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Store-Cards or Tokens

by A. F. Pradeau

To approach the subject intelligently, one must determine whether the aborigines of New Spain were free or slaves. The conquerors were men who had been in Cuba and Española for some time, had learned to regard the natives as their property, to exploit as they saw fit, to overwork, enslave and even to brand them as ranchers brand cattle. Throughout the sixteen and seventeen centuries, the conquistadores, their immediate descendants, government officials, the Church and the Crown, employed various devices for coercing labor with as little cost to themselves as possible, either in food, care or vestments. The sworn declaration of Manzanarez, assistant treasurer of the Mexico City mint, testifying before a notary during the Tello de Sandoval investigation in 1545 discloses that of the twelve slaves the treasurer had, four had died of overwork, two more were dying and only six remained active! This explains why, as it had happened in Cuba, the population of Mexico declined between eighty and ninety per cent. The laws that from time to time were enacted for the protection of the Indians, were modified according to the circumstances of the person claiming exemption, who being a Spaniard and a Christian considered it degrading to do manual labor! This attitude, remains one of the persistent traits of the so-called “higher class” of Mexico.

Another aspect of this study should comprise the wages paid. By edicts of 7 January 1549 and 22 February of the same year, the Queen of Spain approved that the Indians be used instead of beasts of burden to carry loads into mining regions, work for which the Council of Mexico authorized a daily wage of one- fourth of a real. Two centuries later one finds that the natives, rendering coerced services, were the source of cheap labor, and while the Crown, the Church and the Spaniards continued to retain control in New Spain, there was hardly a chance for improvement.

By 1900 in rural communities the monthly salary received by the mayor of a town was sixty pesos; clerks were paid twenty to twenty-five pesos for a thirty day period which meant working Sundays; a bookkeeper earned fifty pesos, a teacher thirty, and laborers four to five pesos a month. All this being somewhat higher in the cities and large mining centers, where proportionately, living expenses were also much higher.

A careful study of the prevailing conditions and the scarcity of coins of small denomination with which to carry on commercial transactions will impress the reader as the most obvious cause for the existence of Mexican tokens.

From 1550 to 1794, the smallest denomination issued by the Spanish-Colonial Government was the silver half-real coin, equivalent to 6¼ cents. As the earnings of the individual were small, his purchases had to be in the same category, rarely higher than one-fourth of a real, eighths of a real and sixteenths of a real being the most prevalent.

The difficulties arising from the lack of a circulating medium of exchange of low denomination were a constant source of annoyance. More often than not, the aborigines suffered considerable mulcting. Therefore, it was evident and essential that the monetary system of the colony be modified to meet the needs of its inhabitants. Yet, for over two centuries the Spanish authorities failed to recognize the importance of the problem or chose to ignore it.

Sometime during the first quarter of the eighteenth century, shopkeepers (pulperos) contrived the issuance of tokens or store-cards which would serve as fractional currency. Although these necessity pieces were redeemable by the issuer only—and he was not always reliable—they received popular approval. As the need was extreme, no coercion was necessary and the existence of these private issues became a “must” in the vast expanse of New Spain. Within a short time the colony was flooded with innumerable issues, most of which were cast in a diversity of forms, designs and markings.

The earliest account dealing with these counters (tlacos) was a viceregal decree or ordinance issued by don Juan de Acuna, Marquis of Casa-Fuerte in 1731[text needed] by which it was attempted to regulate the use of tokens; unfortunately, the copy of this earliest document, seen and studied by don Manuel Romero de Terreros, could not be located.

Another was the narrative written in German by the Jesuit Joseph Och who during his stay in Mexico City in July 1756 noticed that “there was a curious kind of money, invented by the shopkeepers, each having its own seal stamped upon small pieces of iron (sic) copper, wood, or even bars of soap about the length of a finger. “This money-making system,” states Father Och, “was quite lucrative to the merchants, for as no one but the issuers would accept such counters, the customer was obliged to return to the same shop to make them valid.”

On 3 December 1757, Ferdinand VI issued a real decreto regulating the issuance and acceptance of pilones, vales, senates, and tlacos in New Spain. This decree[text needed], consisting of twenty-nine articles, was made public in Mexico the following year by don Agustin Ahumada y Villalon, 42nd Viceroy of New Spain, in a twelve page pamphlet printed by the heirs of the widow of don Joseph Bernardo de Hogal under the pompous title of Ordenanzas para el Regimen y Gobierno de los Tenderos y Tiendas de Pulperia dadas por la muy noble, leal, Insigne e Imperial Ciudad de Mexico, Cabeza de los reynos y Provincias de esta Nueva España: Confirmadas con precedente parecer del Senor Fiscal de su Magestad por Superior Decreto del 3 de Diciembre de 1757.

The government of the Spanish-American colonies was highly centralized with the supreme authority vested in the king of Spain to whom all matters were submitted for final decision. Therefore, it was not at all strange that on 29 December 1766, a high official of the Inquisition reported to Charles III that in Mexico City there were more than two thousand shopkeepers, each with a sort of coinage of his own, wholly different from that of his competitors. The alarmed informer explained that when the issuers had establishments within the City of Mexico, the tokens were made of metal, but those whose establishments were in the outskirts consisted chiefly of wooden planchets. He then proceeded to enumerate the undesirable features of the method: (a) the tokens were not acceptable by all merchants; (b) should the issuer sell out, the new owner might not make good the store-cards; (c) in case of bankruptcy or closing of the store the public would suffer a loss and lastly (d) the Indian who brought his wares from out of town was compelled to accept payment, half cash and half in tokens, which were worthless in any other community. Consequently he was forced to go from house to house, seeking a buyer at five or six tokens for half a real instead of the assigned rate of exchange of four. Throughout the lengthy and well detailed report, the King was urged to consider the issuance of fractional currency. An investigation followed, but in the end, 18 June 1768, the suggestion was overruled.

In 1794 the Count of Revilla Gigedo in the secret instructions left to his successor the Marquis of Branciforte, article 452, annotates that “coins of small denomination exerted great influence in the commerce of the Colony, but not having copper coinage it became necessary for the storekeepers to devise a medium of exchange called tlacos that permitted them to retail their wares at excessive profit. I tried to prevent abuses and started to prepare a report for His Majesty but in the meantime the silver fourths of a real were minted, which to some extent have relieved the needs of the poor.”

Another complaint was filed 1 December 1805. This time it was presented to Viceroy Iturrigaray of New Spain, who, less capable than his predecessors, refused to do anything about it. In fact, since 1794 the Mexico City mint had been striking cuartillas (fourths of a real) and it was expected that these tiny silver coins would alleviate the exchange difficulties. They might have done so, had it not been for the unrest noticeable in the Colony caused by the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, the dethronement of Charles IV, and virtual imprisonment of the heir, Ferdinand VII. The Spanish-American colonies seized the opportunity and from 1810 to 1821 rose in revolt against Spanish domination. During this period, because of the lack of safety on the highways, the private issues increased tremendously. The copper coinage of Morelos, 1811-1814, did not help matters.

The War of Independence was rapidly gaining ground and adherents. By February 1813 a new viceroy was appointed in the person of the Division Commander, Felix Maria Calleja, who had had some degree of success against the insurgents and was a man of action; but the revolution had decreased the revenues, and to conduct a war money was necessary. Therefore, on 23 August 1814 Viceroy Calleja, using the circulation of tokens as an excuse to cover up the real reason for the issuance of copper specie, made public an edict which in the related part reads:

“Always alert and willing to extend to the people of New Spain every possible aid, I have promoted the issuance of copper specie in order to put an end to the usurious, ruinous and arbitrary circulation of the tokens commonly known as tlacos, in use by all stores.”
“And so that no one may suffer, I have assigned the next eight days as the period in which said tlacos must disappear. The shopkeepers must accept all the tokens brought in, but after three days following the publication of this order, he shall not use them to ‘make change’. Infractions will be punishable at the rate of fifty pesos each.”

Because of the unsettled condition of the country, this salutary measure did not put an end to the store-cards. After the Spanish yoke was overthrown (1821), Mexico embarked in a series of revolutions. The private issues continued, more numerous, perhaps, than during the colonial days, until the last decade of the nineteenth century.

A study of the tokens of Mexico should include a primary classification: Colonial issues, those in circulation during the period comprised between 1730 and 1821; and Republican, those emitted from 1821 to about 1900. The monarchical regimes of Iturbide, 1822-1823, and Maximilian, 1864-1867, can be eliminated because they were of short duration and also because each actually disapproved of the private issues, decreeing their suppression and authorizing the striking of cents and half-cents.

A second classification, perhaps the most important, should be their segregation into Store-Cards, Mining Industry Fichas (chips) and Hacienda Tokens.

No mention is made of Municipal Issues as these, as well as the State Issues, must and should be considered under Copper Coinage of Mexico, mattering little whether it was regional or national; and because they were issued by constituted authorities, it is improper to classify them as private issues. These were, perforce, a necessity coinage, which occasionally might have been obsidional; yet, the fact remains that they were authorized by a governing body extant at the time. Therefore, such emissions should not be grouped under the category of tokens.

To determine whether the tokens are of the Colonial type or of comparatively recent manufacture is rather difficult as the pieces are seldom dated. Anyone attempting to classify these pieces will find the task arduous, more so if not well versed in the history and geography of the country.

As stated before, the majority of these pieces are cast; a vast proportion is unifaced, and because of the inability of the Mexicans to work iron, the earliest are made of copper. Later ones - perhaps within the Colonial epoch - were brass or bronze. Those made of iron, whether dated or not, belong to the republican period, definitely after 1830. Others made of glass, hard-wood, leather, and on occasion, bars of soap, may be attributed to the late nineteenth century. For obvious reasons, tokens made of vulcanized rubber, aluminum or celluloid are of recent manufacture.

As to the second classification - that of differentiating tokens into store-cards, etc., - this writer wishes to express his opposition to the misnomer Hacienda tokens, which leads one to believe that haciendas, plantations or ranches, were the sole issuers of this medium of exchange. Nothing can be further from the truth.

As it has been shown in the documents cited, storekeepers were the first to use them. Whether haciendas used them during the Colonial period is open to doubt. The plantations were located far away from towns. Furthermore, the owner did not permit strangers on his premises and he kept a store (tienda de raya) where his peons could obtain merchandise.

The degree of illiteracy up to 1821 was almost one hundred per cent. By 1900 only about sixteen per cent could read. Thus, it would have been difficult or well nigh impossible for the agricultural laborer to determine the value of tokens except by its form or size; besides, of what earthly use would such token be to him if it were not acceptable outside of the plantation? The system of peonage that existed until the Madero revolution, 1910-1913, kept whole families for generations in the servitude of the hacendado or patron. During the Colonial period, divisible into three epochs, the Spaniards established a feudal system. During the first fifty years the conqueror seized the land and levied tribute on his serfs, the natives. After that, the encomienda was a modified feudal system, and it, as well as the corregimiento that followed, allowed the conqueror to continue enslaving the aborigines. The pittance that each laborer might have received as wages during the Colonial period could be covered easily with the existing coin of the realm, but as he was rarely permitted off the plantation, his needs were met by the general store kept by the owner.

During the Republican period, the employer devised a system whereby the peon himself could keep track of what he earned, spent or owed. It consisted of a sheet of paper which the peon kept rolled and protected in the hollow of a bamboo segment. The system used was simple and easily understood by an illiterate person; an “0” indicated eight reales; half a circle, four reales; a vertical line stood for one real and a diagonal over three vertical lines indicated four reales. As the average monthly raya or wage of a peon was thirty to forty reales, the entries in the debt-sheet were charges for goods purchased at the tienda de raya (general store) for himself and his family over and above what he had earned. Credit was extended in order to keep the worker in servitude but should another plantation owner request his services, the peon was free to go, provided his new employer paid his debt, who, in turn, continued carrying the charge. After 1869, when the metric system was adopted by Mexico, the peon’s method of accounting continued the same except that a vertical line indicated a dime and the diagonal line over four verticals stood for half a peso.

As to size, weight and shape, Mexican tokens vary considerably; the circular form predominated, although the oval, the square and the rectangular pieces are numerous. There are a few triangular pieces and at times one finds rhomboidal, pentagonal, hexagonal and octagonal ones. Being lovers of nature, the natives showed their temperament by having their tokens in the forms of leaves, such fruits as the pomegranate and pear; animals as for example the dog, goat or pig, frogs and fish, and even heavenly bodies as a star or a half-moon are crudely represented. Not a few are heart shaped. It is the belief of the writer that some of these forms might not have been the original but the past-time of an idle possessor.

As to the markings appearing on the tokens, occasionally on both sides, consist of orthographically incorrect surnames, abbreviations, or as in the rare exceptions where haciendas issued them, the reproduction of the cattle branding iron, a mark that in Republican Mexico had to be registered with the authorities. Many of the later tokens were made in the United States, and in these the workmanship is excellent. Incidentally, to the author’s knowledge there were no toll bridges in Mexico and the word PUENTE must be considered a cognomen, a rather common one in all Spanish speaking countries.

The value assigned to each token does not seem to appear on the majority of them. In fact, it is scarcer than the date. However, some bear the word tlaco which in itself means “half” and as such, could be a rather elastic term, applicable to any value. In the beginning tlaco or claco was indicative of one-half of a cuartilla (at times Quartillo or Quartilla) which would make it one-eighth of a real (about a cent and a half). Thus, four tlacos would be equivalent to one-half real. As a general rule, one could state that those pieces showing the value, either in fractions or spelled out, belong in the classification of coins, municipal, state or national.

It is true that some tokens carry numerals such as 1, 2, 4 or 8. These have been interpreted by some investigators as representing reales (the Spanish monetary unit indicative of 12½ cents). This assertion may be correct, but unless followed by the letter “R”, the abbreviation “Rs.” or the word Reales, it should be open to doubt. These would have taken the place of the coinage of the realm, either colonial or republican, and neither government was sympathetic towards counterfeiters who were usually summarily executed.

Frequent depreciation of the governments’ copper specie, issued by either national, state or municipal authorities, was another reason for the existence of tokens. From 1824 to 1837 fourteen million pesos of this despised coin existed in Mexico which was then populated by less than seven million people! By 1881 the country was bankrupt and the advent of the nickel coinage during the following two years made matters worse. Many a government supported by an issue of copper coin came into power only to fall within a short time! One revolution after another made the finances of the country sink lower and lower, until all revenues were mortgaged.

Counterfeiting was rampant in Mexico, and the United States with its great productive capacity also participated. On 16 August 1833 the ship “Robert Wilson” sailing from New York brought into Veracruz a shipment of spurious coppers consigned to one Thomas Savage. In 1859 a firm in Allegheny dealing in water pumps, smuggled large quantities of counterfeit pieces hidden in the hollow parts of this type of industrial machinery. In 1862 another firm from San Francisco, California, passed an undetermined amount of spurious coins stuffed in water pipes under the very noses of Mexican Customs Inspectors of Mazatlan, Sinaloa! These are only a few of the many instances that could be cited.

Where copper currency was concerned, the populace, sensing the irresponsibility of the government, preferred to accept tokens issued by local concerns; in distant sections of the country, where coined money was scarce, private issues served the purpose satisfactorily, and indeed were received with less repugnance than the official specie.

The first legislation directed towards regulating and limiting the circulation of tlacos seems to have been enacted by the Spanish-Colonial government of Durango in 1797[text needed], at which time the issuance of private coinages without previous registration of the design and approval by the city council (ayuntamiento) was forbidden. Next in importance was the Morelos edict of 13 July 1811 by which he ordered: “. that to prevent confusion (with his own coinage) all tlacos or clacos made of copper must be retrieved by the issuers who should make them valid at their true silver value. For the time being, shopkeepers may continue using wooden tokens, and to avoid fraudulence, the issuers must obtain permission from these headquarters. Such permits shall be granted at a small charge which will be in proportion with the amount to be issued.”

The Constitution of 1857, Article 72, section XXIII, reserves for the national government the privilege of coining money and by Article 111, section III declares, that no state in the union shall coin money, issue paper currency, postage, revenue stamps or stamped paper (papel sellado). The subject of tokens, either as private or municipal issues, was not mentioned; however, by implication or deduction, these means of exchange were illegal. Article 114 of the same Constitution imposes upon the State’s government the obligation of preventing the circulation of illegal coinage within its boundaries. Yet, in spite of extant legislation, the infractions were numerous and the unrest that prevailed made the enforcement of the law difficult, if not altogether impossible.

By Presidential decree of 30 November 1889, Article 13, it was specified that after 1 July 1890, the use of promissory notes {vales), debt-sheets (papeles), tokens (fichas), or the use of any means to supplant the coin of the realm, was strictly forbidden. Infractors would be subject to fines ranging from $50 to $500 for each offense.

Scarcity of transportation facilities and the insecurity on the highways restricted the circulation of the national coinage to the vicinity of the mints then in operation, depriving outlying states and districts of the necessary currency with which to transact business. The government, aware of this inadequacy, pledged the good offices of the Banco de Londres, Mexico y Sud-America to gather the old coinage and make available the new, but this banking institution with its numerous branches and agencies, finding the task too difficult and hazardous, rescinded the agreement which would have brought them a three per cent commission on the amounts handled. Merchants, transportation companies, miners and hacendados continued paying their workmen with whatever money they had, and if none of the national currency were available, the obligation was met with tokens. It is to be surmised that if the employer were the owner of a general store, he would give preference to his own private coinage which, being unacceptable elsewhere, would force his workers to trade at the master’s store, where the price of goods was nearly always higher than at commercial establishments in near-by towns. Such discrepancy was acutely resented by the poorly paid workmen. Thus, toward the end of the nineteenth century serious outbreaks occurred in various parts of the country. In the southern part of Sonora the Aduana and the Quintera Mining companies, a short distance from the City of Alamos, witnessed a disorderly demonstration resulting in scores of wounded and some dead. After this episode the tokens ceased to circulate in the area, but not so in other parts.

The monetary law of 25 March 1905, Article 26, again takes up the subject of chips (fichas), tokens (tarjas), metal planchets or other objects employed as conventional substitutes for the coin of the realm, warning the issuers of such substitutes that they would be prosecuted under Article 430 of the Penal Code. By that time the country had entered into an era of relative prosperity. Mexican coins of all denominations, struck until then by various Mexican mints and aided from 1906 on by American and British coining establishments, were disseminated throughout the Republic. It was not until then that tokens ceased to circulate definitely and apparently permanently. However, during the revolution 1911-1916 which, in addition to World War I, caused Mexican money to disappear from the markets and Gresham’s Law to exert its inexorable postulates, different and curious kinds of tokens appeared. They were of flimsy paper or cardboard, hurriedly printed, and easily reproduced, yet, because the issuers were known locally, these had better reception than the millions of revolutionary paper money of doubtful value and undetermined duration. The Supreme Chief of the Constitutional Forces, don Venustiano Carranza, fearing that the private issues would impair the circulation of the paper money being issued under his authority or that of his field commanders, issued a decree at Hermosillo, Sonora, on 28 December 1913, worded virtually the same as Article 26 of the 25 March 1905 monetary law, whereby the private issues were declared illegal tender. Nevertheless, public opinion prevailed and the private issues continued being printed and circulated until 1920 with the tacit consent of the helpless authorities. The 1917 Constitution, Article 123, Sec. X, stipulated that all wages had to be paid in legal tender, not in merchandise, orders, counters or tokens. Sec. XXVII did away with the tiendas de raya, while Article 123, Sec. XXIV, ended servitude by making debts payable by the individual who contracted them and not by his family. In order to wipe the slate clean, Transitory Article 13 cancelled all debts of the worker contracted from his master up to 31 January 1917. The bonds (bonos) sold by the Liga Nacional de Defensa Religiosa during the War of Religious Persecution, 1925-1929, might be classed as a private issue. If this be so, these were the last to have been circulated in Mexico. Constitutional amendments up to and including 1955 have not dealt with the subject of tokens.