Little red tokens found at San Bernardino County Museum put food on the table during WWII

The roll of dime-sized red disks with the words “OPA 1 Red Point,” first seemed to be nothing more than game pieces from an old board game.

But after a closer look, it became obvious the tokens I found were nearly 75-year-old artifacts of the very difficult times our parents and grandparents endured on the homefront during World War II.

As part of volunteers doing inventory work at the San Bernardino County Museum, I occasionally happen upon exotic or puzzling objects in storage boxes. Recently this roll of tokens – looking like some early-day Pez dispenser – was found at the bottom of a box with no clue to its function.

It turned out these disks were produced by the federal Office of Price Administration which oversaw World War II rationing of consumer goods, from food to gasoline to automobile tires. To conserve resources for the troops fighting across the globe, the OPA asked its citizens to “Do with less — so they’ll have enough,” supporting soldiers on the front lines.

Ultimately, citizens were issued coupon or stamp books so each person purchased only their fair share of goods. The stamps were worth only points that gave citizens the right to buy a specific amount of items – based on the number of points they had – each month.

So how were the 1-point disks involved in all this?

They were first distributed to retailers in February 1944 and were simply used as change from purchases. Customers received them when they purchased less than was available on their stamps. The points could be saved for future purchases, according to the Pomona Progress Bulletin of Jan. 14, 1944.

The red tokens were used when buying meat, while a similar blue token was used in buying processed foods, reported the Associated Press in December 1943.

There were more than 2 billion of these red and blue tokens made of a vulcanized fiber or celluloid. “You can’t easily wear out or destroy a token which is made of the same material that is used as a facing for pile drivers,” bragged the OPA’s H. L. McCann.

They may have been indestructible, but that didn’t mean they weren’t abused.

Some people, finding these things in their pockets or purses, used them as bus tokens or in parking meters or even for gambling. One drawback of using them in slot machines, according to one report, was that the winnings often gave you back more tokens than coins. Another racket was to take the so-called indestructible tokens, splitting them widthwise and passing off each side as separate tokens.

At the end of the war and rationing, many of the tokens were returned to the government but had no actual value. Almost 75 years later, you can buy them at coin shows or on the internet for anywhere from 50 cents to a couple dollars.

But as part of the county museum’s collection of historic objects, these reminders of a challenging time in our past are really priceless.

March of dimes

Army Pvt. Max Pyles of Upland celebrated the birth of a son, Richard, with an unusual payment, reported the Sun newspaper, July 18, 1943.

No, Pyles didn’t use OPA tokens. But he inexplicably spent many months collecting nothing but dimes. He stored them in a pint milk bottle and glass jar in anticipation of the birth, which happened on July 13. Five days later, he delivered 1,380 dimes to the office of San Antonio Hospital in Upland.

“Weary hospital office clerks, after counting the deluge, reported the total at $138, the exact amount of the bill,” wrote the newspaper.

Cemetery tour

The 12th annual Richard D. Delman Historic Cemetery Tour will be held this Saturday, Oct. 8, by Ontario Heritage at Bellevue Memorial Park, 1240 W. G St., Ontario.

The 10:15 a.m. program features five actors who will portray people buried at Bellevue and relate stories of the role they played in the history of Ontario and the region.

The cost is $10 for Ontario Heritage members and $15 for non-members, with those 12 and under free. Tickets can be purchased at the event beginning at 9:30 a.m. or by contacting or calling 909-984-6558.

I have been honored to again be asked to portray one of the five characters. Feel free to come by and say hello, if for no other reason than to prove you “ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost.”

Evergreen anniversary

In another event at a historic cemetery, the 150th anniversary of Evergreen Memorial Historic Cemetery in Riverside will be celebrated at a free event from 5 to 7 p.m. Oct. 15.

The cemetery, at 4414 14th St., will be recognized for its history and to recall the contributions of those buried there.


Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history.  He can be reached at or Twitter @JoeBlackstock.  Check out some of our columns of the past at Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at