In the United States, a wooden nickel is a wooden token coin, usually issued by a merchant or bank as a promotion, sometimes redeemable for a specific item such as a drink.
Scrip and tokens have often been issued locally in times of severe economic distress such as financial crises and the Civil War. During the Great Depression, after the failure of the Citizens Bank of Tenino in Tenino, Washington, the local Chamber of Commerce teamed up with the local newspaper to issue scrip equivalent to 25% of people's bank deposits that could be spent at local merchants. Blaine, Washington, soon did the same with both flat scrip and, in response to requests generated by news and word of mouth, coins that included a 5-cent piece. The Chicago World's Fair in 1933 issued wooden nickels as souvenirs, and the tradition of wooden nickels as tokens and souvenirs continues to the present day.
In a 21st century twist to Tenino, Washington’s Depression-era use of paper and wooden scrip to aid its citizens, that community is once again issuing wooden scrip to help its citizens and local merchants via its COVID-19 Grant Recovery programme. Upon successful grant application, the grantee can spend the wooden scrip at participating shops in the town. Alternatively, the recipient can use the scrip, or equivalent credit, towards their municipal utility bills.
An American adage, "Don't take any wooden nickels", is considered a lighthearted reminder to be cautious in one's dealings. This adage precedes the use of wooden nickels as a replacement currency, suggesting that its origins lie not in the genuine monetary value of nickels, but rather in their purely commemorative nature.
Don't let yourself be cheated. This expression was first heard in the early 20th century. Although there never were any wooden nickels as legal tender, country folk going to a city were likely to be cheated by all manner of ruses, including obviously counterfeit coins. Wooden nickels did exist, however, as bank promotions during and after the Great Depression; the 'coins' were redeemable for prizes.
However, the concept of wooden nickels was alive and well before the Depression Era as evidenced by an article in the Chicago Daily Tribune on February 11, 1925 reported: He was the kind of man who calls back, 'Don't take any wooden nickels' as he disappears through the door.
Take care of yourself; good-bye, and watch yourself •Used as an amiable parting salutation (1915+)