Currency for extraordinary times
War is a most terrible motivator of societal change; governments rise and fall, borders shift and there is enormous social upheaval. Less dramatic, but always hand-in-hand with societal change, is war’s effect on money. Changes in the materials of currency reflect the economic necessities of war while changes of design convey the new messaging of leaders. Sometimes, special needs entail the creation of entirely new issues of money.
Canadian money changed little during the First World War (WW1). On the eve of battle in 1913, The Royal Bank of Canada issued a patriotic $10 note picturing the Royal Navy battleship HMS Bellerophon. This note promoted Britain’s might in the naval arms race that had gripped Germany and the United Kingdom in the years preceding WWI. In 1917, the Canadian government also issued a patriotic $1 note that pictured Princess Patricia, the daughter of our then Governor General, the Duke of Connaught. She is the namesake of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry Regiment, one of the first Canadian contingents to see service overseas.
Elsewhere, change was more profound. In Europe, gold and silver coins largely disappeared from circulation as they were hoarded or as governments used the metal for the war effort. In their place nations issued low-value paper notes. The British government authorized 10-shilling and 1-pound notes to replace gold half-sovereigns and sovereigns in anticipation of the commercial need of its citizens. Governments in Germany, Austro-Hungary and the occupied countries of Belgium and Luxembourg replaced silver coins with small denomination notes or coins and tokens made from iron or zinc. Some issues, like those from Belgium, promised that they would be redeemed after the war. In parts of France, municipal chambers of commerce issued scrip using deposits in the Banque de France as collateral. The governments of Russia and Romania adopted stamp-like notes as a temporary emergency issue. Faced with diminished supplies of coinage, merchants resorted to issuing private scrip (notes) and tokens.
Similar changes rippled through the member states of Europe’s colonial empires as central authorities curtailed support of local governments. Small cards replaced coins in Morocco and Réunion (a tiny island nation east of Madagascar). Stamps were affixed to cards and issued in New Caledonia, a French protectorate in the Coral Sea east of Australia. In Senegal the government issued notes of 50 centimes to 2 francs in place of coins. The German East African Bank issued “interim” notes of rudimentary design on a wide array of papers and coins made from old brass shell casings.
Combatants were also impacted. Military personnel used tokens in canteens or at training bases behind the lines. British forces in the Ottoman (Turkish) theatre of operations used specially overprinted notes. Captured forces on both sides of the engagement handled prisoner of war money during their incarceration. Even occupying forces in Poland issued money.
The First World War redrew the map of Europe and arguably set in motion events that led to the Second World War. Of more immediate interest though is the fascinating variety of money that emerged during the war and its aftermath. These small witnesses to the events of yesteryear speak to the difficulties of the period and the resilience of people and their governments in times of trouble.
For the first time since they went into their cases in 1980, over 2000 coins, notes, beads and shells are coming back out. The Museum’s curatorial staff are busily pulling panels from cases, placing coins into specially prepared drawers and sliding notes into acid-free Mylar envelopes.
The doors were barely closed following Big Top Farewell event before Chief Curator Paul Berry and his team began emptying display cases that had been sealed shut since 1980. The biggest task involved removing more than 2500 bank notes from the room we knew as Gallery 8.
Another convention of the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association (RCNA) wrapped up in July. This year the convention was held in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was the first time in over thirty years that the RCNA Convention made a stop there.
Before the museum closed for renovations on 2 July, technicians began to remove the heavier artifacts in late May. First to go was the strong box. Built of ¼” thick welded steel plates, this trunk was used by the Bank of Upper Canada in Toronto between 1821 and 1866.
Most of us know the first part of Alexander Graham Bell’s take on opportunity: “When one door closes, another one opens…” What we often don’t recall is the second half of that quote, where he says: “…but we so often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”
The Staff of the Currency Museum was saddened to learn of the passing of artist Alex Colville who died on 16 July at his home in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He was 92. One of Canada’s most celebrated painters, Colville is not as well-known as a sculptor but if you look carefully through your pocket change you might just find an example of his work.