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In early March 1933, a man walked into the Hi-Way Cigar Store in Pismo Beach, California, and laid a huge clamshell on the counter. “Gimme a box of cigars,” he said. That day, the clam was paying.
It might sound like a weird dream, but we have a smattering of evidence that something like this actually happened. The evidence is in the form of a shell inscribed with the words “Good for one dollar on demand at Hi-Way Cigar Store”—one of 19 similar shells that survive in a special collection at Pismo Beach City Hall. This strange currency was dated March 1933; its roots lie in the Great Depression.
In an era of economic turmoil, thousands of banks were failing and Americans’ trust in the institutions had evaporated. Fearing that their money was no longer safe at the bank, many people had emptied their accounts and stashed dollars at home—which, unfortunately, further undermined the banks. To redress the situation, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared a nationwide bank holiday, from March 6 to March 9, 1933, during which withdrawals were frozen. This gave his administration a chance to stabilize the banking system.
The thought of having to go for four days without readily available cash shocked Americans. Around the country, businesses began issuing IOU-style notes or ersatz dollars—often called scrip currency—in the form of metal or wooden tokens so that everyday transactions could continue even when retailers couldn’t easily issue change to customers. In Pismo Beach, however, locals turned to a different resource: the shells of the Pismo clam, a large, edible clam once plentiful in the coastal waters of central California.
The shells were completely different from any other scrip currency being used at the time, says Joshua Smith, a research assistant at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, who has studied the Pismo Beach collection and recently published a research paper describing the shells and their purpose.
The shells were more or less credit—placeholders for real currency. A handful of local businesses in Pismo Beach, and also in Crescent City, agreed that when change in dollars or cents wasn’t available, they would issue shells to customers instead. Smith and other researchers think that customers would use the shells in subsequent transactions after signing their names on the inside, endorsing them somewhat like checks, which gave businesses a record of who had “spent” their shells. If any customers still had shells rattling around once the banks reopened, they could ask the retailer to exchange them for cash.
Smith says that the shells are surprisingly large—up to roughly 15 centimeters in width—and many have faint traces of the clams’ natural shell patterning, faded wispy lines of purple at the edge of the exterior sides.
The shells were generally inscribed with a few key details. Dates associated with the bank holiday period, the names of issuers, locations like “Pismo Beach, Calif.,” and signatures of the customers who used them.
Smith’s study reveals that a surprisingly wide variety of retailers issued the shells, including a few pharmacies, a cigar store, a local market, and a firm that made signs. There is substantial evidence that the shells really were used in financial transactions, given the number of signatures preserved on the backs, says Smith.
In 2013, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the shells, Pismo Beach locals resurrected clamshell money, making colorful homages to the 1933 variants. Among the businesses that accepted them were a restaurant and a pawnshop specializing in video games and DVDs.
Smith says we should think of the 1933 scrip as a small community’s expression of resilience. A lack of dollars didn’t worry them. “All of a sudden this group of people said, ‘Well, we have what we do have’,” says Smith. They had clamshells. Appropriating them as currency helped insulate the community from the practical difficulties of the bank holiday.
How fitting. After all, shells are—by their very nature—protective.