Saturday, February 20, 2010

sepia saturday, don't take any wooden nickles

Walter, the Missour-ah boy,
who originated the phrase in our family

When I found some loose change in the couch cushions the other
day, it reminded me of a phrase WT likes to say. He got it from his
father, who got it from his father. I guess you could say it is an old
"Missour-ah" boys' saying. The kids used to think it was so funny;
right on par with "I'm going to see a man about a dog", which he
would tell them when he was going somewhere and didn't want to
take them along. I'll save that for another post. I digress. The
phrase in question today is this:

Don't take any wooden nickels.

First recorded in about 1915, this expression was originally a
warning from friends and relatives to country folk in the great
migration from rural areas to the big cities, at the turn of the
century. It was a humorous bit of advice, meaning "beware of
those city slickers". No real wooden nickels were ever
counterfeited. Ironically, the country boys were the ones who
possibly did succeed in passing off wooden objects as the real thing.
Yankee peddlers as early as 1825 allegedly sold wooden nutmegs,
which cost manufacturers a quarter of a cent each, mixed in with
lots of real nutmegs worth four cents each.

A second source says the expression means "don't let yourself be
cheated or ripped off". Originating in the United States, in the 1920s
and 1930s, money that had no real value was sometimes referred
to as "wooden". Stories about wooden nutmegs, wooden hams, and
wooden pumpkin seeds contributed to the later use of the phrase
"wooden nickels" in America, and even the use of wooden rubles in

Another source adds that the United States minted five-cent pieces
from the earliest days of the Union, but they were not known as
nickels until 1866, when the first five-cent coins containing nickel
were minted. The practice of making commemorative tokens from
wood as centennial souvenirs developed, and we assume wooden
nickels actually were made during the nineteenth century for this
purpose. Frequently such coins were accepted as legal tender while
the celebration was in progress, but they ceased to have value
when the show was over. So, the expression "don't take any wooden
nickels" became the popular equivalent of "don't be a sucker".

So, hey, there you have it, my bloggy friends.

Have a great weekend, and don't go taking any wooden nickles.

For more Sepia Saturday participants click [HERE].

info from:
The Phrase Finder
Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins
by William and Mary Morris
Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson
Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings by
Gregory Y. Titelman


  1. I'm still searching for the origin of a phrase my grandmother used when trying to dissuade a nosy child.

    Me -- What's in that box?
    Grandmother -- Laroes to catch meddlers.

    Could laroes have been an alternative form of lairs? I'll probably never know.

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  3. Good one! Listing the dictionary is a good thing too.
    You never fail to inform, entertain, inspire and intrigue us. Good times!

  4. Wooden hams???

  5. Willow,
    I hadn't heard this little phrase before... if I did take wooden nickles, I'd probably try to past them along.. hee hee....Have a great weekend! :) The Bach

  6. Very interesting...I had never heard of the first meaning of the "wooden nickles" saying, only the second. I love picking up fun tid-bits from your blog. Wooden nutmeg! OMG!

  7. Funny, the alchemist keeps telling me the same thing: "Don't take no wooden nickles or no wooden nothing — we only do base metals around here". But I always forget; why, I'd give a good penny for a wooden nickle.

  8. Willow, I grew up with this expression but in a literal sense...I'll see what's in those other boxes of mine, heh, heh...

  9. yep, dont want to be swindled...i grew up with this one as well....

  10. I remember this saying, too. And the version of the other one that I've heard is "I'm going to see a man about a horse".
    I can see where WT gets his great head of hair : )

  11. Hello Willow,

    I'm new to your blog. However, I did post a comment last night regarding your post about apology. I didn't formally indroduce myself, then, but I will now. My name is bobbybegood1, and I was browsing through blogs and I found yours - obviously. I like your blog and your posts. Looking forward to becoming blogging friends.

    I found today's post very imformative.

  12. Would you believe, I still tell my daughter, 'Don't take any wooden nickels', to this day. I must have picked it up from an American film, and it stuck.

    My grandparents, when referring to a short distance from the spot used to say, "within an acre of swede."

  13. My husband's head popped up over his newspaper this morning and he asked, "where did the phrase 'red herring' come from?".

    I told him, "I don't know. But I bet you could email Willow and she would tell you!"

    After reading this.... I'm even more convinced!

  14. Reminds me of the little wooded coins that were called Round Tuits. (As in... "I'll do it when I get around to it.")

  15. Nice one, willow. A completely unknown phrase to me.

  16. Thank you, Pamela...I feel a blog post coming on!

  17. Charming pic of the Missour-ah boy.

    My mother has said that wooden nickels one for years, but I'll bet if I asked her, she'd say it came from my dad.

    We're still trying to find the origin of:

    "Who's like you since Leatherarse died?"


  18. Since Leatherarse died?! Now that saying is a winner, Kat! Chief Leatherlips is famed in these parts, but who in the heck is Leatherarse??

    This is going to make me giggle the rest of the day!

  19. Vicki, I'm fascinated by the "laroes" saying. Strange...I must do some poking around on that one, but I'm sure you already have!

  20. my ex was from the show me state too.

  21. very interesting as always, Willow. I recall my mother's 3rd husband saying that all the time; he was not from MO, a PA native but had been in the army in WWII. For his 72nd birthday his daughter and I had some specially made up wooden nickels of all sizes and gave them to him. A great time and lots of laughs. I think Judy took those when he died.!

  22. Thanks for clearing up the whole wooden nickle mystery. Sometime I hope you do a post on the difference between Missour-ah and Missour-ee. I have dueling branches of the family that pronounce both ways. The former also pronounce that city in southern Ohio as Cincinnat-ah and say that Denver is the capital of Colorad-ah.

  23. Junk Thief, I think I must soon post on the fascinating Missour-ah and Missour-ee issue!

  24. This was fun! I've never heard this history behind the phrase before! Lovely old photo, too!

  25. Language is fascinating, isn't it? Great photo, too, Willow! When we were little kids, and my dad wanted to take us somewhere fun, but he wanted it to be a surprise, we would opine a million times, "Where are we going?" and he'd say "We're going to see Booksty-Hootery." Drove us crazy, but we knew that it was somewhere good--either the drive-in theatre or the beach, or out for ice-cream cones, or something delectable. I still smile to remember Booksty-Hootery.

  26. Wonderful post, Willow.

    You bring back a memory for me. When I was a child, there was a restaurant that my parents would frequent, usually on a Friday or Saturday night. If the children at the table behaved, the waitress would give them a wooden nickel, with the name of the restaurant on one side and a bison on the other. We could then trade the nickel for three pieces of candy at the nickel candy counter. Made sitting still worth it!

  27. I must incorporate this into the family lexicon!

  28. How rude to find a wooden nutmeg mixed in with the other nutmegs. Not nearly as tasty.

  29. I actually own a wooden nickle - a modern fake. The amusing phrase came up now and again in my family. Very informative!

  30. I had never heard of the expression and I can't think of an English equivalent. As always Willow, your blog provides us with the real thing - a willow might be wood but there is nothing wooden about Willow.

  31. fascinating.
    i'd like to have some of those wooden nutmegs

  32. There's a long list of warnings in life that come to mind here, beginning with the simple and direct 'take care', and moving onto such cliches as 'don't let the bed bugs bite'.

    There must be zillions of them but I love the one you offer here. Thanks.

  33. At Mardi Gras, there's an 'anti-crew' that parades very early in the morning, moving through the parade route backwards, from finish to start. They're called The Crew of Crap, and what do they toss to the early-birds? Why, wooden nickels of course! I still have mine.

    I enjoyed reading the various explanations of this term and the comments afterwards. Perhaps, we need to ask more questions when these family members sputter out these phrases. Thanks, Willow!

  34. I've heard this one all my life, but I didn't know the origin.

  35. I do remember during one town's bicentennial or sesquicentennial or some type of 'ennial' celebration -- they did have wooden coins which was legal tender during the week of celebration.

    I really enjoy learning of the stories behind the words or phrases that we take for granted.

  36. You're gonna love this, my maternal Grandfather moved to Iowa from Hannibal Missour-ah, a coarse, cigar smokin' man, I never really liked him much, nor his latest wife, who reminded us of the bad witch in the Wizard of Oz...but every time us kids were forced to go visit, he always told my brother as we left the dimly lit room...'hey kid, don't take any wooden nickels'...just the kinda thing a kid wants to hear from a Grandparent...

    I never forgot that, nor the smell of that putrid cigar!

    Have a fun weekend...snow's on the way...

  37. Fascinating Willow. I always wondered where that phrase came from.

  38. A lot of "true-isms" come out of the midwest. Aren't you the people that say "I'll believe it when I 'sees' it"? And President Harry S. Truman grew up there and he was 'real' plainsfolk. Man I love Missourians! Now dont you take no wooden nickels" Reminds me of "Whose There" again! (Hoosier!) remember! haha PT Barnum said "there's a sucker born every minute" specially one that would accept a wooden nickel. Let's face it, country folk are naive and need such chiding! Back then anyhow.

  39. We always said the wooden nickle warning when we urged caution..
    I think I put a pinch of wooden nutmeg into my oat meal this AM..beware of shortcuts!!

  40. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing it.

  41. Thanks for the research on the wooden nickle. We in southern Iowa said it too. I never quit understood if they were going to go buy the dog, or report it's bad behavior. Great read and thanks for sharing.

  42. Never heard of wooden nutmegs or hams. I learn something new everyday.

  43. that expression has long been popular in my family ....and I still use it; in fact I can't remember if it was on my blog or on fb, but I just used it the other day!!

    ha ha! somewhere I have an actual wooden nickle that either my dad or grandpap gave me (used in some sort of promotion, no doubt), I hope I can locate it, when I do I'll make sure to take a snap!!

  44. Wow - lots of interesting information. I've heard the phrase, but a discussion of its origins, however speculative, is intriguing. Don't you love how language expands to fit needs and how metaphorical it can sometimes be?

  45. Its True! Stick To The Real Thing Its Sound Advise! Have A Fine Weekend.

  46. Great write up on the wooden nickels adage! That portrait is such a classic old photo! Great expression.

  47. hey willow - what a cool unpacking of that phrase. i've heard it and even used it myself without appreciating its heritage!!! so thankyou. have a lovely evening at the manor. steven

  48. but i like wooden nickles. They're kindof cool.

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  50. This was also one of my fathers favorite sayings along with "jiggers!! the cops!!" and "she/he left in a huff" and now I'm thinking of many more. It's making me remember my father and even his voice and he's been gone for more than 50 years

  51. I will have to look at my journals and see what some other expressions used to be.

    I got several wooden nickles here. My daughter picked up one at Web's Antique Mall. They are from stores who made them to give to their customers.

    There was a time when people had wooden nickles made with their business name on it and you could actually spend the nickle at their business.

  52. Wooden ham....seriously? I love this phrase. My husband tells me he, and his family, always used it.

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  54. Your blog is the poetry personiferad, me like!

    Agneta, Sweden

  55. I've always kinda wanted my family to be from Missouri instead of Iowa.

    Not that there's anything wrong with Iowa!

    But...Missouri has always seemed more edgy to me. :)

    Great post, comme d'habitude!

  56. A new phrase for me too. I would love to see a wooden nickle though. I'm going to see a man about a dog is a phrase I heard a few times when I was a child until I cried buckets of tears because nobody came home with a dog.

  57. Good morning Willow
    I just found your blog. Good stuff! I enjoyed this post very much. My dear Dad used to tell us frequently "Don't take any wooden nickles". I myself, use it often. Of course, I sometimes get strange looks when I say that in this country because there are no nickles here, wooden or otherwise!
    God bless you, Willow.

  58. Hi Willow
    It's me again! I just remembered a classic that my mother used often. My brothers, sister & I all say it as do my nephews and nieces. Just lately, I was surprised to hear my friend's 12 year old granddaughter say it. She had picked it up from her mother who had picked it up from her mother who had picked it up from me! (Phew, what a lot of 'pick ups'!) Anyway, that classic that my mother spread through generations, "BETTER THAT THAN THE TROT OF A DOCTOR'S HORSE". Any ideas? God bless you.

  59. Hey Willow I have a new recipe up this snowy Sunday morning that has Willow Manor written all over it. Enjoy ! xo S & les Gang

  60. I love knowing the origin(s) of old sayings; thanks Willow, this was a good one!

  61. That's a phrase I actually knew the origin of but nicely put.

  62. Breadgirl, that's a good one. Maybe it means "whatever" is better than hearing the trot of the doctor's horse, coming to pay a house call?

  63. I loved this post. There are so many awesome anecdotes...seems the ones we use today aren't nearly as clever. Loved the sepia phote as well.


Inject a few raisins of conversation into the tasteless dough of existence.
― O. Henry (and me)