although to a lesser degree, other commercial establishments used tokens. Among them, we could mention some bars like those of Vento and Ferro in Havana, delicacy shops like Pedro Garralde’s in Trinidad, and eateries like Tiberio Lecumberri’s in Cienfuegos.
Tobacco: harvesters, sorting and classification houses… and cigar factories
Tokens were also used in the different stages of cigar production. In the province of Pinar del Río, some tobacco growers paid their workers with tokens of a certain denomination that could be used in grocery stores owned by the landowner himself or some associated storekeeper in the region; others used tokens expressing its value in pounds, quarters of a pound, or kilograms, which were given to the harvesters after each labor day according to the work they had done, and could be later exchanged for cash. Known tokens of this kind are those issued by the farms of Ydelfonso Mora García, in San Luis, Patricio García, in Puerta de Golpe, and Cirilo Herrera, in Río Feo, as well as the Finca La Cavianca, in San Juan y Martínez.
From the farms, the harvested tobacco leaves were sent to sorting and classification houses, where workers were given tokens expressing a value equivalent to the piles of tobacco they were supposed to elaborate. At the end of the working day, tokens were handed to the control department, in charge of taking note of the work that had been done and paying each worker the wage they had earned. Some exaples of sorting and clssification houses located in Havana that used tokens are: Abraham Haas, A. M. Calzada y Cía., I. Kaffenburgh e Hijos, León Delgado y Cía., Manuel Abella y Cía., Planas y Cía., y Sobrinos de Antero González. There were also several in the province of Las Villas: León y Cornide, in Santa Clara; Porfirio Díaz, in Esperanza; Pérez y Hermanos, in Camajuaní, Francisco Fernández and Saturnino Garay, in San Antonio de las Vueltas, etc.
Likewize, some cigar factories, such as La Honradez and La Competidora Gaditana used tokens with no face value, sometimes as advertisement and others as exchange value for certain tasks, while Partagás issued tokens the denomination of which was expressed in cents. Other factories used a differtent kind of tokens with a small perforation in the lower part, which are beleived to have been used as warranty seal in cigar boxes by fastening them with a string through the perforated hole. Known examples of this kind are the tokens of La Feriada Cigars, Granda Hermanos y Cía., Sánchez y Haya, Suárez Murias, La Tabacalera Cubana, and Vitalia Cigars.
Plantations and mines
There were several farming and mining companies that paid their workers’ wages with tokens following the trend of the sugar industry, forerunner in this modality. These tokens were used to buy clothing, food, and other products in local shops, owned by the same companies, or exchanged at their offices for legal tender although the transaction generally entailed a five percent commision. Followers of this practice were the citrus fruit company The Development Company of Cuba, in Ceballos; the Banes Fruit Company, in Banes, which also issued tokens for food rations; the mining company Sigua Iron Company, near Santiago de Cuba; Carlota Mine, in Cumanayagua, and the salt mine Compañía Salinera de las Islas in Cayo Cruz and Cayo Romano, north of Camagüey province. Others that also issued tokens, although their purpose remains unknown because they had no face value, were the American United Fruit Company, which owned plantations in the province Oriente, and Nicaro Nickel Company, owner of the nickel plant located at the Levisa Bay, also in Oriente.
Stores and industrial product shops
Grocery stores and shops selling articles of all kinds (wood, fabric, machinery, etc.) all over the island also used tokens. In some cases (Fuentes Martínez y Cía., J. Vila y Cía., etc. in Trinidad) the denomination of the tokens was equivalent to a cuartillo, previously dealt with, and others had no face value and were presumibly used as advertisement (Dionisio Fernández y Hnos. in Cárdenas, Nogués and Lafitte in Havana, among others).
Furthermore, some of these storekeepers who sold their products to clients in other regions of the island had to transport them to train stations or ports for shipment. Employees performing this task were given a token for each trip in order to pay them subsequently according to the amount of tokens they had received. In Matanzas, Miret y Hno.’s Store gave a token in exchange for “un viaje paradero”, meaning transporting products to the train station; while in Cárdenas, in 1872, Ugarte y Llerandi’s hardware store used a 30 cent token for “un acarreto”, a term commonly used back then to reffer to transportation by means of carts pulled by animal force.
Two big stores in Havana, importers of hardware and machinery, Casteleiro y Vizoso and J. S. Gómez y Cía. used three tokens with different inscriptions for the transportation of goods: “Muelles”, to the docks in Regla, departuring point of the Ferrocarril de la Bahía (Railways of the Bay) towards Matanzas; “Oeste”, to the station of Ferrocarril del Oeste (West Railway), towards Pinar del Río, and “Villanueva”, to the Villanueva station, for the train towards Cienfuegos and Villaclara.
Likewise, many clothing stores, jewellery shops, hardaware stores, and others issued tokens; in some cases to be used as currency and others with no face value, presumibly as advertisement, although these may have had some exchange value determined by the storekeepers. We could mention among them important stores in the capital, such as La Casa Grande, haberdashery and clothing store located on the corner of Galiano and San Rafael; the specialty shop El Anteojo, on Obispo street; the toy store La Más Fermosa; the watch shop El Progreso, at Plaza del Vapor; the jewellery shop La Camelia; the fashion boutique Gran Casa Francesa; and the Casa de los Trucos, very popular back then. One clothing and tailoring store called Los Estados Unidos offered costumers a one peso discount when buying a suit in exchange for the shop’s token. Outside Havana, other retail outlets that used tokens were the shirt store La América and the Labayén brothers’ hardware store in Matanzas; the clothing stores Los Catalanes, in Artemisa, El Rayo, in Cienfuegos, and La Gran Señora, in Camagüey, as well as the hardware store El Arca de Noe, in Trinidad, with a token worth a cuartillo.
Groceries and general stores
These retail outlets made great used of tokens since they were located mostly in small towns in the interior, where small denomination coins were even more scarce than in big urban centres. This resulted in an urgent need of using an alternative private currency given the low prices of the products sold in these establishments. In the town of Guanajay, Pinar del Río, Elizabán y Compañía’s general store used the oldest token known of, dated in 1856, in denomination of ¼ of real, which didn’t exist in the legal tender. This denomination was commonly known as “cuartillo”, and it was also used in tokens from Santa Cruz del Sur and Trinidad.
There was a very peculiar case in the town of La Gloria, province of Camagüey, where two American style groceries, one owned by the American Aurelio Basilio Stokes and the other by the Canadian J. C. Francis, issued tokens that were used specifically for buying bread. The value of the tokens was 5 cents, but Stokes sold six for 25 cents, which was a more competitive price than that of the other storekeeper, resulting in satisfied costumers who would save some money in the weekly pruchase of such product.
Military stores and bars
Also the American Government, during their second intervention in Cuba in 1906, used tokens on Cuban territory. Special shops called “Post Exchange” (created by the United States Secretary of War in 1895) were opened within the premises of military garrisons. Their purpose was to supply the tropps, at reasonable prices, with everyday use products not supplied by the government, as well as means of recreation and entertainment, so they included other services, such as coffee shop, pharmacy, barbershop, billiard room, clothing and hardware stores, restaurant, brewery, and newspapers and magazines outlet. Soldiers were then given metalic tokens as debt instruments againts their salaries, which could be used to purchase products or services at the previously mentioned facilities but never exchangable for cash. It is believed that this system was implemented in all American military garrisons throughout Cuba; however, the only tokens of this kind that we know of are those used in Havana (Batería de Santa Clara), Sancti Spíritus, Holguín, and Santiago de Cuba (Castillo del Morro).
Another body of a similar nature, the Junta Económica del Regimiento 7 Máximo Gómez (Economic Board of the 7th Regiment Máximo Gómez), a unit of the Cuban Constitutional Army stationed at La Cabaña Fort, also issued tokens during the republican period, in denominations of 1 to 25 cents, to be used as tender at their military bar.
Clubs and societies
Numerous charitable, educational, and leisure clubs and societies, both in the capital as well as in the rest of the island, issued tokens that may have been used in the games of chance played within their premises, especially the tokens with relatively high denominations like those of Sociedad Liceo in Bayamo and the Colonia Española in Banes, both made of bakelite; the 50 and 100 cent brass tokens of the Holguín’s Casino; and one made of aluminium used by the Matanzas Casino Español, worth “1 tresillo”, seemingly used by associates to pay their pot in the Tresillo card game, which was very popular among peninsulars.
On the other hand, many other societies throughout the island issued low denomination series, mostly in the range of cents, the actual use of which is yet to be clarified because there are many posibilities: currency to pay for food and drinks at their coffee shops or bars, entrance tickets for the activities held within their premises, etc. Some of the most outstanding among them are the Placetas Liceo, the Holguín Colonia Española, the Havana Centro Asturiano, the Guanabacoa Casino Español, the Holguín Liceo, etc., and several leissure centres and sports clubs in Havana, such as the Vedado Tennis Club and the Miramar Yacht Club.
Cuban breweries were also involved, from the very beginning, in the production of ice, which rendered substantial additional dividends that contributed to the growth and expansion of an industry the production of which was higly dependant of such precious element, when it came to its consuming. One of the advertising resources most commonly used by breweries was the issuing of tokens with no face value that were given to their regular costumers, who could use them to get a discount when buying ice from the brewery’s dispensers. The Cervecería Tropical y Tívoli and Polar, both located on the banks of the Almendares River in Havana, and the Cervecería Hatuey, owned by the Bacardi Rum Company, in Santiago de Cuba, implemented this system.
Cocinas económicas (canteens)
The victories of the Cuban mambises over the Spanish troops in 1895, the first year of the last Cuban War of Independence, led the Spanish government to believe that there was no other way to win the conflict other than implementing a policy of repression against the rural population, who were the rebels’main supporters. The murderous Valeriano Weyler was sent to the island as the new Captain General in order to serve this purpose. He inmediately proclaimed several edicts in 1896, forcing the rural population to relocate in the main cities, while the Spanish army burnt their dwellings and forbade all forms of trade with the countryside. Such cruel strategy led to a shortage of food in many cities throughout the island due to the large number of reconcentrados (reconcentration victims). As a solution to this situation, local city councils opened large canteens, the so-called “cocinas económicas”, to somehow mitigate the population’s hunger.
Several of these canteens were created in the poor districts of Havana, under the management of the Real Casa de Beneficencia y Maternidad (Royal Charity and Maternity House). They had full support by the governor Rafael Fernández de Castro, who went as far as openly allowing games of chance at the port, with roulettes, cards, lotteries, etc., by paying large license fees; using the revenues in the budget for the canteens. These used tokens worth one cent that were handed out to reconcentrados so that they would use them to pay for food rations.
Meanwhile, the canteen created in April 1897 on the intersection of the streets Cristina and San Germán in Santiago de Cuba, at the initiative of the mayor Emilio Bacardí and the president of the Yatch Club, Germán Michaelsen, also gave tokens to those who went there looking for food so that they could use them as means of payment. According to the press of that period, the ration distributed on the inauguration day consisted of noodle soup with meat, chickpeas, potatoes, and a piece of bread. The price was five cents, and it was paid with a token expressing such value. Later on, two more tokens were issued: one in the denomination of one cent and a commemorative one in remembrance of the canteen’s inauguration “inaugurada y bendecida en 25 abril 1897” (inaugurated and blessed on April 25th, 1897).
Although these canteens were created in all cities with a large number of reconcentrados, only those of Havana and Santiago de Cuba are known to have used tokens.
Starting in the 1920s, chewing gum vending machines were imported to Cuba from the United States. As a prize, these machines gave tokens used to operate automatic music players, also brought into the island, which could play numerous tunes. The tokens could also be reused in the chewing gum machines, or to buy products for the value of five cents at the establishment where the machine was. These tokens always had the inscription “Good for one tune...”, and the mechanical machines, with their corresponding tokens, were installed in cafés, restaurants, hotels, gambling houses, amusement parks, and any place that would generally attract lots of people. The music players were predecesors of the so popular jukeboxes that came later, when phonograph and vynil records were invented, and were to be found in almost all bars and coffeeshops throughout the island.
Other machines, also made in U.S.A., were used in different places as softdrinks dispencers and worked either with tokens or five cent coins. These tokens, the design of which was very simple (one series contained spelling mistakes), were issued by Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola.
Other peculiar tokens are those that were isued by some lodges in Havana, Marianao, and Isla de Pinos, containing inscriptions in English. The first two show the text “Island Chapter No. 1 R.A.M.”, and the third reads “Santa Fe Chapter No. 2 R.A.M.”, plus an appealing landscape and the inscription “Where the pine meets the palm”, all supposedly in the denomination of “One penny”. The purpose of their issuing remains unknown. Some hypotesis as to what they may have been used for are: fund raising, payment of certain services, giving them out as souvenirs, etc.
In Havana, tokens were likewize issued by several leisure centres, such as the Coney Island amusement park, at the Marianao beach, with tokens that contained numbers to purchase different products with them; the Oriental Park horse racing track, and the Havana Greyhound Kennel Club racing track, both also located in Marianao, the tokens of which are believed to have been used as entrance tickets to their premises; and the Antillano Sport hall, located on Zanja Street, where tokens expressed the value of the cover fee to attend dance performances.
Advertising and commission agencies used tokens for different purposes in their bussiness. A representative example was the Lonja de Víveres de La Habana, a trade corporation that later became La Lonja del Comercio (Chamber of Commerce), which issued abundant tokens the purpose of which was to facilitate access to the trading hall to traders who went there in order to carry out their purchase/sale transactions. Entrance to the Lonja required a start-up fee, initially three pesos, which was later lowered to ten cents by means of monthly 2 peso quotes. Tokens were given as payment receip, and made it possible to keep a record of attendance.
The vicious habit of gambling, introduced in Cuba since colonial times mainly by Spanish soldiers and mariners, expanded during the republican period with charade, bolita, and other games of chance that became essencial to the everyday life of many Cubans, who wouldn’t waste the slightest chance of trying their luck in order to gain any kind of financial benefit, however small. Retailers profited from this and created numerous small scale variants of games of chance, which in addition to render some dividends also advertized their bussiness. Such was the origin, halfway through the 20th Century, of the so-called “monedas de la suerte” (fortune coins), used by drinkers at bars in order to leave the payment of the drinks they consumed to chance. Common elements to all pieces of this kind are an arrow on the obverse, and a small protruding or pivot point on the anverse, which made it possible to spin them on a flat surface. The game consisted on spinning the token among several drinkers, and once it stoped, the arrow would point to the person who should pay what the whole group had drunk. The inscription on the obverse of these pieces reads “Gira que gira sin saberse para donde tira. Paga usted. Moneda de la suerte” (It spins and spins and you never know where it points when it stands still. It’s on you. Fortune coin). Actually, in this particular game luck wasn’t such, because the “winner” had to pay the check while the others got free drinks.
Retailers who issued these tokens would engrave on them their establishment’s name, address, and phone number, together with numerous slogans, which was great for advertising. Among the commercial establishments of numerous nature that implemented this practice we could mention restaurants like La Reguladora and the very famous La Bodeguita del Medio, public transportation companies like Omnibus Santiago-Habana, insurance companies like the Insurance Company of North America and the Boston Surety Company, pharmaceutical companies like Laboratorios Murai, car agencies like Ambar Motors Corporation, import companies like Abelardo Tous’ and Victor G. Mendoza’s, and even a private exporter of pineaples by the name of Oscar Reyes in La Víbora.
It was also very common to use tokens to pay for the different means of transportation functioning on the island. Since the 19th Century, the Ferrocarril de la Bahía and the Ferrocarril La Prueba (railway companies) used tokens in combination with ferry lines the steam ships of which crossed the bay of Havana towards the town of Regla, where the trains departed from. Years later, during the republican period, bus and tram companies, always compiting with one another, sold certain amounts of tokens with a discount, with the purpose of attracting customers. The Havana Electric Railway Company, which operated the trams in Havana and Santiago de Cuba charging five cents per ticket, sold 25 tokens for one peso in order to compete with local busses. Likewise, the bus company that operated in Santa Clara, using tokens to activate the turnstiles installed on vehicles, occasionally sold 25 tokens for one peso. Other companies that used tokens were the Compañía de Tranvías de Camagüey (Camagüey Tram Company) and the bus companies Auto Bus Amaro and Omnibus de La Habana, in the capital; La Espirituana, in Sancti Spíritus; La Victoria, in Sagua la Grande; and La Cubana, in Santiago de Cuba, which issued a commuting token.
Other tokens of diverse nature
Among the various tokens used in Cuba, there are numerous isolated cases that cannot be included within the previously mentioned categories. Some examples are: barbershops (Reina de las Flores, in Matanzas; La Perla, Salón Martí and Salón Telégrafo, in Havana); pharmacies (Droguería y Farmacia Americana, in the capital); hotels (Isla de Cuba and San Luis in Havana); theaters (Teatro Heredia, in Banes, which used tokens as entrance tickets); religious centers (Catecismo Parroquial); gambling houses (Salón Brunet, on the Paseo del Prado, and F.F.Rozos, in Madruga); and even brothels (Casa Francesa, owned by Miss Blanch, on Gloria street in Old Havana).
The challenge of non-classifiable tokens
In general, most old tokens that reach our hands nowadays contain enough information to regard them as Cuban. However, some offer very limited data, such as only the initials of the establishments (or their owners) that issued them, which makes it difficult to classify and include them in any of the previous groups. Several factors conditioned the practice of not stating the name of the issuing entity clearly: the enactment of the Arteaga Law, for example, which forbade private bodies to issue and use coins other than the legal tender; or when they were intended to be used in gambling or other forbidden activities, in order to avoid subsequent problems with the authorities. These peaces contitute such a complex and intriguing matter that we have decided to group them all in one page, which innitially will only exhibit them without any sort of review. We look forward to colaborations in the future in order to find answers regarding their existence.
The last tokens
Among the numerous tokens that have been dealt with, it is beleived that the last of their kind that circulated in Cuba were those of the company Omnibus Santa Clara, nationalized by the revolutionary government in 1960. Extinguished since then, tokens appeared again in 1981, issued by the Instituto Nacional de Turismo (National Institute of Tourism). These were the so-called “fichas Intur”, which were used for different purposes within tourism as equivalent to the convertible currency and later admited as means of payment, until Octuber 1st 2001, at stores that operated in foreing currency (U.S. dollars). Likewize, CIMEX corporation issued tokens from 1991 on, which were sold at hotels to feed the arcade machines installed at their premises.
Summing up, there were so many privately issued coins in Cuba, for centuries lacking a Mint, that it is impossible to group them all in one single category. Moreover, as previously stated, the term commercial tokens doesn’t quite cover all those that were issued. Therefore, we have decided to make up the pages of this section by grouping them according to the commercial activity they were most related to. These categories are the following:
Cafés and restaurants.
Societies, Clubs, and Leisure Centres.
Various: Plantations, Mines, Theaters, Religious Centers, etc.
Each one of these pages will be gradually included in this section. Please, check the Gallery in order to find those currently available.