Tokens that tell a way of life
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Tokens that tell a way of life

New book shows how tokens were so popular in the past

When one speaks of ‘tokens’ or ‘landa’ in Maltese, Strait Street in Valletta instantly springs to mind. 

Tony and Jeanette Stivala recently published a book about their collection of Maltese tokens. Photos: Mark Zammit CordinaTony and Jeanette Stivala recently published a book about their collection of Maltese tokens. Photos: Mark Zammit Cordina

But the history of these mostly brass or copper pieces goes further back in time and their scope was much wider than that of getting a drink or dancing with the barmaid during the heyday of the infamous night spot.

Tony Stivala and his Scottish wife Jeanette, née McLarty, have been collecting tokens, as well as many other Maltese artefacts, for about 20 years and have recently published a book on their endeavour. 

They became interested in these items quite by chance.

“One day, an English collector came to our bar and asked me if I had any tokens,” said Mr Stivala, who runs Times Gone By in Gżira. 

“I was instantly intrigued and being an avid collector of Maltese memorabilia, I thought ‘why don’t I start collecting them myself’?”

His wife helped him with the research and found, among other things, that tokens were first used in Malta during the time of the Order of St John but became especially popular during the British period. The book, published by Horizons, in fact focuses on the late Victorian era to the 1960s.

“Tokens were used quite profusely at the time. There was a lack of coinage owing to the increase in the number of visitors to the island, especially navy and army personnel, who frequented entertainment spots across the island,” noted Ms Stivala, who is from Northfield in Aberdeen.

“However, everyone assumes that these tokens were used only in Strait Street but far from it,” she exclaims. 

As Emmanuel Magro Conti, senior curator at Heritage Malta, explains in the book’s foreword, the use of tokens instead of the official legal tender issued by the government forms part of ‘exonumia’, a term that incorporates all numismatic items made of various materials, sizes and shapes other than official coins and paper money. 

The book features illustrations by George Apap.The book features illustrations by George Apap.

A token from the dance hall Palais des Dances in Strait Street.A token from the dance hall Palais des Dances in Strait Street.

He mentions three examples of tokens: some that were purely used as money substitutes for trade purposes; others that were considered the equivalent of cheques and that had a variety of uses, including advertising; and others that replaced medals, coins and today’s credit cards and were issued by companies for clients who had accounts with them. 

Leafing through the publication, which features over 500 tokens, one can learn about Malta’s social and economic history. Old photos and illustrations by George Apap give readers a better idea of the context in which tokens were used.

Two tokens used at Salinos Cinema in Strada Reale, VallettaTwo tokens used at Salinos Cinema in Strada Reale, Valletta

Maltese Tokens mentions bars, restaurants, hotels and establishments, many of which are no more or have changed use. These include Redoubt Bar in Birżebbuġa, a popular place among navy personnel and which still exists; Chez Charlie’s, Chez Vency and Gardenia Bar in Floriana; Granada Bar in Gżira, which was very popular among sailors stationed on naval vessels docked at Manoel Island, then a submarine base; Cairo Bar in Sliema and Tiger Bar in Marsa, then a well-known meeting place among British servicemen in the area.

The couple managed to find tokens of innumerable bars in Strait Street, such as the Blue Heaven, British Crown Rest Bar, Dirty Dick’s Bar, which was popular among the gay community, King George VI Bar, Queen Elizabeth Bar, Sussex Bar, Matador Jazz Bar, Piccadilly Bar, Retainer Bar, Roy Bar and The Splendid Bar & Hotel, which is sometimes used as an exhibition space nowadays.

Others include Tico Tico Bar, Carmen Bar, Larry’s Bar, Loop Bar and Silver Horse Bar, all of which have recently reopened. Tokens were also used in clubs such as the Australia Hall in Pembroke and the Vernon Club, a social club for British servicemen which occupied the premises of what is now the Central Bank of Malta in Valletta.

During the 1930s, churchgoers in Żejtun also had to use tokens to pay for the use of a chair in their parish church, while worshippers at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Valletta made tokens in memory of deceased loved ones and the money collected went towards the cathedral.

The couple is proud of their feat but mostly of the contribution they are making to Maltese melitensia. 

“These tokens form part and parcel of Maltese identity,” said Ms Stivala, who settled in Malta 41 years ago. 

“We would like to be able to help retain this identity and get youths interested in Malta’s history through our book.”

Top: These tokens were used in various canteens in Malta. Bottom: Three tokens made to commemorate the dead at St Paul’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta.Top: These tokens were used in various canteens in Malta. Bottom: Three tokens made to commemorate the dead at St Paul’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta.

Mr Stivala is an avid collector of Maltese memorabilia. He is seen here holding the first passport of former Maltese prime minister George Borg Olivier.Mr Stivala is an avid collector of Maltese memorabilia. He is seen here holding the first passport of former Maltese prime minister George Borg Olivier.

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