Don’t Take Any Wooden Nickels

Informant: “One saying that my Grandparents use to always tell me was…’Don’t take any wooden nickels’. This was this weird thing where I didn’t even know what that meant, I didn’t even know what a wooden nickel was. I think this goes back to tougher times in the U.S. where there were places that as part of your change or what have you, they would give you a wooden nickel, not a real nickel. It was some sort of promotion or thing like that where instead of giving you the real change which would be a few cents, they would instead give you a wooden nickel, and you could take that wooden nickel and go back to that place of business and use the wooden nickel as if it was five cents. Except… a real copper penny and a real nickel, you could use anywhere, and if you or I had a real copper penny or a real nickel from back in the 20’s or the 30’s today, not only would it be worth at least its face value, but it would be worth a lot more than that! The wooden nickel, unless there’s some collector out there, the wooden nickel is worthless. So the idea was as you’re buying things from people, as you’re entering into business arrangements, don’t get duped, don’t sell for anything less than being paid real money, because you don’t want to be cheated or gypped, and that wooden nickel might turn out to be worthless, so it would be foolish to take it… I think my grandfather was really just trying to pass down his ideals on how you needed to be smart with your money to [me], careful with your money, and not get duped. Because it’s hard to make money, and if you lose the money you have, especially when he grew up and lived through [the Great Depression] it was really bad if you lost your money. There was no safety net, your whole family might be having problems, and so you had to be careful. What’s really interesting was he always told me to never take any wooden nickels, and later in life he gave me some of his coins from his coin collection, and included in the coin collection he gave me was a wooden nickel.

Informant is a middle aged banker who frequently travels internationally on business, and is a father of three. He identifies as ‘American’, although his mother is of Czech heritage. He grew up in Oregon and Washington and currently lives in the Midwestern United States.

Collector Analysis: The first significant thing to consider is the fact that this is a proverb about money, told by an individual who works in the finance field, which is probably a bit telling in and of itself. This collector thought that the informant’s explanation of and analysis of this proverb was interesting. Previously, this proverb has been interpreted as if the person taking the wooden nickel did not know that it was a wooden nickel, and thus the meaning of this proverb we be “don’t let yourself get tricked”. However, the knowledge that this proverb originated in a context where the person taking the wooden nickel knew that it was a wooden nickel changes the meaning somewhat. Specifically, the meaning then becomes something more along the lines of “never take a promise of payment when you could instead take the actual payment”.

For another usage of this proverb, see cited work below:
M.S. Clark “Don’t Take Any Wooden Nickels”, Thorndike Press, 2003.