The Treasury is worried about the penny; it seems to be going out of style. Pennies are a nuisance; there is nothing to spend them on. They won’t fit parking meters anymore. Pennies have outlived their usefulness for paying sales tax. At 6 1/8% making sales tax change is the last stronghold of the copper coin. Was a time in Utah, though, when shoppers not only had to deal with piles of pennies, but tax tokens, too.
Sales tax first went into effect in 1933 at a 3/4% rate paid in round amounts of one cent on a dollar sale. But the Legislature raised the rate to 2% (to make it easier to pay, it said), and adopted the use of tokens to pay fractions of tax on sales under 50 cents. The Utah State Tax Commission ordered two denominations: 1-mill and 5-mill. On June 21, 1937, Utah bought its first carload of 70,000 aluminum tokens from Osborne Register Co., Cincinnati, O. to be put in circulation July 1. The 1-mill disk was a bit smaller than a dime; the 5-mill token slightly larger than a nickel.
As the Salt Lake Tribune explained it, “The mill was the precise tax on a nickel purchase; the 5-mill on a quarter purchase. A penny was the exact amount of tax on a 50-cent sale, and the tokens were used to pay the correct tax on factional amounts.” Shoppers, for instance, buying an item for $2.65 paid 5 cents and 3 mills tax.
Obviously tokens would be a world-class pain in the pocket. Everyone would be carrying around a supply of aluminum as well as pennies, because businesses were required by law to collect the tax, much to the aggravation of the public. Because Utah Gov. Henry Blood signed the sales tax bill into law, tokens quickly became known as “Blood money.”
The extra “small change” created a fashion oddity among Utah males: the coin purse. From 1937 to the mid-1950s (and beyond by surviving senior-senior citizens today), this curious trend ordinarily consisted of the small rosette coin wallet or the larger snaplock leather pouch. Rare was the man who was without such an accessory in which to store his daily horde of pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, halves and those worthless blankety blank aluminum tokens! (The coin purse for men gradually faded from the scene when tokens were dropped in 1951).
In June of 1942, the burgeoning demands of World War II brought about an acute condition on the homefront. Aluminum was a scarce war material and Utah could not replenish its supply of tax tokens with that metal. The answer was a newfangled chemical composition called plastic. Utah ordered three denominations of plastic tokens in colors: (green 1-mill, gray 2-mill and orange 5-mill) from Ingeversen Mfgr. Co. of Denver. They were all the same size, slightly smaller than a quarter.
Throughout the existence of sales tax tokens in Utah, the metal disks came in for a variety of uses, but mostly by motorists who insisted on forcing them into parking meters. And there were those under the erroneous impression the 5-mill token would work in a pay telephones. Other vending machines fell victim to mill jams. But tragically, the plastic tokens proved the biggest headache. Young children were inexorably drawn to the brightly colored chips. . . and tried to eat them. The tokens were discontinued in May 1951, and thereafter became another in a long line of collectibles. But as an example of the truth of the adage that “you can’t please everyone,” take the case of the silver dollar.
The “cartwheel”–the good old silver dollar–was a standard in the western states from the day it was first minted. Back East, it was all currency. But in Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado the coin of the realm was the cartwheel. U.S. Mints in Carson City, Nev., Denver and San Francisco turned them out almost exclusively for the western states, and large coins became souvenirs for flatland tourists to take home and show the neighbors.
But in Utah, at least, dollars became much like tax tokens–a blamed nuisance. In retrospect, that attitude sounds like 100% idiocy in light of the 1990s monetary conditions. But in the 1940s and ’50s, especially (there weren’t many folks who had much money in the ’30s), the notion of having three or four cartwheels clanking about in a pocket was aggravating.
“Can’t I have paper?” was the usual lament when a shopper was handed three or four silver dollars along with the small change. Youngsters used to complain the dollars–when they had them–would drag their jeans down. Women disliked the added weight, and so the silver dollar–outside of the casinos in Nevada–was unpopular. Today, shoppers would riot for the opportunity to receive silver anything in face value change. Silver coins went the way of the buffalo, podnuh.