When my marriage was freshly minted, my husband and I honeymooned on an Alaskan cruise. We wandered delirious with exhaustion—and eventually fever— from buffet to day excursion to cabin. In Anchorage, I bought a string of Alaskan jade beads in a boutique; in Denali, we saw bears and moose on a meandering bus tour; and in Skagway, we had breakfast at the Red Onion Saloon, a brothel turned tourist trap.
We ate and drank, served by a crew of women done up as period working girls of the Alaskan gold rush, while a man, costumed as well, played a tinkling upright piano. After breakfast, we toured the museum as our guide regaled us with tales of the brothel’s infamous madams, Klondike Kate and Diamond Tooth Lil. And, on the way out, we bought a souvenir token from a basket near the door.
On the front, the token features an illustration of a lightbulb in the center and the text “Red Onion Saloon & Brothel Skagway Alaska” around the edge; on the reverse, plain text reads in all caps “Where the ladies never miss a trick.” That tourist’s token from the Red Onion is not the only such memento I own.
I first learned about brothel tokens on Etsy—that repository of arts, crafts, and cultural detritus, where hole-punched brothel tokens are frequently sold as pendants. I stumbled across them looking for jewelry, and, intrigued, shelled out ten dollars for one, a brass disc stamped “Good for One Screw” on one side. On Etsy and elsewhere, these brass tokens are sold as “authentic,” a spurious claim given the implausibility of what these tokens promise. Brothel tokens advertise values from “one screw” to “all night”—values which, if legitimate, would make each stamped brass bit worth a small fortune as nights of service at even the seediest of brothels run well into the thousands. The alleged high values of the tokens reflect no real exchange value, but instead the fantasy of purchase. And, indeed, among numismatists, these brass tokens, which date no earlier than the mid-century, are often called “fantasy brothel tokens.”
They were made not for meaningful circulation in the exchanges attendant upon the world’s oldest profession, but for the market of sexualized collectibles and gag gifts and are something akin to the penis-festooned novelty items sold for bachelorette parties or the ceramic souvenir mugs shaped like outrageous breasts. It is fitting, then, that we picked up that token from the Red Onion in Alaska; such sexualized tchotchkes have long been tied to honeymoons. Perhaps the veneer of history on these coins makes them less cringeworthy; perhaps I’m fooling myself and avoiding acknowledgment of my own poor taste. Regardless, the fantasy the tokens reflect is an alluring one—a fantasy of the good old days, when candy bars cost a nickel and women were to be had, warm and lusty, for just a scrap of brass bought with gold dust or a few crumpled bills.
But, that is pure fantasy. Almost. These tokens were never exchanged for services in the way the stamping implies. But, there are many examples of tokens used as advertising in the sales of services ranging from mass transit to telephone calls to video games. There are even real examples, both historic and modern, of tokens minted by working brothels to advertise services or lure customers. In some ways, tokens dance on the razor’s edge of the real, flirting with fantasy while offering or implying real services. They tease with the promise of flesh, warm and willing, but deliver only a wink, a nod, and a bit of a laugh.
Tokens can be coins, but they can never be cash. Tokens do not move seamlessly from business to business, letting you purchase corner store candy bars or hourly hotel rooms with equal ease. They are an abstraction of the already abstracted value of dollars and cents. They are a symbol of another symbol of exchange value. Tokens that may be spent on a specified good or service are a type of advance purchase. Token vending machines in arcades, for example, exchange cash not for quarters, but for a type of coin that cannot be used elsewhere. The moment you feed your bills into the machine, your course has been set, the tokens will fall in an avalanche, the dollar has been transformed into some number of opportunities for play. I spend a lot of time in arcades, since I research and write about video games, and I have handled more than my fair share of tokens. They follow me. I find them in jacket pockets and unused purses. Accidental souvenirs.
The manipulation of economic decision making, such as demonstrated by the arcade token, has a long history that the 18th century use of “staff tokens” or scrip attests to. Claiming a shortage of currency, employers would pay workers using scrip which forced them to shop at the company store and left them little recourse from accepting the company’s fixed—and often inflated—prices for essential goods. Scrip in this case, like other tokens, is unlike currency because its value is localized; it is dependent on the continued operation of the business that issued it, and it is usually valued less than cash. The value of staff tokens and other types of tokens can fluctuate independent from the value of a dollar, just as dollars may, following the demise of the gold standard in 1971, fluctuate in value independent of the value of gold. The ultimate value of the American dollar, though, rests with the government backing, while a token’s value is only ever backed by the business that issues it.
There are brothel tokens that are “real” in the sense that they were or are distributed by functioning brothels. Antique tokens are mostly French and are all highly prized. They do not circulate at flea markets for pocket change, but rather pass through auction houses and coin shops. These antique brothel tokens, which date as early as the 1890s, rarely promise the kinds of services referred to through tantalizing innuendo on novelty tokens, but instead advertise the business and occasionally offer the promise of a free drink. Brothel-associated tokens of more recent vintage exist as well. For example, women working at the famous Mustang Ranch distributed brass tokens of their own that serve as a business card, imprinted with the woman’s name alongside her crib number and the name and location of the business. For a customer to collect these tokens directly, he would also have to collect the services of the brothel’s workers as they would hand the tokens out to clients they wanted to see again. The tokens then serve as a kind of souvenir for the patron just as they serve as an advertisement for Suzy in crib #3.