Archived Voice Articles

Warner studies local scrips

By Jonathan Warner

Jonathan Warner

Jonathan Warner

If you google “Sioux County” and “Zylstra,” sooner or later you get a hit for President Carl Zylstra of Dordt College. But seventy-five years ago, in the depths of the Great Depression, it was another Zylstra from the area who was the center of attention, and his town, Hawarden, in the west of the county, was briefly in the national limelight.

Charles J. Zylstra had an idea to alleviate the effects of unemployment and lack of business activity that characterized the Depression. With the support of local businesses, the City Council would provide jobs for the unemployed on various public works projects, and pay them in scrip certificates.

Each one-dollar certificate had spaces on the back for thirty-six three-cent stamps. Each time the scrip was used, a three-cent stamp had to be affixed to the back. When all the spaces bore a stamp, the city council would give the bearer one dollar for the certificate. The scrip was ‘self-liquidating,’ in that the money raised from the sale of the stamps would raise $1.08 for the city–one dollar to pay for the redemption of the scrip, and eight cents to cover the issuing and printing expenses.

A visit to Hawarden from the Yale economist Irving Fisher gave a great deal of publicity to the stamp scrip idea. Letters requesting details of the Hawarden scheme came from many different places, and several groups of people sent delegations to see how it worked. A newsreel team came to film people using the scrip. Zylstra’s plan was featured in books and magazine articles.

Other Iowa towns followed Hawarden’s lead. Zylstra was elected to the Iowa legislature in the Democratic landslide of November 1932, and introduced a bill to allow counties to introduce stamp scrip schemes. Four counties did so, with varying degrees of success.

My current research project is to document the various city and county stamp scrip schemes of Iowa and the surrounding states, to preserve this largely-forgotten episode in the U.S.’s past. I’m also interested in the factors that influenced the success, or otherwise, of stamped scrip schemes. If you have information on, or interest in, this form of Depression-era money, I’d love to hear from you!

Jonathan Warner
Professor of Economics
Phone (712) 722-6347