The History of Tokens in Costa Rica
By Manuel Chacón Hidalgo, Numismatics Curator, MBCCR
Tokens were not unique to Costa Rica, They were also used in other countries of the American continent, such as Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba, El Salvador, México, Argentina, and Colombia, among others, y son conocidos genéricamente como “fichas” o “Tokens”.
Toward the mid-20th century, currency in Costa Rica was heterogeneous and scarce. After the Costa Rican independence, the Spanish currency system, consisting of reales (silver), escudos, and onzas (gold). Yet the Costa Rican state was unable to provide the population with the necessary currency for commercial transactions, and was thus forced to authorize the circulation of foreign coins, often allowing countermarking.
Coffee crop financing with foreign funds brought an influx of foreign currency to the Costa Rican economy starting in the 1840s. Yet the coffee boom also caused a rise in the volume of both local and foreign commercial transactions, as well as a rise in expenditures, which in turn required currency. The productive specialization of coffee caused an increase in the price of land, hand labor, and food supplies. Since a significant part of the land was dedicated to coffee-growing, at the expense of growing basic consumer products, trade of supplies developed. Under these circumstances, the metal yield of the Aguacate mines and the currency struck by the Mint of Costa Rica were insufficient to supply the tender needed.
To remedy this situation, the aforementioned allowance to use foreign currency was set in place, as well as use of a type of private currency, called token, issued by private companies, originally coffee producers. The word “boleto,” Spanish for “token,” comes from the word “boleta,” a promissory note or coupon. These were made in different materials (bronze, copper, tin, aluminum, bakelite, plastic, cardboard, etc.) and were handed out to coffee-pickers for every box, called “cajuela” in Spanish, roughly a cubic foot .
In Costa Rica, large, medium and small coffee-growers minted tokens to represent cajuelas, medidas, and baskets, which were handed out to coffee-pickers, according to how much coffee had been picked. These were then exchanged for money on the day they were paid. Other coffee-growers involved in trade set a value on tokens according to the currency system at the time.
They issued denominations of ĵ of a real, ½ a real, and 1 real; and went from one cent to two-hundred pesos, céntimos, and colones. These could be used throughout the year in comisariatos, or stores that belonged to the landowners who issued the tokens. Many other stores began to accept tokens, based on the company or company owner’s trust and backing.
Some of the tokens show the name of the owners of the coffee plantation, or the owners of the companies that had them minted. Some depicted animals (cows, elephants, swans, flies, eagles, etc.), trees, ships, baskets, the Costa Rican coats of arms, and even effigies, such as the Alvarado Chacón Company, whose token displayed a portrait of Santiago Alvarado Ramírez, the only coffee plantation owner to engrave his image on a token.
Many other tokens were more simple in manufacturing and minting, consisting of sheets of metal or plastic on which the coffee producers would strike the initials of the coffee grower and the denomination (1, ½, ĵ per cajuela, for example).
Tokens were used in the coffee economy to purchase and sell goods and to pay salaries. Tokens allowed coffee growers not only to have the currency needed to fulfill wage obligations, but also to make good use of it, since it was scarce. It was used instead for other types of transactions, such as investing on capital goods for coffee production and processing.
In some cases, tokens became a way to exploit agricultural workers, since they could only use and acquire products from the landowner’s shops, or from a store with whom the farm did business, which limited the worker’s activities to those within the confines of the farm.
Thus, whoever issued the token was sure to profit from it twice over. On the one hand, they avoided using currency — which was scarce — that had been loaned to them and was needed to invest in capital goods, while on the other hand, they made a profit from trading goods in their own stores.
Tokens were a way of self-financing, but, in many cases, also offered workers an advantage: had there been no stores, they would have had to travel considerable distances to acquire daily consumption goods.
In time, tokens were used in other kinds of companies and businesses to pay salaries or to replace the low denomination currency needed to give change, since coins were in short supply.
It is unclear when tokens began to be minted, but it is a known fact that, by the early 1840s, tokens issued under the name if Gerónima Fernández were already in circulation. Its use extended into the 20th century, particularly in areas of Costa Rica where coffee production developed, until they were forbidden by the Costa Rican government in the 1970s. Yet they continue to be used in some farms to keep a tally of the work done by each coffee farm worker, particularly when it comes to coffee picking, and are paid out in domestic currency on weekends.
How to cite this article?
Chacón Hidalgo Manuel. Historia de los Boletos de Costa Rica. (2005). San José, Costa Rica: Fundación Museos del Banco Central. Available at: link