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NYC Subway Token, 1953-2003

by Michael Markowitz, Apr 28, 2003
 
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At the transit museum store, you can buy a set of the five "historic" New York City subway tokens, introduced in 1953, 1970, 1980, 1986 and 1995, as well as subway tokens made into key rings, lapel pins, cuff links, bracelets, and money clips. Other stores sell ashtrays, paperweights, drinking glasses, coasters, mugs, ties, t-shirts, Christmas ornaments, even dresses festooned with the image of the token. The People's Hall of Fame, which honors New Yorkers every year for contributions to the city's cultural life, presents inductees with an enormous replica of a token. There are Frisbees shaped like giant tokens. The only thing the New York City subway token will no longer be used for, as of May 4, is to get you onto the subway.

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The Metropolitan Transportation Authority ended all sales of the token at midnight April 12. On May 4, when the transit fare is scheduled to rise from $1.50 to $2, the 13 million tokens still circulating will no longer be "good for one fare" on the subway, leaving the Metrocard the exclusive currency of straphangers. Bus fare boxes will accept tokens (plus 50 cents) until December 31. Then, 50 years after its birth, the little brass coin will essentially end its working life - except for one small gig: For the time being, tokens will continue to be sold for $1.50 and used at the Roosevelt Island Tram, which is run by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, not the MTA.

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The demise of the token has been expected ever since 1994 when New York became one of the last subway systems in the country to introduce fare cards. The blue and yellow MetroCards are cheaper to produce and can be programmed to offer discounts and transfers. Emptying tokens from turnstiles and delivering them to token booths is time-consuming and expensive. Phasing out the token, transit officials say, will save $6 million a year in handling costs. "In this time of dwindling resources, the shift away from tokens will allow us to be more efficient," Lawrence G. Reuter, the president of New York City Transit told The New York Times recently.

And so the clatter of metal tokens being emptied into buckets will soon join the clip-clop of horses on cobblestones, newsboys shouting "Extra" and the nasal intonations of Joan Rivers' taxi tape among New York's many bygone sounds.

1953 Token

fare: 15¢

New Yorkers already seem to have accepted the demise of the token. Few people spoke out on its behalf at hearings this winter on the fare hike, and indeed, by early this year, tokens were already being used for only eight percent of all rides. (There are exceptions: One Paula Glatzer wrote to the Times "I care about the end of subway tokens. I always carry a few with me, mostly for the times my Metrocard won't swipe....Why can't we get dependable readers, like those in other cities?")

The token is sure to live on, as item of nostalgia and icon of New York -- more humble than the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty, but a potent symbol nonetheless.

"It says 'NYC' on it, so that's certainly a big part of its appeal, but it's also popular because it's a very democratic symbol," said Sarah Henry, a historian with the Museum of the City of New York, which featured the token prominently in its recent exhibition entitled "NYCentury" on the city's symbols. "Because the subway is so deeply embedded in New York's identity and so many different kinds of people use it, the token by symbolizing the subway comes to symbolize the city." In that way, at least, the token will not be replaced: "The MetroCard," she said with a touch of scorn, "doesn't have the visual presence of the token."

RELATIVE NEWCOMER

The token is so closely identified with New York that most people do not realize that the subway system carried New Yorkers for 49 years before it acquired its own currency. For 44 years it cost a five cents to ride a bus or subway and all riders needed to get on board was a nickel. When the fare rose to 10 cents in 1948, the city refit the turnstiles to accept dimes.

1970 Token

fare: 30¢

But just as technology would eventually doom the token, technological limits created it. In 1953, when the fare rose to 15 cents, engineers could not figure out how to make a turnstile operate with a dime and nickel or three nickels. To solve the problem, they devised their own 15-cent currency.

Those first small tokens set the pattern that would become world-famous. On one side was the legend "Good for One Fare," on the other "New York City Transit Authority." In the center were the letters "NYC" with the "Y" cut out.

That token lasted 17 years, surviving a fare hike to 20 cents, and thousands probably remain squirreled away as keepsakes. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers who reached manhood in the 1950s and 1960s can still recall receiving one of those little tokens in the envelope with their draft notices to make it easy for them to report to the induction center.

In 1970, a larger token, also with a "Y" cutout, debuted along with the 30-cent fare. A decade later, when the fare reached 60 cents, a solid token with a stamped "Y" replaced it. When the cost of a ride rose to $1 in 1986, the "bull's eye" token, which featured a round center plug made from gray metal, was introduced. The last version of the token, with a cut-out pentagon, appeared with the $1.50 fare in 1995.

THEFT AND SPECULATION

1980 Token

fare: 60¢

As the tokens gained in value, petty criminals devised ingenious if revolting ways to get them. Crooks jammed the coin slot to keep the tokens from falling down. As the commuter walked off indignantly -- out a token but unable to get through the gate -- the perpetrator would swoop in and suck the token out of the turnstile. The epidemic led to widespread disgust among even hardened New Yorkers, and to ingenuity among subway workers who fought back with mace, chili powder and even super-strength glue.

Fare increases also gave rise to a unique form of arbitrage. When a hike was announced, people would begin hoarding extra tokens, hoping that transit officials would continue to use the old ones, instead of going to the trouble of minting a new coin. Sometimes the subway riders were right and made a nice little profit.

This year, collectors and nostalgic New Yorkers began stocking up as soon as the token's demise was confirmed. Anticipating a run on the coins, New York City Transit limited sales to two per customer on March 30.

But, so far a massive investment in subway tokens seems unlikely to reap big payoffs. A couple of days after official sales ended, the last version of the token was selling on eBay www.ebay.com for between $1.99 and $14.50. Even the original token, the dime-sized 1953 version with the Y cutout, was drawing bids of no more than about $25.

SIXTY MILLION CUFFLINKS?

1986 Token

fare: $1.00

What about all those tokens? Will they join keys for defunct locks, cigarette lighters and old scouting medals in the backs of thousands of dressers drawer across the city? Or will the financially ailing transit authority find some way to make gold from brass?

Transit officials are not sure. Of the 60 million tokens minted for the Transportation Authority in 1991, 41 million are in a vault somewhere in Queens. Transit officials will not say where, for security reasons.

If the past is any guide, most will end up in a furnace. "If they follow previous iterations of the token, they will be sold as scrap," said Charles Seaton, a spokesman for New York City Transit. He said the scrap dealers could sell some of the tokens to jewelers and souvenir makers, but New York City Transit will not get into the business of making cufflinks. About six million of the current tokens are already believed to be in the hands of collectors or are lost. The Roosevelt Island Tram bought 7,000.

Kilmartin Industries, the Attleboro, Mass, mint that sold the 1991 batch of tokens to the system for $7.6 million, doesn't have much interest in them. "It doesn't stir any emotions with me at all to be honest with you," Tom Vermillion, a sales manager at Kilmartin, told Newsday recently.

METROCARD HUT?

Now that the token is gone, straphangers face a new problem: What should they call the 700-plus structures formerly known as token booths?

1995 Token

fare: $1.50

Officially, New York City Transit has rechristened them "station service booths," but that seems unlikely to catch on. Our recent brief but fruitful survey of subway riders yielded a variety of suggestions, among them: MetroCard sales booth, fare sales booth, good-for-nothing booth, little house of cards, metro mansion, MetroPod, ticket hut, kiosk, information booth, token booth ("because the person inside is usually the 'token' human around"), MetroCard Hut (or McHut, for short), no-use booth, card shack, hold-up target, "customer service center -- ha!," bullet-proof transportation hospitality center and "affordable housing."

Of course, people still "dial" push-button phones, so maybe New Yorkers, notorious creatures of habit, won't change at all. They will simply buy their MetroCards at a token booth.


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