Why I haven’t written anything for five months

Sorry to the few people who follow this blog – I know I haven’t been posting.  I’ve been at law school.  I’ve kept up my writing through other outlets, but this blog slowed to a halt because I haven’t done anything with my coin hobby since starting here.  No time for it.

That doesn’t mean I’ve totally given up on it, though.  I still love reading and writing about history, and if I ever get time to do so (and find something interesting that touches on coins at all to write about) I’ll put something up here.  Law school is demanding as hell, though, so don’t count on anything too in-depth.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but I’ll try to write a bit every now and then on coins and history.

This week in the world of coins: the royal baby, the US Congress and strippers

I don’t normally write “coin news” posts like this. If you scroll through the backlog on this blog, you’ll mostly find historical posts. I do plan on writing an in-depth coin/history-related post soon, but I’ve been setting up my new apartment and getting ready for law school, and anyone who’s dealt with these two at the same time knows how much time and frustration they can involve.

But this week in coin news has been more interesting than the usual “such-and-such country released a new coin today” deal. Two particular stories caught my eye. The first some of you have probably already heard about. Indeed, the news media won’t shut up about the event it’s related to – the birth of the future King George VII of England. As an American, I really don’t get all the fuss about the royal family (and I know for a fact plenty of Brits don’t much care about them either) but the Prince and Duchess of Whatever seem like nice enough people, and it’s nice that they had a healthy kid, so good for them.

silver penny

If you happened to also get born in the UK four days ago, though, you will get something solid out of the deal. The Royal Mint has promised to give away a sterling silver penny to each child born on the same day as the future king. Maybe it’s a gesture meant to get the British royal family closer to the “common people”, or maybe the guys at the mint were just bored and needed something to break the monotony of minting the same old coins. If you’re a fan of the royal family or of UK commemoratives (of which there are twenty billion tons worth) you can also buy one of these from the Royal Mint. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they start cropping up on eBay.

Britain used to mint regular silver penny issues.  They were extremely small and probably not all that practical to carry around.  This one is a Charles I and probably a reproduction.

Britain used to mint regular silver penny issues. They were extremely small and probably not all that practical to carry around. This one is a Charles I and probably a reproduction.

But that’s not the truly interesting coin-related story of the day. No, that story took place in the halls of the United States Congress. Taking a break from their usual infighting and tantrum-throwing, our reps have decided to talk about coins. Two Democratic and two Republican senators, including Sen. John McCain, have introduced the COINS Act, a bill that would shift the focus of the US Mint and Engraving and Printing Bureau away from dollar bills and towards dollar coins. This shift has been tried several times before, starting with the Susan B. Anthony of 1979 up to today’s Presidential dollar coins, but Americans have never really taken to the idea of the dollar coin despite the fact that, according to a Treasury report, replacing our dollar bills with coins would save the government almost $14 billion over thirty years.

Especially not when most of us don't even know who the hell half of the guys on our coins are.  The only people who remember Martin Van Buren are historians, history teachers and students who are just about to take the AP US History exam.

Especially not when most of us don’t even know who the hell half of the guys on our coins are. The only people who remember Martin Van Buren are historians, history teachers and students who are just about to take the AP US History exam.

All that might change this year, however. While speaking to reporters at the Capitol today, Senator McCain made a compelling argument in favor of the dollar coin. DC strip club owners against the abolition of dollar bills have complained that their patrons wouldn’t be able to politely tip their exotic dancers with dollar coins, the reasoning being that the coin wouldn’t easily fit inside a garter. McCain has suggested that this would actually be good news for the strippers, though, saying “I hope that they could obtain larger denominations. Fives, tens, one hundreds!” There’s been no word from the Hill on whether the welfare of America’s strippers was one of the principle reasons for the new legislation. Knowing some of our congressmen, I wouldn’t rule it out.

Rise of micronations

Sealand dollar

Look at that silver dollar. It’s really nice, isn’t it? In my opinion, it beats the hell out of our “gold” dollar coins. It also has an orca on it, and who doesn’t like orcas? Nobody, that’s who.

So it’s a nice coin. But who issued it? The “Principality of Sealand”? That’s not a country you hear about very often. Maybe it’s one of those tiny island nations in the south Pacific or the Caribbean. You know, the ones that have three people in the Olympic March of Nations like St. Kitts and Nevis or Tuvalu. Yes, that could be it.

Or maybe it’s a tiny World War II-era sea platform off the coast of Britain.

The Principality of Sealand, a "state" a few miles off the coast of England.  (Source: Ryan Lackey, Creative Commons)

The great nation of Sealand. (Source: Ryan Lackey, Creative Commons)

Formerly known as Fort Roughs, this abandoned sea fort was built in the forties in the English Channel as a deterrent to German air raids on the British mainland. After the defeat of the Axis in 1945, the British military left the fort behind, having no further use for it.

But someone else had a use for it. That someone was Paddy Roy Bates, a former officer in the British army turned fisherman turned pirate radio operator. In 1967, Bates occupied Fort Roughs after a two-year stint on another platform where he had run a pirate station. By this time, however, Bates had seemingly given up on the whole radio thing. He instead declared Fort Roughs a sovereign state, forever independent of the United Kingdom.

And he had the force to back it up. That year, Bates and his son fended off a rival group of radio pirates (?) and an attempt by the Royal Navy (!) to dislodge them from their newly founded nation by “firing warning shots” and brandishing petrol bombs. After being hauled off to England on illegal arms charges, Bates was released, the court having ruled that since Sealand lay in international waters, it was not subject to British arms laws. Bates took this as an implicit recognition of his new nation and established himself as the Prince of “Sealand”, writing a constitution and creating what the world would come to know as our first and most famous micronation – a small, officially unrecognized state created by a private citizen that holds more or less de facto power over its territory.

Roy Bates, seen here in the territorial waters of Sealand.

Roy Bates, seen here in the territorial waters of Sealand.

Bates’ ordeals weren’t over, however. In 1977, a set of German and Dutch “invaders” occupied Sealand and took Bates’ son hostage. Bates responded with a counterattack that ended in victory and his own capture of the attackers. A series of negotiations involving the actual German government followed, and the Sealand status quo was restored. This did not stop one of his German rivals from claiming Sealand anyway. Johannes Seiger, self-styled Prime Minister of Sealand, produced something most countries never have – an alternate set of currency made by a government-in-exile.

The Germany-based Sealand government-in-exile’s hundred dollar coin.

Prince Roy died last year, but his son has carried on his legacy. Sealand continues as an almost completely unrecognized de facto sovereign state, and it still issues its own currency – the Sealand dollar, pegged to the US dollar. The principality’s official website even offers citizenship and titles of nobility to those willing to pay for them. If you’ve ever wanted a fancy title, becoming a Sealand noble is probably the easiest way to get it.

The beautiful landscape of Sealand.  (Source: Ryan Lackey, Creative Commons)

The beautiful landscape of Sealand. (Source: Ryan Lackey, Creative Commons)

Sealand is not the only micronation out there, however. Hutt River Province is almost as old and has a long history (relatively long, anyway) of producing currency.

The tranquil landscape of Hutt River Province, a micronation either in or surrounded by Australia.  (Source: Orderinchaos, Wikimedia Commons.)

The tranquil landscape of Hutt River Province, a micronation either in or surrounded by Australia. (Source: Orderinchaos, Wikimedia Commons.)

Hutt River’s founding doesn’t involve quite as much excitement, adventure or guns as that of Sealand, but it’s interesting in its own right. In 1970, Leonard Casley, a farmer living in western Australia, protested against a severe restriction placed upon the sale of his crop by the state of Western Australia. In the course of his protests, Casley formally seceded from his state, naming his new land “Hutt River Province”, and he sent letters to various Australian and Commonwealth officials, including the Governor-General of Australia. The Governor-Generalship is a basically powerless remnant of the British Empire; while the position still holds a lot of theoretical power, governors-general can no longer do anything without the consent of the heads of government of their assigned nations.

In this case, though, the Governor-General had a real effect on government policy. When someone at his office addressed Leonard Casley with his self-assigned title of “Administrator of Hutt River Province” in an official letter, Casley claimed that the British Commonwealth, and therefore Queen Elizabeth, had formally recognized the independence of his state. Casley then styled himself “Prince Leonard of Hutt River Province” to cement his sovereignty.

In practice, Australia could have crushed Casley’s little secession with hardly any effort. The Australian government probably realized that would be seen as an overreaction, though, so they more or less let Casley do his thing. Hutt River Province has existed as a micronation for forty years now, and Prince Leonard is still the undisputed ruler of it. And like any ruler worth his salt, he issues currency in his name.

Paper money of Hutt River Province.  Apparently 20 cents goes a long way there.  Also note the columns of swans and pigs.

Paper money of Hutt River Province. Apparently 20 cents goes a long way there. Also note the columns of swans and pigs.

The Hutt River dollar is pegged to the Australian dollar at a rate of one to one. Coins and banknotes are issued mostly for merchandise and publicity purposes, although visitors can presumably use them in Hutt River Province itself (this “country” offers visitor visas on its website.)

Hutt River’s line of currency includes a massive collection of commemorative issues, many of which seem to have nothing to do with Hutt River or even Australia.

This Hutt River five dollar coin features the father of baseball on its reverse for some reason.  Maybe Prince Leonard is a fan?

This Hutt River five dollar coin features the father of baseball on its reverse for some reason. Maybe Prince Leonard is a fan?

Sealand and Hutt River are undoubtedly the two best-known and most successful micronations in the world. But they aren’t the only ones. Plenty of other micronations exist, though the great majority of them merely claim land and have no actual territory. Nor do they have the kind of “recognition” that Roy Bates and Leonard Casley managed to get for their states. Still, don’t let that stop you from declaring your own backyard an independent nation. It won’t actually mean anything, but it might be fun playing dress-up as a world ruler. And if you have a copy of Photoshop, you can even print your own paper currency!

As it turns out, somebody has actually done this. Kevin Baugh, a man living in rural Nevada, decided to declare his house and adjacent land the Republic of Molossia, a sovereign state ruled by President Kevin Baugh.

President Kevin Baugh.  (Wikimedia Commons, license)

President Kevin Baugh.

As you might imagine, not too many people really know or care about Molossia aside from his neighbors and other micronation enthusiasts. President Kevin didn’t take over a sea platform by mounting an armed assault and fighting pirate radio operators. He didn’t even get “recognized” by a Nevada or federal official in an official correspondence. He just kind of declared himself dictator of his own house. This did not stop him from printing his own money. Appropriately, most of Molossia’s coins look to be modified casino chips.

The weirdest thing about Molossia’s currency, the Valora, is how it is valued. According to the state’s website, one valora is equal to the value of one-third of a tube of Pillsbury cookie dough. So far, no other states or microstates have taken up the Pillsbury cookie dough standard for their own currencies.

A quick one while I’m away

I’m on vacation right now. It’s a kind of working vacation, since I plan to turn out some travel articles when I get home. If this were a travel blog – or a personal blog – I’d certainly write some posts about my trip. But I did find something to write about the day I arrived.

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Above are a Panamanian dime, quarter and dollar coin. The currency here is called the Balboa after Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the conquistador who came across the isthmus around 1500 and was the first European to see the Pacific (and to declare it for Spain. Yes, the whole thing.) Balboa’s story is too long and complicated to write about in this short post. Suffice it to say that it involves a lot of intrigue, conquering and an eventual execution at the hands of rival Spanish colonial rulers.

Balboa's execution.  At least they seated him comfortably.

Balboa’s execution. At least they seated him comfortably.

Balboa is a central figure in Panama – I’ve seen his face in statues, in inscriptions, on beer bottles (Balboa lager, one of the country’s most popular drinks.) And of course, his helmeted profile that occupies Panama’s coins.

But not all of them. Panama produces coins, but it also widely circulates the US dollar. In fact, the balboa’s value is pegged to that of the dollar at one to one, so there is really no difference between them. The government doesn’t even bother to print paper money – there’s simply no point. A taxi driver told me that Panamanians call the new balboa coin the “Martinelli dollar” after Ricardo Martinelli, the republic’s president and apparently a very interesting man.

Older Balboa coins were larger and made of silver, like the US coins they exactly resemble in size. This particular coin isn’t, but it’s interesting anyway, because it features another major figure in Panamanian history.

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Omar Torrijos was a general in the Panamanian army who took power over the country in 1969. He never formally ruled Panama, however. For several years, while presidents officially led the nation, Torrijos really ruled with the amazing title of Maximum Leader of the Revolution. The general is remembered for being both anti-communist and supprting social welfare, making it possible for him to arrange a treaty in 1979 with President Carter for the eventual handover of the Panama Canal. Notably, Torrijos seems to be well remembered here, while later military ruler Manuel Noriega is barely mentioned.

Balboa and Torrijos have something else in common: their deaths. Neither was natural. Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981. While no official accusations were made, some believe that Torrijos was murdered over economic issues involving the Canal.

Back to my vacation. The next post will be deeper in scope. Meanwhile, I hope you’re all having a good summer (or winter if you’re south of the equator.)

Okay, one vacation picture.  The Panama City Fish Market supplies locals with fresh fish daily.  There's a good restaurant on the second floor and cheap ceviche stands lining the building, but many simply buy seafood here and cook it at home.  Look at those fish!

Okay, one vacation picture. The Panama City Fish Market supplies locals with fresh fish daily. There’s a good restaurant on the second floor and cheap ceviche stands lining the building, but many simply buy seafood here and cook it at home. Look at those fish!

The stone coins of Yap

What makes money money? Does it have to be in coin or paper form? Obviously not – in the modern world, we use plastic more often than physical cash to buy and sell goods. Sometimes you don’t even need anything physical to get paid. As a freelance writer, I make part of my income online. I don’t even receive a check; money is simply transferred to my account electronically – I don’t see anything physical out of the whole deal until I go to the ATM. And if you’ve bought into the increasingly popular “virtual currency” Bitcoin, you understand perfectly well that money doesn’t even have to have a physical form to have value.

These abstract concepts of money might seem very modern, but they aren’t. Hundreds of years ago, the people of Yap, a small island in the west Pacific, practiced another form of abstract ownership of wealth.

A massive rai, or "stone coin", used by the Yapese as a store of wealth.  Rai could measure up to 12 feet in diameter and weigh over four tons.  (Source: Eric Guinther)

A massive rai, or “stone coin”, used by the Yapese as a store of wealth. Rai could measure up to 12 feet in diameter and weigh over four tons. (Source: Eric Guinther)

Rai, also called rai stones and stone money, are circles of limestone carved from the quarries of nearby Palau that, for centuries, were used by the people of Yap as a medium of trade and exchange. Local legend asserts that one intrepid man of Yap, Anagumang, led a team by canoe from Yap to Palau, about 450 km away. When he arrived, he discovered a wealth of limestone, a resource that did not exist on Yap. After negotiating with the Palauans over mining rights, the Yapese began to extract limestone and sail it back to their home island.

The limestone quarried in Palau had to be brought back to Yap across a great expanse of ocean, so it had to be as easy to transport as possible. For this reason, rai stones were cut into holed circular shapes. The people “minting” these stones used shells to shape them and polished them with pumice. The central hole in the rai made it possible for several men to carry using a long pole, which was absolutely necessary when dealing with a two ton plus massive piece of stone.

A ceremony involving a large rai stone.

A ceremony involving a large rai stone.

Whether Anagumang was a historical figure, it’s a fact that this inter-island exchange took place, probably starting around 600 to 1,000 years ago. Rai soon became a sort of currency: stones were traded as a part of marriage and alliance arrangements and could be inherited. Smaller rai stones that were possible to easily carry were sometimes used for more casual transactions, but as a result of their great value, most rai only changed hands as a part of important events. And they usually did not literally “change hands” – because of their massive size, rai stones almost always remained planted in one place, even after being formally exchanged.

This stone is an exception - it was moved from Yap all the way to a currency museum in Canada.  Hopefully the Canadians fairly compensated the stone's owner before carrying it away.

This stone is an exception – it was moved from Yap all the way to a currency museum in Canada. Hopefully the Canadians fairly compensated the stone’s owner before carrying it away.

What gave rai their worth? A few factors played into the valuation of a rai stone. One was the difficulty of mining, crafting and transporting the stone. Large rai stones naturally took a lot of manpower to obtain. The situation could also be complicated by the native residents of Palau, who weren’t always on good terms with the Yapese despite their formal agreement (perhaps understandably – if someone were always coming over to dig limestone out of your backyard, you might not be happy it about either.) The history of the rai stone could also increase its value – the sailors who brought the stone over from Palau would always be remembered, as would the stone’s previous owners.

One of the most interesting stories involving rai comes from another local tale. Well into a trip back to Yap, a canoe carrying a rai stone was hit by a storm, and the stone fell overboard and sunk to the ocean floor. After returning to Yap without the stone, everyone seemed to agree that it would be a shame to let all that work go to waste. The people of Yap decided to begin trading the ocean floor-bound stone just as if it had been brought safely to shore, the thinking being that since they knew, more or less, where the stone was, it was still good as currency.

A rai stone outside a house on the island of Yap.  (Source: ctsnow, Flickr - Creative Commons)

A rai stone outside a house on the island of Yap. The Yapese, now a part of the Federated States of Micronesia, no longer mine rai stones, but they’re still used for ceremonial occasions. (Source: ctsnow, Flickr – Creative Commons)

And really, that’s not too different from how we treat wealth ownership. You might have millions in various bank accounts, but do you actually, physically have that wealth? Unless you have a big pile of gold coins in a safe or a secret underground bunker, most of your liquid wealth is sort of like that stone – it’s there, and we all agree that you own it until you decide to trade it for a good or a service. Whether your “actual” money is in a bank’s computer system or at the bottom of the ocean, the idea is pretty much the same, isn’t it?

Colonial coinage

The more coins I accumulate, the more I realize what kinds of coins I’m really interested in. One of those kinds is colonial coinage. Every time I go to a coin show or buy a few bronze or brass pieces online, I always find myself hovering over coins from Africa, Asia and the Middle East that were minted and distributed by colonial powers like Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Why are these coins so interesting? They represent the period of 19th-early 20th century imperialism that has played such a major role in making the modern world. But they’re also fascinating from a design angle. Colonial coins often carry strange denominations, bear inscriptions in two languages or more and depict the face of a monarch or a state seal that would have been totally foreign to most of the people actually using the coins.

Imperialism has existed in some sense since the ancient days of Sargon, Hammurabi and Ashurbanipal. But imperialism as we think of it today truly kicked off in the sixteenth century with the carving up of the New World by Spain and Portugal by way of the Treaty of Tordesillas with Pope Alexander VI (that crazy debauched Borgia, yes) as mediator.

Treaties looked fancier then than they do now.

Treaties looked fancier then than they do now. (Source: Biblioteca Nacional de Lisboa.)

Portugal got something of a raw deal, coming away with just Brazil, while Spain got all the rest of what is today Latin America. The natives of the region from northern Mexico to the Andes, who at this point did not realize their lands had been signed over to the crown of Spain (and didn’t know what Spain was, for that matter) were quickly subdued. Those who didn’t die of disease were used as slave labor, often in the brutal and deadly field of silver mining.

A piece of Spanish cob coinage made in 1715.  Every cob coin bore the Habsburg coat of arms and a cross on the opposite side.  (Source: Augi Garcia for Daniel Frank Sedwick, LLC Auction Treasure)

A piece of Spanish cob coinage made in 1715. Every cob coin bore the Habsburg coat of arms and a cross on the opposite side. (Source: Augi Garcia for Daniel Frank Sedwick, LLC Auction Treasure)

The Spanish conquerors of the Americas made a big show of bringing monks to convert the natives for the sakes of their souls and all that business, but what they truly wanted was silver and gold. They wanted precious metals so badly that the coins of New Spain were not minted in the normal fashion. Instead of rolling sheets of silver and gold into uniform thicknesses and cutting round planchets which would then be struck, the American mints simply cut irregularly-shaped pieces of silver bars into equal weights that they stamped on the front and back. This was a quick and dirty method of coin production, but it worked: in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Spanish cob coinage was a standard unit of trade and exchange. And not only in Europe. These coins found themselves changing hands in the ports of British America, the African coast and south Asia.

In the 17th century, the newly independent United Republic of the Netherlands would get into the business of imperialism. This strange coin was minted by the Dutch East India Company for use on Sumatra in modern-day Indonesia.

Dutch East India 1 keping

By the late 18th century, however, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands had passed into secondary power status. Their old spots at the top of the imperialist mountain were taken by Britain and France, two powers that had been bitter rivals for centuries.

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This French Indochina coin was minted in 1947, eighty years after Napoleon III’s gunboats sailed down the rivers of southeast Asia and took power over the region. Strangely enough, it depicts the female symbol of liberty that’s so common on French coins. At the time, the French colonial forces were fighting against rebels in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to maintain their nearly century-old hold on their piece of Asia. It takes some nerve to stamp a symbol of freedom on a coin that pretty much represents exactly the opposite for the people who have to use it.

The British were a little more honest with their coinage. Britain never messed around with any of the dramatic emblems and sayings of liberty, equality and fraternity that their French cousins loved so much. Its shift from autocracy to democracy was a lot more gradual and, with the exception of the uncharacteristically nuts years of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth of England, less bloody.

This fact is reflected in Britain’s constant, almost never-changing coinage. And of course, when it came to imperialist power in the 19th century, the French couldn’t even hope to touch Great Britain.

A royal family portrait.  Top left, George V, on his right and below his son, George VI, and bottom right George VI's daughter and now queen, Elizabeth II.  The right-hand pieces are British one and two shillings,  and the left are Commonwealth coins.

A royal family portrait. Top left, George V, on his right and below his son, George VI, and bottom right George VI’s daughter and now queen, Elizabeth II. The right-hand pieces are British one and two shillings, and the left are Commonwealth coins.

The British had forged a worldwide empire that rivaled the ancient Roman Empire in scope and reach. One look at their coins suggests that the British authorities totally understood this connection and meant to push
it. The coins of the British Empire have all kinds of symbols and inscriptions on their reverses, but their obverses always bear the same image – the face of the monarch. The monarch’s head may be crowned, as it is on the British Indian rupee, or it may be bare. Sometimes the inscription around the edge is in English, but more often it’s in Latin (this tradition survives with the inscription on modern British coins, ELIZABETH D. G. REGINA, or “Elizabeth by the grace of God Queen.”) Sometimes the face changes, as it does when a king or queen dies and the heir takes the throne. Sometimes it gets older – the current Queen Elizabeth has gone through four different portraits depicting her from ages 25 to 80.

A British Indian one anna.  The obverse refers to George VI as King (of Great Britain etc.) and Emperor (of India.)  The reverse carries inscriptions in English, Hindu, Urdu and a couple of other languages I'm not familiar with.

A British Indian one anna. The obverse refers to George VI as King (of Great Britain etc.) and Emperor (of India.) The reverse carries inscriptions in English, Hindu, Urdu and a couple of other languages I’m not familiar with.

But the message is always the same. This is your lord, it says. More to the point, This is the country that rules over you, and don’t forget it. Many modern post-imperialist British Commonwealth coins still bear the Queen’s face but no longer carry this weighty political statement.

IMG_2491

This coin was also minted by British authorities for a foreign people, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. The other side of the coin simply bears the denomination, one mil. Why doesn’t it have the king’s face on the front? Because it was crafted for Palestine, which was designated as a post-WWI League of Nations mandate territory along with Transjordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. These were meant not as colonies, but as temporary holdings to be made independent. You know, when the time came. For this reason, the British wisely chose to only print the name of the state and the denomination in English, Arabic and Hebrew and leave off any reference to Kings George V or VI. This was a purely cosmetic decision, though, because the British and the French had the same sort of control over their mandate territories as they did over their official colonies.

What we stamp on our coins says a lot about who we think we are and who we want other people to think we are. The old age of imperialism is dead, but the fact of power and its use and abuse has never changed. At the very least, we should remember exactly what these coins represented to their makers and to the unwilling subjects they were made for.

Hyperinflation money

Imagine getting paid at the end of the month with a stack of bills. Each bill is worth one hundred trillion dollars, and your weekly wage – four quadrillion dollars – is just enough to cover your expenses. At least for today it is. Who knows how much it will buy tomorrow?

It seems fantastic, but this situation has been a reality for millions of people around the world at different times in history.

IMG_2442

This German hundred mark note was printed in 1908. At the time, one hundred marks was a lot of money – the only people likely to throw these notes around would have been quite rich. The note itself is very large and beautifully detailed, featuring the outline of the imperial eagle, the symbol of the German Empire built by the shrewd Bismarck and now ruled by the blustering Kaiser Wilhelm II. The reverse of the 100 mark note depicts an interesting scene of two women holding a portrait of a third. I have no idea who they are, but there’s no doubt about the fact that our modern banknotes lack this kind of style.

IMG_2443

During World War I, the German economy suffered pretty badly. The war effort that Kaiser Wilhelm II had begun as a response to Russia’s mobilization against Austria ended up a two-front conflict. Additionally, Germany’s import and export business was cut off by a British blockade. The currency remained stable, however. At the end of 1918, after Germany’s defeat, a loaf of bread would have cost about half a mark.

None of this affected Germany quite as badly as the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. I’ve already written about some of the issues connected to the treaty here, but it’s enough to say that France wanted revenge for the ravages that the German army caused on her soil. This revenge came in the form of occupation of the Ruhr Valley in the west of the already reduced country and massive reparations. For a few years, the new Weimar Republic government of Germany tried to keep up with things, but the first installation payment coincided with a slide in the value of the mark in 1921. The Weimar government decided that printing more money of increasingly higher denominations was the answer to rapidly rising prices, and these were the result:

tausendmark

Thousand mark bills had been printed during the imperial era, but this bill was different. In September 1922, when it came off the press, it might have bought one lunch at a cafe, where ten years later it would have bought something more like a few hundred. And it would soon be so worthless that it was quite literally being used as wallpaper.

A man making wallpaper out of old German marks.  Three thousand mark notes line the top.  (Credit: Bundesarchiv)

A man making wallpaper out of old German marks. Three thousand mark notes line the top. (Credit: Bundesarchiv)

By July 1923, prices were steadily rising – a loaf of bread now cost around 3,000 marks. Bills of larger denominations were needed for everyday transactions, so the government started churning out these:

100000mark

This 100,000 mark note is interesting. The paper it’s printed on feels flimsy and seems almost translucent. It feels more like a coupon or a ticket than a banknote issued by a national government. But the most interesting part of the banknote might be its reverse design.

100000markback

It doesn’t have one!

By this point, the mints were so overworked with creating new notes that they simply printed them on one side only and left the other side blank. Further denominations of 200,000, one million, five and twenty million also lacked reverse designs.

Other convenient shortcuts included taking existing banknotes and overstamping them with new values, as with this one thousand-turned-one billion mark note.

Billionmarks

The fall of 1923 saw skyrocketing prices. This was Germany’s famous “wheelbarrows full of money” period. Unsurprisingly, the mints’ capacities for production couldn’t keep up with demand for new bills, so state and local governments tried to make up the difference by printing their own money. The below five hundred million mark bill was produced by the regional bank of Hesse, a state in central Germany.

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The largest denomination officially produced by the Weimar government may have been this note:

notes_300412_11

It’s worse than it looks. In German, one billion is called Milliarde, following the old “long count” style of naming numbers. The note is worth 1,000 Milliarden, which makes Eine Billion – in other words, one trillion. A good thing, too, because in early November 1923, one loaf of bread cost 200,000,000,000 marks. The introduction of the Rentenmark at the end of the year, amazingly, was able to halt the hyperinflation.

Germany’s period of hyperinflation is the most famous in history, but it’s far from the only case – in fact, it’s not even the worst.

onehundrednote

The hundred trillion dollar Zimbabwe note above is probably the most famous piece of currency in the world right now, printed as it was by a government desperately trying to keep up with soaring prices all the while making the situation worse. Up through 2006 to the beginning of 2009, the inflation rate skyrocketed and the government of President Robert Mugabe responded by releasing higher denominations and periodically slashing zeroes from the ends of the notes. His government also proved it didn’t know very much about economics by making inflation illegal and arresting shopkeepers and store managers who raised their prices. Needless to say, this didn’t work.

By January 2009, the Zimbabwe dollar was dead. Zimbabweans had been using US dollars, euros and rand on the black market for years, and these currencies are now the predominant means of exchange in Zimbabwe.

Yes, that’s completely insane, but Zimbabwe still doesn’t win the record for highest denomination ever printed. Hungary’s post-World War II inflation, caused in part by a cash-strapped government desperate to circulate more money, was so bad that the currency had to change its name twice. The pengo ended up the b-pengo, or billion-pengo – one trillion pengo in standard modern usage. This one hundred million b-pengo note earns the prize of most “valuable” banknote ever circulated:

100 million b-pengo

This is worth 100 million times one trillion, which makes one hundred quintillion pengo. If we remove the “circulated” requirement from our search, though, we find an ever higher denomination.

HUP_1000MB_1946_obverse

This one billion b-pengo note was never circulated, but if it had been, it would have netted its lucky owner one sextillion pengo. At this point, we’re better off just using scientific notation: 10 to the power of 21. To put this number into perspective, astronomers estimate that there are about 10 to the power of 24 stars in the observable universe. That’s a whole lot of worthless money, isn’t it?

Today a lot of us find these ridiculous banknotes amusing, and it’s likely that some of the people who had to suffer through the struggle of hyperinflation saw at least some black humor in the whole deal. But it’s worth remembering that the rapidly rising prices that accompanied the issue of these notes wiped out millions of people’s savings and made everyday life an ordeal.