My introduction to funny money probably came with my first vistt to Chuck E. Cheese. In addition to its extensive collection of arcade games, creepy animatronic figures, and ball cages filled with questionable substances, the suburban pizza behemoth minted its own money.
Cast in gold-toned metal with a grinning rodent on one side and "In Pizza We Trust" on the other, Chuck E. Cheese tokens were a revelation to me. I was amazed that a company could, seemingly without any oversight, produce its own currency. When I left, I pocketed a couple of the coins, and they formed the beginnings of what was to become a small collection of funny money.
Some of my non-traditional currencies, like my Grey Fox bucks and my Floydian hours, simply involved being in the right place at the right time. After all, while Floyd, Virginia's experiment in homemade money began with the best of intentions, it didn't last very long. Similarly, the fake cash that gets printed at some bluegrass festivals generally gets a few days in the sun before it reverts to its component parts, namely funny pictures printed on pretty paper. Even so, I've kept my eyes open for Calgary Dollars, Disney Dollars, Toronto Dollars, Liberty Dollars, and other regional currencies.
Other forms of cash took a bit more work to get. For example, in addition to the plastic chips that most casinos use, some of them also mint metal-based coins. While it's sometimes possible to get these by trading in dollars at one of the casino exchange offices, there were a few situations in which I had to win the damn things. Ultimately, though, I ended up with a few cool silver tokens from the Vegas strip.
While I enjoy local money, I am even more intrigued by non-functional forms of cash. After all, while Floydian hours can only be used in Floyd, they at least can be exchanged for goods and services. As such, they function as real money. On the other hand, Antarctican Dollars, issued by the "Antarctica Overseas Exchange Office," are basically valueless. That having been said, they are absolutely beautiful and my daughter, who is obsessed with penguins, loves her Antarctican cash. The money generated from the bills allegedly helps to fund various good causes, but I'm pretty much in it for the cool penguin pictures. As far as I know (and care), the Antarctica Overseas Exchange Office is a total scam.
The same goes for the Chinese hell notes that are intended as a form of veneration for one's ancestors. The bills come in numerous designs, from thinly-veiled imitations of American currency to elaborate and beautiful depictions of traditional Chinese icons. I even have one set that features pictures of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and (oddly) Joseph Stalin.
There is definitely some money to be made in the minting and selling of funny money. After all, every penny that one can make over the component cost of a fake currency is, theoretically, profit. In the case of Floydian dollars, which are made with a xerox machine and a special stamp, this can be a lot of cash. What's more, there is a large and impressive community of private money collectors out there, proudly building collections of small-town bills and arcade tokens. In fact, while researching this post, I came across one guy who is offering up to $1,000 for certain Chuck E. Cheese tokens.
What really strikes me, though, is the question of what people choose to put on their coins. These, after all, represent somebody's idea of the most valuable or stirring icons in existence. While the Emperor Penguins on my daughter's Antarctican dollars make a lot of sense, the John Lovitz face impressed on my "Crewe of Bacchus" Mardi Gras coin can only be described as surreal. If you were going to mint your own money, what would be on the front?
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. His dollar bill would probably have George Orwell on the front. On the back...creme brulee.