This installment of “From the Colonel’s Desk” comes from the pen of Col. John Riley, Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (commissioned 1985), a longtime numismatist who hails from the Bluegrass State.
When I was a kid visiting coin shops and flea markets in the 1970s, a reliable giveaway or “junkbox” item was often an odd-shaped aluminum or brass trade token from northern Kentucky. From the early good-fors of the late 1800s up until the early 1960s, many businesses in the communities situated across the Ohio River from Cincinnati took an imaginative eye to their promotional pieces and dispensed a wealth of interesting coinage substitutes. Newport, Kentucky, in Campbell County, is easily accessed from Cincinnati by a suspension bridge built in 1866, designed by John A. Roebling—still in use today as is his more famous (and visually similar) Brooklyn Bridge. Newport was an Army town, home to the Newport Barracks—in the period after the American Civil War incorporating into Fort Thomas—a defense point overlooking Cincinnati. (But more on Newport later in the article.) Just to the west in neighboring Kenton County is the city of Covington, long a proud German-American settlement and even now a Germanic cultural enclave.
While these two cities make up the bulk of the issuing stores, saloons, restaurants, and gas stations, there were also nearby towns such as Erlanger, Dayton, Bellevue, Bromley, and others who joined in the fun of advertising their wares in the forms of shields, artist palettes, horse heads, police badges, whiskey barrels, fish, and many other forms—even boxing gloves! It is a unique regional specialty to collect, and the tokens are instantly recognizable, even from a distance, as being from the area. A marked advantage for the vendors who ordered these tokens was the proximity to the manufacturing dynamo of Cincinnati: Greg G. Wright & Sons, James Murdock, and the Osborne Register Co. all contributed to the mix of interesting token designs and shapes, but perhaps the most creative of all came locally from the National Band and Tag Company of Newport. Still very much active at 119 years young, the company produces in addition to promotional pieces such necessities as poultry leg bands; tags for livestock, cats. and dogs; and all manner of industrial and commercial tags. As Prohibition lifted in 1933 and the Great Depression waned, National Band and Tag was uniquely situated to provide a cheerful diversion to generations of their customers and neighbors.
Now, back to Newport.
The military installations have always had their followers ready to supply vices of wine, women, and song to young soldiers, and the barracks of northern Kentucky were no exception. In addition, the good people of Cincinnati were glad to not have negative elements within their own city limits. But they could not deny their own citizens from sampling the charms on the other side of Mr. Roebling’s bridge . . . and from Civil War times a cottage industry flourished and grew across the Ohio River. Prohibition only made matters worse—organized crime gained a foothold in little Newport that would take 40 years to root out. But in a time when Las Vegas was little more than sand and scrub cactus, Newport was it! Home to the original Flamingo and Tropicana nightclubs, Newport hosted the biggest entertainment names of the era and Kentucky officials largely looked the other way at illegal bootleg liquor, gambling, and prostitution in the town that was estimated to bring in over a billion dollars a year in revenue from 1935 to 1960.
Federal pressure on organized crime, most notably the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, started to tighten the screws on Newport’s shady social scene: led by Tennessee senator Estes Kefaver, the proceedings were the first to be televised and the audience at home in 1950 and 1951, with their brand-new televisions, were fascinated to see the bright lights trained on infamous mob figures. The gambling industry had largely relocated west to Nevada by 1960 and a famed Notre Dame and Cleveland Brown’s football player turned Campbell County Sheriff, George Ratterman, cleaned up what remained of Newport’s problems in short order. The story of Ratterman’s campaign for office, and the dirty tricks to attempt to frame him for solicitation, are a tale for another time.
“America’s Gomorrah” is happily unrecognizable in today’s Newport, Kentucky, but the numismatic artifacts remain as testimony to a raucous and colorful past. Be forewarned, however, these “junkbox” items now come with 2022 price tags. A nice horsehead can set you back $80 or more. You may be interested in the wonderfully illustrated book, Northern Kentucky Café and Bar Tokens, published by casino-chips expert Roy Klein.