What The 'L' Happened To CTA Tokens?

Mar 19, 2017

Like many Chicagoans, Sadie Teper has only paid for a CTA ride using the electronic Ventra card.

The Milwaukee-native, who says she moved to the Lake View neighborhood in 2015, was surprised when her mother texted her a photo of some “reject” coins that customers attempted to use at her family’s Wisconsin grocery store: Two brass CTA tokens from the days before touchscreens and digital fare-readers were the norm.

Amused by the idea that people once had to do something other than tap the turnstiles, Sadie asked Curious City:

What’s the history behind the old CTA tokens, when did they start, when did they end, and what happened to the remaining tokens?

From the time public transportation got its start in Chicago in the early 1850s until the CTA took over in 1947, a number of private companies were in charge of the city’s various forms of transit — and tokens. The CTA introduced its own tokens in 1950, but scrapped them almost 50 years later in favor of the magnetic strip cards.

We’re going to turn back the clocks and have you stop at different points in token history. Along the way, you’ll learn how tokens reflect changes in the way Chicagoans have gotten around the city. Plus, you’ll see how lost tokens have found new life, and what that reveals about the city and its identity.

First stop: The pre-CTA era

Graham Garfield, the CTA’s general manager of customer information and all-around Chicago transit expert, says tokens may have been used as early as 1859 with the city’s fixed-rail horsecar line. It’s unclear when or why those early tokens, which were likely made of cellulose, were phased out.

For most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — when a ride cost 5 cents — commuters needed only to hand a nickel to a ticket agent, or place it in a box next to the driver or conductor.

This was also true for the ‘L,’ which officially got its start in Chicago in 1892. The earliest of the original four ‘L’ companies, the South Side Rapid Transit, initially tried tickets as a single fare instrument, but Garfield says the company scrapped tickets by the turn of the century after realizing it was simpler to accept nickels.

Tokens largely became the single-fare payment of choice after 1918, when the price of a ride started to increase.

“Once the fares became numbers like 8 cents and 13 cents, now there’s a lot of making change, and that slows down the fare collection process,” Garfield says. “It also costs money to collect, count, transport and administer currency. ... And, then there’s the issue of theft.”

Tokens were also a way to blunt the impact of fare increases on more frequent riders because they could be sold in bulk at a discount, Garfield says.

“It was like saying ‘OK, we’re going to raise the base fare to six cents, but if you want to buy five rides for a quarter, you’ll only pay five cents,’ ” Garfield says. “It’s very similar to the way a pass works now.”

Much like today, Garfield says, tokens weren’t the only way people could pay for public transportation. Commuters could still pay in cash or buy a multi-ride paper pass, “giving the customer options depending on what their riding habits are, or what they can afford.”

Second stop: The CTA era

The CTA took over Chicago’s transportation systems in 1947, after the previous owners failed to dig themselves out of their Great Depression-induced bankruptcies. The CTA’s own tokens first hit the scene in 1950, though their use was limited to streetcars and buses, Garfield says.

“They were much more limitedly available, and were primarily for businesses and organizations whose workers used the streetcars a lot; so they would sell them to the U.S. Postal Service, messenger services, and other companies as an easy, economical way for their workers to hop on and off the streetcars,” Garfield says.

Tokens were made more widely available in 1952, sold in lots at discounted fares at different locations for both the ‘L’ and buses. A new standard token was minted for use on both systems in 1954 — after the price to ride the ‘L’ and surface system were equalized. In 1957, a reduced-fare token was introduced for students and children.

In 1969, the CTA adopted the exact fare system on the buses, which is the reason you won’t get your change back when you slide a $5 in the bus’s machine today. Garfield says the system ultimately helped streamline the transaction because bus drivers no longer had to make change; and tokens helped make this system more convenient for riders because they always represented the exact fare.

The CTA began its transition to fare cards in 1997 with the introduction of the magnetic strip transit card and the use of transit card vending machines.

“Although tokens were, in many ways, more economical to process and handle than actual currency, it was still something physical that had to be collected, counted, packaged, accounted for, and then redistributed to keep them in circulation,” Garfield says. “Once you had a stored value electronic fare card, you could do all of that — and offer the same types of discounts — electronically.”

After nearly 50 years of use, the CTA officially stopped accepting tokens on May 31, 1999.

Next stop: Tokens get the boot

At the time of their nixing, the CTA was playing a perpetual game of cat-and-mouse with riders who found tricky ways to dupe the coin-operated turnstiles.

“They would find coins that were the same diameter and approximate weight as the tokens, buy them for a penny or two, and start using them as tokens,” says Greg Borzo, author of The Chicago ‘L.’ ” “The machines would simply accept them.”

Bob Greenstein, who collects and studies coins at Harlan J. Berk in the Loop, says his company would previously buy up foreign currency the CTA had unwittingly taken in, and had at one point noticed a disproportionate amount of a certain coin included in that mix: the German 1 pfennig.

“And then people would come in and say ‘My child is working on a project for school. ... They’re  studying Germany ... and I need to buy 100 of the German 1 pfennig,” Greenstein says. “We wouldn’t sell to them because we knew what they were doing.”

A Chicago Tribune article from 1996 says these types of con artists robbed the CTA of $180,000 a year.

This was not an entirely new problem for Chicago’s transit operators. In a June, 1924, issue of Surface System Magazine, a monthly magazine for the system’s employees, an irked writer rants that conductors had unknowingly accepted tokens from about 90 of the country’s 138 railway companies.

Aside from the con artists, Borzo says, people were generally happy about the CTA’s shift to transit cards because they were easier to handle than tokens. Garfield says the CTA was happy because it no longer had to collect, count, package, and account for millions of tokens.

Last stop: What became of all the old CTA tokens after 1999?

In 2004 the CTA sold about 20 million obsolete CTA fare tokens for $157,000 to Osborne Coinage Co., a former CTA token manufacturer. A 2004 Chicago Sun-Times story quotes a coin minter who said it planned to melt and repurpose the tokens, but hadn’t yet decided on their next incarnation. If Osborne’s portfolio is anything to go by, the melted-down metal may have been re-minted for use as Chuck E. Cheese game tokens.

But not all of the tokens met their maker.

In some corners of the internet, people wax sentimental about finding the tokens in forgotten places and excitedly discuss the memories they conjure up. Others are up for grabs on eBay.

CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman says the CTA has more than 20,000 full- and half-fare tokens, which it uses to create novelty jewelry like cufflinks and necklaces. It sells about 100 of these novelty pieces annually.

Garfield has a theory about what drives this obsession: If they’d been able to hold on long enough, we might be more fascinated with the flimsy magnetic stripe cards. Tokens, however, were made to last; after nearly 20 years, people still find them at the bottoms of draws, in pockets, and under couch cushions.

“They were part of everyday life for people for generations, and they’re still out there, and tangible,” Garfield says. “They’re common enough to be findable, but rare enough to hold some level of fascination.”

But he also thinks it goes a little deeper than that.

“The ‘L’ is part of the city's culture and identity,” Garfield says. “In the movies or TV shows, when you’re establishing shots of what city you're in, at least one of them is probably of the ‘L.’ It’s a sort of shorthand for Chicago, and it has a kind of an inside feel.”

Adjowah Keilman, who sells an assortment of public transit token-themed accessories out of Richmond, California, would agree with that. She says the CTA variants are among her best sellers. And people “freaked out” when she brought her CTA cufflinks to a craft fair in the city years ago.

“There’s this love they have for their city that’s so earnest, and that’s reflected in their desire to wear things from it,” she says.

More about our questioner

Milwaukee native Sadie Teper moved to Chicago in 2015 after graduating college to pursue a graphic design career. She quickly took to the Chicago lifestyle.

“When my friends and I tell people locations, we give them ‘L’ lines, like ‘Oh, it’s just off the Brown Line,’” she says. “And if I can’t get somewhere on public transit, it’s just too far.”

Perhaps more than anything else she’s learned from our reporting, Sadie’s still reeling from the fact that the CTA used tokens until 1999. She figured they would have been long gone by then.

“It’s hard to imagine a world when we didn’t use all-digital things,” she says.

As such, she looks at her Ventra card with a newfound appreciation.

Laura Pavin is a freelance journalist in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @laurapavinnews.