Scrip, a private currency, was the medium of exchange in many West Virginia coal towns. Issued by coal companies in a bewildering variety of forms, scrip was made of metal or paper. Paper scrip lacked durability and was easily counterfeited, so companies largely replaced it with scrip coins, a trend promoted by the invention of cash registers which permitted accounting of large quantities of metal scrip.
Companies bought paper scrip from their printer, and some that owned a pantograph machine manufactured their own metal scrip. In the West Virginia coalfields, scrip usually was purchased from either the Osborne Register Company of Cincinnati or the Ingle-Schierloh Company of Dayton, Ohio.
Coal companies received significant advantages in using scrip. Scrip reduced the outflow of capital, strengthened company cash flow, and reduced payroll theft, thereby lowering the cost of security. It also assured the company store of payment since scrip was deducted from miners’ wages on payday. Miners often received pay envelopes marked with a curling line across them, a symbol miners called the ‘‘bobtail check’’ or the ‘‘snake.’’ It meant no wages due.
Initially a convenience to miners and companies in rural areas, scrip became a means to cycle the value of a miner’s labor back to the company. Companies allowed miners to ‘‘cut’’ or ‘‘draw’’ scrip daily. Scrip was good for full face value at the company store, but companies would not buy back their scrip for cash. Traders appeared who bought scrip at a discount of 25 percent and upwards, while independent stores located nearby often accepted scrip at a 10 percent to 30 percent discount.
In West Virginia a struggle to regulate scrip occurred between 1887 and 1925. Labor organizations, supported by independent merchants, lobbied for the 1891 scrip law. The new legislation brought reforms, but punishment provisions were negligible and enforcement non-existent. Companies were prohibited from issuing scrip except as a promise to pay the sum specified in legal money.
Thus, a company could not issue scrip in lieu of currency, but only for work already performed or as an advance on pay. This legalized the use of scrip for credit. A later scrip law of 1925, written by coal company lobbyists, made scrip non-transferable. This reduced the use of scrip by independent stores.
Coal companies continued to use scrip as credit for preferred employees or to provision new workers migrating to their locale via ‘‘transportation.’’ The latter practice required a man to work off his debt and led to vicious incidents of debt peonage in the state prior to 1917. Coal operators maintained that scrip ‘‘educated miners to sound credit practices’’ and prevented miners from being fleeced by independent stores. Investigators in 1925 concluded, to the contrary, that prolonged scrip use encouraged poor budgeting practices and prevented development of ‘‘a sense of the value of money and savings.’’
Scrip use declined as automobiles and mail order sales broke the hold of company stores, credit became more widely available, and wider use of coin vending machines created opposition to metal scrip. Scrip disappeared with the collapse of the coal industry in the 1950s, but it retains a big place in the memory of West Virginians.
Written by Lou Athey
Athey, Louis L. The Company Store in Coal Town Culture. Labor's Heritage, (Jan. 1990).
Massay, Glenn F. Legislators, Lobbyists and Loopholes: Coal Mining Legislation in West Virginia, 1875-1901. West Virginia History, (Apr. 1971).