It is my understanding that a great numismatist by the name of Russell Rulau is the person responsible for coining the term exonumia. Simply put, and these are my words not Mr. Rulau's, exonumia is a catch-all term used to describe items that might appeal to coin collectors but happen to be something other than coins. As hobbies of all kinds become more sophisticated, things that might be classified as exonumia by some have gained status and are now given new classifications used by the specialists who collect them. At the risk of offending some, for the purpose of this article I'll stick with my original explanation and call this stuff “not-a-coin”.
For the collector of Canadian coins, exonumia offers a rich and varied way to expand the hobby. Based on my experience, collecting tokens, medals, checks, tickets and so many more coin related items makes collecting a far more personal and exciting endeavor. For example, I once walked into a store in Ontario and showed the clerk a token that was issued by this company 50 years before. It didn't surprise me that the young woman had never seen one of these before. What I found so enjoyable was that I was standing on the same spot in the same store where a person might have used this little piece of metal to make a purchase.
During the mid 1960's, I hiked to an abandoned iron mining camp located in the upper region of Northern Michigan. There were no roads leading to this place. My friend and I had followed an old railroad right of way. The door to the main building was unlocked and so we walked it. I've never been in a stranger, more eerie room. Save for the layers of dust, the place looked as if the previous occupants had simply gotten up from their desks and walked out. It might seem fantastic, but it appeared to us as if nobody had visited the building in fifty years! Being a good fifteen miles from any road added to our romantic notion. On the largest desk there was a small stack of cancelled checks. I took several as souvenirs. During the next few months, I tried to learn all I could about the company and it's activities. I managed to turn this research in to a term paper. I'm confident that including a photocopy of one of the checks with the report helped me to earn a better grade.
A business associate of mine is what I'd call a bank historian. For many years he has used vacation time to visit bank buildings in various parts of the country. In one quaint community he visited a tiny bank that had been converted into a dentist's office and insurance agency. Both tenants enjoyed seeing my friend's old photographs and postcards showing the building in its glory days as the county's only financial institution. After an enjoyable lunch, the trio returned to the building so the visitor could be shown a curious invention. Once inside the insurance agency, a pair of sliding doors that had been installed for cosmetic reasons, were pushed aside to reveal the door to the bank's vault. The vault itself was no larger than a small closet. While they were looking in to the steel room, the insurance agent explained that the “vault” was actually more like a large safe cleverly supported from beneath by a wooden frame. If there were ever a serious fire that threatened to destroy the building the vault, intact, would drop through the floor and fall into a concrete bunker filled with water! Of course my friend had to see this portion of the engineering marvel as well. Once in the basement, he found that the “vault tank” had been drained and was now filled with debris—including a virtual treasure trove of discarded banking memorabilia including hundreds of canvas coin bags. The insurance agent encouraged my friend to take anything he wanted. The landlord, who happened to be his uncle, would be delighted to see the stuff disappear. He'd been wanting to clean the place up for years, but didn't want to go to the expense to have it done.
By noon the next day my friend had nearly filled his car with what most people would consider nothing more than musty trash. Have you guessed what is coming next? Once home, my friend unloaded his treasure in the garage. During the next several weeks, he spent many enjoyable hours carefully examining his incredible find. Inside three of the canvas bags he found coins that had managed to get wedged in the seams of the heavy cloth!
Exploring the fascinating world of exonumia may not take you on such a remarkable adventure, but investigating all the wonderful items that are related to numismatics is certain to provide hours of enjoyment. When dealing with exonumia what research proves to be a priceless find can often be had at a very reasonable price.