A trade token is generally a small metal, plastic or cardboard coin-like item that is redeemable for a product or service by the business that issued it. Bus tickets or subway tokens are the common modern variety. Most were made of aluminum and produced by companies who made marking devices, badges and key tags. In Canada, they were especially popular in isolated communities where cash was hard to come by. An excellent example of this is the popularity of trade tokens that arose in Québec’s Gatineau Valley region from the late 19th century through the early 20th.

Trade tokens are not legal tender but during the first half-century or so after Canadian Confederation, government coinage was still scarce in the rural districts; most likely due to poor roads or lack of railway access. The villages strung along the Gatineau River north of Ottawa were such places. Between 1890 and 1935, 600 businesses in the province of Québec issued 2000 different trade tokens redeemable for services as diverse as those from dairies, bakeries, restaurants, transportation companies, hotels, churches, amusements and a snowshoeing club. Often businesses would offer discounted tokens to their suppliers as payment which they could sell or trade at face value. They were an important tool in such a tight knit economy and a necessary one where cash was scarce. Advanced sales of tokens (mostly for transportation and food staples) provided cash flow for the merchant and eliminated the necessity for the delivery person or driver to handle cash or make change. Tokens could provide credit for the merchant instead of the opposite and more usual arrangement. They were also a cheap and powerful advertising medium.

The infrastructural growth after the First World War plus more plentiful government currency heralded a decline in token usage, but it hung on in the Gatineau Valley until well into the Depression. Milk and bread tokens survived there into the 1960’s and transit tokens are still around.