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Jetons were token or coin-like medals produced across Europe from the 13th through the 17th centuries. They were produced as counters for use in calculation on a lined board similar to an abacus. They also found use as a money substitute in games, similar to modern casino chips or poker chips. Thousands of different jetons exist, mostly of religious and educational designs, as well as portraits, these most resembling coinage. (The spelling "jeton" is from the French; the English spell it "jetton".)
The Romans had similarly used pebbles, in Latin "calculi" - little stones. Addition is straight forward, and relatively efficient algorithms for multiplication and division were known.
As Arabic numerals and the zero came into use, "pen reckoning" gradually displaced "counter casting" as the common accounting method. Jetons for calculation were commonly used in Europe from about 1200 to 1400, and remained in occasional use into the early nineteenth century.
From the late 13th century to the end of the 14th century, purpose-made jetons were produced in England, similar in design to contemporary Edwardian pennies. Although they were made of brass they were often pierced or indented at the centre to avoid them being plated with silver and pass them off as real silver coins. By the middle of the 14th century, English jetons were being produced at a larger size, similar to the groat.
Throughout the 15th century, competition from France and the Low Countries ended jeton manufacture in England, but this did not last long. Nuremberg jeton masters initially started by copying counters of their European neighbours, but by the mid 16th century they gained a monopoly by mass-producing cheaper jetons for commercial use. Later - "counter casting" being obsolete - the production shifted to jetons for use in games and toys, sometimes copying more or less famous jetons with a political background as the following.
In "the Nederlanden", the Low Countries, the respective mints in the late Middle Ages in general produced the counters for the official bookkeeping. These mostly show the effigy of the ruler within a flattering text and on the reverse the ruler's escutcheon and the name or city of the accounting office.
During the Dutch Revolt (1568–1609) this pattern changed and by both parties, the North in front, about 2,000 different, mostly political, jetons (Dutch: Rekenpenning) were minted depicting the victories, ideals and aims. Specifically in the last quarter of the 16th century, where "Geuzen" or "beggars" made important military contributions to the Dutch side and bookkeeping was already done without counters, the production in the North was just for propaganda.
The mints and treasuries of the big estates in Central Europe used their own jetons and then had a number of them struck in gold and silver as New Year gifts for their employees who in turn commissioned jetons with their own mottoes and coats-of-arms. In the sixteenth century, the Czech Royal Treasury bought between two and three thousand pieces at the beginning of each year.
In the 21st century, Jetons continue to be used in some countries to denominate the substitutes for coins in coin-operated public telephones or vending machines, because automatic valuation of coins by machines is unreliable or impossible due to several factors. They are usually made of metal or hard plastic, and are generally called tokens in English-speaking countries.
In the Polish language, the word żeton, pronounced similarly to French jeton, refers both to tokens used in the vending machines, phones etc., as well to those used in the casinos.
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