Pismo Beach, California, 50 Cents, 1933 (clamshell)

When the Great Depression and resulting banking crisis hit their community, the residents of the California coastal town of Pismo Beach picked an unusual but logical medium of exchange. The pismo is a species of clam with a very thick shell, then found in large numbers along the California coast and prized as a food.
A town named after clams suggests an adequate supply of their shells. Perhaps with tongue in cheek, the merchants and officials of Pismo Beach (who were often the same people) decided to make the best of a bad situation, and to make the humble pismo shell into an object of trade. This they did. The Chamber of Commerce and no fewer than eleven merchants issued clamshell scrip. Restwell Cabins issued "notes" in three denominations: twenty-five cents, fifty cents, and one dollar.
The larger the amount, the larger the shell. The issue may have been partly intended as a spoof, or for sale to tourists, in the manner of German notgeld around 1920. Redemption would never be a problem because collectors would wish to keep such pieces in their cabinets or trade them with their friends. But it was also intended partly as a real, if unique, circulating medium. The Restwell Cabins issue bore the motto, "IN GOD WE TRUST."
Each piece was numbered, and each piece was signed on the front and on the back. As with the stamp notes of the Midwest, it was necessary to sign each clamshell on the back in order to keep it in circulation. No formal requirements may have existed, but informal pressure certainly would have endorsed the practice.
This specimen is dated March 8, 1933. This was in the middle of Roosevelt's national banking holiday, and it is exactly the time when we might expect to see people take money into their own hands.
Object Name
shell money, clam
Restwell Cabins
Physical Description
shell, clam (overall material)
ink (overall material)
white/gray (overall color)
black (overall color)
marked with ink (overall production method/technique)
average spatial: 8.6 cm x 10.9 cm x 2.4 cm; 3 3/8 in x 4 5/16 in x 15/16 in
place made
United States: California, Pismo Beach
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
catalog number
Coins, Currency and Medals
Legendary Coins
American Enterprise
See more items in
Armed Forces History: National Numismatic Collection
Legendary Coins
American Enterprise
American Enterprise
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Chase Manhattan
Sewer, Andy; Allison, David; Liebhold, Peter; Davis, Nancy; Franz, Kathleen G.. American Enterprise: A History of Business in America
Publication title
Glossary of Coins and Currency Terms
Publication URL
Additional Media

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