Rare tokens found at Shore cannery were used to pay workers decades ago

December 01, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

QUEENSTOWN -- In a dark and dusty corner of a storeroom, employees at the S.E.W. Friel cannery here recently discovered a wooden box filled with reminders that the lowly tomato was once king on the Eastern Shore.

Inside the box were thousands of rare, brass tokens that were used during the first half of the century to pay cannery workers for skinning tomatoes and other vegetables.

In the years just after World War I, there were 250 canneries on the Eastern Shore, according to R. Lee Burton Jr., a Cambridge man who wrote a book about the subject. And during the next several decades, as many as 500 canneries operated at one time or another on the Shore.

Partly because they did not want to have large amounts of cash on hand, cannery owners issued their own scrip that workers could spend at local stores or exchange for U.S. currency at the end of the week.

Skinners were paid a token -- usually worth a few cents -- for every bucket of tomatoes they peeled. They could exchange tokens of small denominations for brass coins of higher value. "A good peeler could do 100 buckets a day," said Mr. Burton. There may have been as many as 2,000 different kinds of tokens on the Eastern Shore through the years, he said.

Tokens were made of brass, aluminum or, in some instances, red fabric "which showed the canner was really a cheapskate," he said.

The practice of paying in tokens ended in the early 1950s with passage of federal wage and hour laws.

When the cost of old and rare silver coins rose abruptly in the 1960s, some numismatists turned to collecting the brass cannery tokens.

"In most instances, though, they were thrown away" as canneries closed, said Mr. Burton. "Every now and then someone finds a bunch of them." The tokens found at Friel were almost discarded because workers did not know what they were, said Keith E. Wolfe, a company official. But word of the discovery reached Sam Friel, the 83-year-old company head, who saved them from the trash bin.

"I knew they were there," said Mr. Friel. "I didn't have any idea people had any use for them."

Collectors are already scrambling to get some of the Friel coins, which bear the company's initials on one side and the value on the other.

"They're definitely collectors' items," said Dennis Zembala, director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry. But a token collector in the Baltimore area, Russell W. Sears Jr., said the monetary value of the find may be diminished by its size.

"When there's a large quantity of them, they're worth cents each," Mr. Sears said, contrasting them to one-of-kind brass, minted cannery tokens, imprinted with a company name and location, that could command a price of $50 to $100.

When a coin is unique, he said, it "means all the others were dumped in the river or down the well."

Mr. Zembala said the significance of the tokens is that they represent an era when workers were paid only for what they produced.

"That doesn't happen anymore," he said.

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