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What's Up With All the Medallions?

From medallions and chips to key tags, there's a cottage industry and some history behind those sober keep-sakes.

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By Meg Williams

01/29/14

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In 1955, a Midwesterner walked into his first AA meeting in his new home of Charlotte, North Carolina. The members were giving out small pieces of colored plastic that resembled poker chips. He was puzzled. He had never even heard of an “AA chip.”

Soon, this transplant came to appreciate the “chip system” as a way to reward and recognize the newcomer’s efforts toward sobriety.

In an article published in the Grapevine later that year, the man writes, “No, I don’t believe that the ‘chip system’ will keep anyone sober. Only a Higher Power can do that. But we are a nation that lives by symbols; what is the American flag but a piece of bunting, unless one fully appreciates what it stands for?”

As Bill W. put it, “No one invented AA, it just grew.” The same holds true for the AA chip.

Today, the chip system is almost universally recognized. Even those outside 12-Step fellowships have a vague idea of what an AA chip or a NA key tag is. Most assume the chip system was always a part of 12-Step culture. However, there was a time when chips were but a novel idea.

Sister Ignatia, one of AA’s first and greatest nonalcoholic allies, gave Sacred Heart Medallions to her patients once they left the alcoholic ward of St. Thomas Hospital, and asked them “to return it before they took the first drink.” This remains the first recorded used of small trinkets as an aid to sobriety.

It is unknown whether Sister Ignatia started this tradition, as the distribution of chips did not develop in Akron at the time. In fact, AA had been around for at least a couple of years before members came up with the idea to “count” time in the first place.

Many attribute the celebration of the sober birthday practice to the Oxford Group, a nondenominational Christian fellowship both Bill and Bob belonged to for a time. Oxford Groupers, however, would count the time since their “spiritual” rebirth instead of time since their last drink, as the fellowship was not primarily concerned with recovery from alcoholism.

Here and there AA members would denote their time sober through “proto” chips before the system’s popular use. Clarence H. Snyder, who founded the third AA group in Cleveland Ohio, marked his sober time using a silver dollar. For every year sober, Clarence would punch a single hole through the coin. By the end of his life, he had marked 46 years of sobriety by creating 46 holes that twice circled the profile of lady liberty in the center of the coin.

According to letters written between members, the chip system, as we know it today, may have originated in Indianapolis around the year 1942. Doherty S., the woman who brought AA to the city, is widely attributed with spreading the practice throughout the region.

No one really knows who was the first to implement the chip system. Like much in AA’s history, the exact origin of the chip is unknown. As Bill W. put it, “No one invented AA, it just grew.” The same holds true for the AA chip.

Later, other 12-Step fellowships, most notably Narcotics Anonymous, adopted the system of graduated clean time memorabilia. Though most sources report that NA originally used a chip system very similar to AA’s, NA eventually created its own recognizable symbol of clean time – the key tag.

Even today, chip and key tag practices differ from group to group. Some groups give out chips at every meeting while others only do so at anniversary meetings at the end of the month. Some say the every meeting method emphasizes and rewards the newcomer who picks up a desire chip on his or her first day sober. Others believe this method can shame the chronic relapser. Most just go along with whatever is the tradition in their group and don’t give it much thought.

Lauren H., a Brooklyn AA, describes the tradition of giving out chips as “something small and silly that kept me coming to meetings.” In her group, members would give out a chip for every month at their anniversary meeting, and the recipient of the chip would share for about three minutes.

Lauren describes her experience: “Sharing every month about my progress in sobriety was uncomfortable since I personally don’t share that often, but it definitely kept me sober. Now that I have over a year, I can be grateful that I don’t have to get up there and share [so often, and] I can focus on the newcomers and watch them grow.”

Others don’t place as much importance on their experience with the chips. Kevin M., another New York AA, describes how he only picked up a 24-hour, 90 day, and 7 month chip because he wasn’t able to attend anniversary meetings at important points such as six months and nine months.

Coming up on a year, Kevin describes his situation: “[To be honest,] I don’t even know where any of my chips are. I’m getting nervous about getting one for a year because I lose everything, and it’s painful to think about getting [a medallion] and not being able to hold onto it.”

Alex P. describes the system used in the town where he got sober: “In [Delray Beach, Florida], the week of your 30 days or six months or whatever, you picked up a chip at every meeting you went to. This was to show the newcomer it works. I guess it accomplished that, but you’d end up with crap load of poker chips by the time you had a year. I didn’t really know what to do with them all.”

For the most part, the NA members contacted for this article agreed that even if their groups awarded key tags at every meeting, they would usually pick up just one for each milestone.

One NA with significant clean time noted that when he got clean key tags were not used at nearly as many meetings. When asked about the practice, he explained that though he didn’t dislike it, he found that many NA’s like to show off by looping one key tag to another and wearing them visibly inside and outside meetings.

AA’s certainly like to show off too. There is a booming industry centered on the production and distribution of fancy and sometimes customized AA medallions. Many websites sell medallions coated in different colors of enamel. Some even sport rhinestones.

Sobermedallions.com sells “personalized [medallions] for bikers, veterans, African Americans, [and] Native Americans” as well as other recovery-related chips and gifts. The website even includes a section entitled “Special Gifts for Ladies,” filled with pink medallions, medallions with butterflies and angels, as well as other supposedly “effeminate” products.

A single bronze enameled medallion can cost up to $20 as opposed to $1.20 for the classic bronze edition.

Websites such as this also sell “NA” medallions. These coins are meant for NA members but do not actually contain the NA logo, which is a registered trademark of the fellowship. As a result, third party companies cannot produce products that bear the either the NA letter logo or the NA square and circle logo. As a result, NA has a monopoly on the production of its well-known key tags and official medallions. Their sale contributes to the funds that keep the service structures of NA operating.

From 1957 to 1993, AA used its circle and triangle logo to denote what is now called “conference approved” literature by including the symbol inside its books. However, the copyright for this symbol was either not renewed or never established.

In 1993, the General Service Office tried to force third party medallion producers to discontinue use of the symbol on their products. Eventually GSO was advised that this was not enforceable as a result of the aforementioned copyright issues as well as the symbol’s similarity to other well-known symbols.

The General Service Conference of AA decided it was better off not using the symbol in an official capacity going forward. The phrase “This is AA General Service Conference-approved literature” has replaced it as the stamp-of-approval for all AA literature produced by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

The production of clean and sober time markers is pretty far from the mind of most 12-Steppers. Almost all of those contacted said they knew little about the production of chips, coins, and key tags. The members often could not trace their origins farther than the location or online store from which these mementos were purchased. One might assume that NA members would be proud of the fact that their service structures produced their very own key tags. But the NA members contacted felt they could not confirm that this was true in the first place. Of course, these members should not be blamed for knowing little about the production and distribution of these keepsakes. Chips, coins, and key tags are but a physical reminder of a spiritual journey. To 12-Step members, each represents the celebration of one’s recovery, the recognition of one’s peers, and redemption of one’s life – no matter who makes or sells them.

Meg Williams is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about dabbing.

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