Auction Finds

Reader asks about Cannery Row brothel tokens

Fridays at Auction Finds is readers’ questions day. I try to guide readers to resources for them to determine the value of their items. I’m not able to appraise their treasures, but I can do some preliminary research to get them started. So, these are market values based on prices I find on the web, not appraisal for insurance purposes that I suggest for items that have been determined to be of great value.

This week’s question is about brothel tokens from Cannery Row in Monterey, CA.

Cannery Row brothel tokens

A brothel token inscribed "Cannery Row," which was for sale on eBay for $4.99.

Question:

I have also had a long standing interest in auctions, but my reason for visiting your page was that I have been attempting to find some authentic antique brothel tokens from Cannery Row, Monterey, CA. When I was about 16 or 17 (1974-75), the “Row” wasn’t particularly developed as a tourist attraction and still had a great deal of the original feel that Steinbeck made famous. I believe there was still one cannery in operation.

Anyway, I was there on a scuba diving weekend with friends and visited an antique (junk) store. It was in what was effectively an attic space … hot and musty. One of the oddities that caught my eye (typical male) was a small basket containing about twenty “rain check” tokens for perhaps two or three of the brothels that used to populate the area. They were authentic, but of no particular interest to the “antiquing” set, so they were priced at $5 each and they were mostly in very good condition.

The proprietress assured me that they were in fact the “real” thing and even began giving me a history lesson on a few of the brothels (and their specialties), on which she was for some unspoken reason, quite well versed. Unfortunately, my girlfriend at the time was uncomfortable with the conversation and didn’t see the need to waste money on something like that, so regretfully, I left without making a purchase.

A few years later, I went back and looked for the store … of course it was gone, as were many others and the great renovation and sterilization of Cannery Row began … I’ve been back once to see the aquarium, but the “Row” really holds no interest for me in its present incarnation. So, I lost the chance to buy a piece of interesting and titillating history and have been looking for those tokens, off and on, ever since … no luck.

If you ever see them, or know now of where some might be had … please email me. Thanks again for the article. Perhaps we’ll cross paths someday at an auction.

brothel tokens

Two of the brothel tokens and the pouch the three came in. An auction-goer wondered if they were authentic.

Answer:

This reader came across a blog post I wrote last year about three brothel tokens that an auction-goer had picked up from a vendor who told her that they had been given to an attorney as payment. They were inscribed with the names of brothels in the Arizona Territory. The auction-goer wondered if they were real.

My Google research showed that brothel tokens are fantasy coins produced for fun, were never used in a brothel and therefore, are not real. I found a lot of information about them on a website called AAA Historical Americana, whose owner noted that the tokens were made for sale as novelty items at flea markets. Several sites warned folks not to be fooled by the tokens, which are fakes that also have been reproduced.

The author John Steinbeck made Cannery Row famous in his book of the same title that was published in 1945. Steinbeck lived 30 miles from Cannery Row, according to the town’s website, and knew first-hand about the world of cannery workers and others who peopled his tale. 

“Cannery Row (1945),” one of Steinbeck’s best and most widely read fictional works, immortalized Cannery Row as a one-of-a-kind neighborhood of fish packing plants, bordellos, and flophouses, and made it the most famous street in America,” the website said.

Cannery Row brothel tokens

The 1945 cover of John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row" and the author himself.

The area got a kick-start at the turn of the 20th century and became a hub of the fishing industry. It boomed during World War I with the demand for canned sardines, dropped off during the Depression and revived itself during World War II, according to the website. Monterey was called the “Sardine Capital of the World.” Sardine fishery soon gave out and Cannery Row was doomed. That is, until Steinbeck singlehandedly peeled back the harsh and communal life of the town’s down-and-outers, along with a scientific man named Doc, who was actually his best friend Ed Ricketts.

Cannery Row had its share of brothels, including three owned by Flora Woods in the 1920s and 1930s. She also made it into the book – under another name, of course. There was also La Ida Café, also a brothel at that time, also immortalized in the book.

Now, the area has been re-styled and dressed up, and is a tourist location with restaurants, shops, wine tastings, spas, beaches and attractions.

As for the Cannery Row brothel tokens, they seem to be as fake as the ones bought by the auction-goer: fantasy items – not antique but maybe authentically fake. I found two for sale on eBay with the inscription “Cannery Row, Monterey, CA.” And they were selling at prices that matched their inauthenticity: $4.99 for one token and 99 cents for a lot of six that included other tokens.

 

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