- Museum of the National Bank of Belgium - https://www.nbbmuseum.be/en -

1851: The first-born notes of the National Bank

Nowadays, the National Bank of Belgium is the only financial institution authorized to print banknotes in Belgium. However, this has not always been the case. During the first half of the 19th century several banks put their own notes in circulation. The Bank which was founded by law of 5 May 1850 issued its first series in 1851. After the recent financial crises of 1838 and 1848 it had to contribute to the trustworthiness of the new financial institution and the public’s confidence.

 First belgian 1000 francs banknote

First belgian 1000 francs banknote

This first provisional series ranged from 20, 50, 100, 500 to 1000 francs. In the following paragraphs, the note with the highest denomination will be at the centre of our attention. A mere 45.000 copies have been issued. The relatively small number of copies can be partly explained by the high value of the note: the current purchasing power amounts to 242,300 francs or 6,006,5 euro (June 2008). High-quality materials and techniques were thus absolute necessities to convince a hesitant public. Banknote paper for instance needed to have a longer durability than ordinary paper and had to be difficult to imitate. So, for its first series the Bank addressed itself to the Demeurs paper mill in St-Genesius-Rode near Brussels which produced handmade, gelatine-glued rag paper. Each sheet had to be transformed into one note.

 

Coat of arms of the Kingdom of BelgiumAttention on the banknote focuses entirely on the indication of the value, the identity of the issuer, its being payable at sight, the date and the number. They were signed and numbered by hand. The similarity to other financial instruments such as shares, cheques or receipts is striking. Contrary to most other series of banknotes this series explicitly mentions “Royaume de Belgique” (Kingdom of Belgium) in addition to the coat of arms of the Kingdom and its national motto: “L’Union fait la force” (Union is strength). The lion rampant is presented on a crowned shield behind which two crossed sceptres are represented, one decorated with the hand of justice, the other with a lion. The whole stands between an olive branch and an oak branch.

The signature on a banknote is essential: it authenticates the note and in the past also used to guarantee it as payable at sight. Thus, all Belgian notes had one or more signatures on one or both sides. The 1000 francs note of 1851 bears no less than three different signatures. The governor’s signature (F.-Ph. de Haussy) or the vice-governor’s in his absence (L. Deswert) is written in the left-hand corner. In the opposite corner the signature of the director responsible for the printing department can be deciphered (L. Doucet or E. Prévinaire). The third signature is represented in the security strip on the left-hand side. This is a decorative border in calligraphy which is only partly legible. The other part, or scroll counterfoil, is left behind in the booklet from which the banknote is torn. As long as the note was taken out of such booklets, the controller of the printing works (Chantraine) had to certify and register scrupulously the tearing out of the note or, in fact, its issuance. When there was the slightest doubt on the genuineness of a note the correspondent counterfoil was compared with the remaining part of the text on the note. In 1869 the security strip as well as the third signature disappeared completely. Handwritten elements such as the signatures and the numbers were considered to be more effective against possible forgeries.

 

cherub studying a book with geometrical figuresAlthough text was very important, illustrations were not left out completely by Leopold Wiener, a well-known medallist and engraver who designed the first series. His composition consists mainly of a framework of decorative elements and allegorical figures. They were not chosen at random because they had to convey certain messages which were fundamental to the Bank and the State. The putto or cherub in the bottom left-hand corner rests upon a wheel and a basket full of ripe fruits. These symbols of industry and wealth equally indicate that industrial development contributes to a nation’s wealth and glory.

 

cherub resting on a wheel and a basket full of ripe fruitsIf one continues clockwise, the next cherub is absorbed in the study of sciences and the arts, represented by a book with geometrical figures. The following one underlines the importance of durable peace for a nation’s progress by holding an olive branch and a torch. The last putto who is equipped with a sword and a balance refers to the importance of a strict but righteous justice. L. Wiener got further inspired by the Greek-roman iconography. The winged cap and the caduceus refer to Mercury, the Roman god of merchants and merchandise. The other elements he is represented with, such as the cog and the hammer, link him with industry as well. The allegorical figure in the left-hand cartouche who is depicted with a plough, flail and fork, sheaves of corn and a beehive refers to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.

 

Putto with a sword and a balanceAll these decorative elements contribute to the image the nation wanted to disperse of itself: a hard working nation steered by justice and progress and engrossed in agriculture, trade, industry, arts and sciences.

On the obverse red and black stamps complete the note. Banknotes were regarded as commercial paper and the Bank was obliged to pay stamp duty each time a note was issued. Thus, these fiscal stamps proof tax was paid. For notes of 500 and 1000 francs the duty was fixed at 1 franc.

 

cherub holding an olive branch and a torchThe back of the note was identically printed, that is to say, it reproduced the design on the face of the note in reverse with the addition of a subdued background colour. The theme of this additional security background is completely in line with the iconography of the obverse: a swarm of cherubs circle around a beehive, symbol of diligence and frugality. These motives are printed in the centre of the note and are placed within a lined border. As it is printed in colour, it was meant to make forgeries less likely.

In spite of all the efforts to issue officially backed-up high-quality notes, the public at large remained aloof. They were mainly used for large commercial transactions and discount operations. By the end of 1853 the notes of 1000 francs of this very first temporary series were replaced by notes of 1000 francs printed in blue ink.

Laurence Herman
Museum guide