One of the main jobs of a central bank is to ensure that there is enough currency in circulation. Not too much, so as not to kindle inflation, but not too little either. It was certainly a delicate balance. When Belgium went into the First World War in 1914, the consequences of it were incalculable. As the fighting dragged on, supply lines were under threat across large swathes of the country. But it was not just commodities of all kinds that were running out. Means of payment also rapidly faced shortages as the National Bank’s provincial branches could no longer get supplies of banknotes and were often obliged to suspend their business activities.
Around six hundred local councils, as well as a lot of charitable associations and companies had to print emergency currency. To do so, the municipality of Izegem resorted to the printing technique of lithography or printing on stone.
Lithography is based on the principle whereby grease and water repel one another. A mirror design is first of all made on limestone. The design is then fixed using acacia gum, to which an acid was often added. The blank part of the stone is then digested with acid. This phenomenon creates a difference in height between the design and the rest of the stone. During printing, only the design – which is in relief to the rest – is transferred onto paper.
It is not just in the Museum that you can browse through the collection of emergency currencies; they can also be consulted online. To find banknotes from a particular municipality, first click on the map of Belgium, on the province to which the municipality belongs today. Once you have selected the province, click on the municipality of your choice (the name of the municipality is that used since the latest merger of communes). For each municipality, all types of banknotes then appear in a small scale. A simple click on any picture you choose will bring up a more detailed image of the front and back of the note, accompanied by a brief description.
During the First World War, the local councils used these emergency currencies to make all sorts of payments: militia allowances, staff wages and to pay suppliers. Many relief and assistance committees – and most notably the National Committee for Assistance and Food Supply – also issued emergency currencies to help the many people in need. Factories and firms issued wage and food ration coupons. Circulation of these emergency currencies remained fairly limited to the territory of the issuing municipality or to a specific shop, like for instance an assistance committee, but occasionally it extended to a wider region, depending on the trust that was put in this emergency money.