Friday, March 2, 2012

Missouri Sales Tax Tokens

Suppose you went to the gas station today and bought one gallon of gas advertised at $3.299 a gallon. The clerk would expect you to pay $3.30 and would not give you back any change. But that’s not the way it was when we had mills for tenths of cents.

When we went to the Capitol Movie Theatre in the 1940s, a ticket for kids under the age of twelve cost 10 cents and 2 mills. Without the 2 mills, Mr. Arnold Gould would not let us in. If we gave the ticket seller 11 cents, she gave us 8 mills in change. The 2 mills were for the sales tax that Mr. Gould had to remit to the state of Missouri.

A mill is one-tenth of a cent, or one-thousandth of a dollar (it’s from the Latin word mille, which means “thousand”). Missouri had a state sales tax of 2 percent and issued sales tax tokens to help collect the tax when it came to tenths of cents. If you wanted to buy some dress material at the Southside Dry Goods Store, and Mr. Schmidt’s price for it was $3.70, he would add on the state sales tax of 7.4 cents, so the total bill would be $3.77 and 4 mills. You either gave him the 4 mills, or you gave him another penny and he gave you back 6 mills change.

Beginning in August 1935, Missouri issued tokens in 1-mill and 5-mill values in order to collect the sales tax. They were made of thin cardboard and called “milk-cap tokens” because they looked like the cardboard caps that were used for glass milk bottles.

Then Missouri tried metal tokens, which were slightly larger than a nickel, but thinner. They were lightweight, dull, and ugly and would never be mistaken for a coin. The 5-mill token had a hole in the center. Boys tried to use them in pinball machines, but they jammed the coin slot.

When World War II came, all metal went for the war effort, so Missouri turned to plastic tokens. The 1-mill token was bright red, and the 5-mill token bright green. The plastic easily warped, even under slight heat like sitting out in the sun, but even if they were curled, Mr. Gould accepted them at the Capitol Theatre.

They were useless for pinball machines! We boys laid them on the Missouri Pacific railroad tracks when we heard a train coming and watched the train’s wheels flatten them into half-dollar size.

Inflation after the war caused prices to rise quickly, and separate tokens for tenths of cents fell out of favor. Merchants didn’t like to fool around with tenths of cents, which required doing long multiplication on a piece of paper, so they simply rounded the sales tax to the nearest whole penny. This is what is done today when you buy gas at the gas station. Shoppers were glad not to have to fool around with a separate set of coins in their pockets and purses.

Missouri finally got rid of its sales tax tokens in 1961. It was the last state to do so!

Are Missouri sales tax tokens worthy anything today? So many millions were produced, and they were made so cheaply, that their value is trivial today. Collectibles dealers often sell them in boxes with miscellaneous paraphernalia.

The mills (and the milk jug cap!) in the pictures are from my collection. Some of the information was taken from the website of the American Tax Token Society.

Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.


It’s not very taxing to join the Old Munichburg Association! New memberships cost just $25 (and no mills!)—click here for a membership form!


Anonymous said...

Nice article! Well written, and Great Pictures - Thanks!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Why, thank YOU for your kind comment!

Walter Schroeder said...

I went to the nearby gas station and asked the clerk to buy one gallon of gas for $2.99.9, the posted price, gave her three dollars, and asked for a mil in change. She didn't know what I was talking about. I said that your gas is posted for less than three dollars and I wanted my change. She didn't think it was funny. Why do they post prices for tenths of cents???

Anonymous said...

ive been looking for years for a picture of these. i remember in my grade school math book a picture of a 'red cent' - guess they were teaching fractions at the time, but that image always stuck with me. thanx for the great info!

Mary Reynolds said...

i have found a lot of these. in my grandmas house.

Mary Busjahn said...

found a 5 mil in my garden, coming up before the cucumbers did.

Anonymous said...

As a child I remember these but I could never find anyone who had the same memory. I did not realize they were only in Missouri. Thanks a lot. I am not crazy.

mach37 said...

I lived in KC, MO, from 1943 to 1947, then moved to the Kansas side. I remember the mills well. When I started going to the movies by myself the half-price for kids was 13¢; they didn't bother with mills at the Warwick Theater near 39th & Main, but that was after The War. But the Katz Drug store, Woolworths and Kresges were big on mills. I don't remember the mills being in use as late as 1961, but I was a world traveler by 1956, so didn't get to the Missouri side much after that.