One of the more depressing periods of history is the era between the two World Wars. The devastation of World War I and the Great Depression left millions of people worldwide impoverished, homeless or dead. Totalitarianism was on the rise and people were desperate to preserve what they had at any cost as life savings disappeared.
Numismatically, gold coinage disappeared as governments searched for a solution to their economic woes — often resorting to printing more and more paper money, which became increasingly worthless with each new printing. Coins disappeared from circulation as the metal in them was worth more than their denomination. Germany, burdened with crippling war reparations, was especially hard hit. As good money became scarcer and government paper became nearly worthless (a single egg could cost 2 billion marks or more at the height of the crisis in 1923), private companies and local governments began to issue substitute money as a stable currency for local use. This “notgeld” took many forms and is a highlight of an otherwise bleak period in German history.
The first large issue of notgeld started at the outbreak of World War I as coins were hoarded and metals were diverted for wartime uses. These notes were issued in small denominations. This currency was not legal tender — but was used and accepted on a voluntary basis within local areas. The advantage of issuing Notgeld was that it stabilized local government and local markets, so people could buy and sell what they needed while government services kept functioning, plus it helped concentrate the official currency in the hands of the government, where it could be used for non-local transactions.
The materials used to produce notgeld ranged from metals to paper, including silk, cloth, porcelain, foil, celluloid and even gelatin! These colorful banknotes soon became a target for collectors. The issuing bodies began to issue more than were necessary to meet collector demand. Sets, known as “Serienscheine,” were issued in 1920 and 1921.
In 1922 inflation spiraled out of control, leading to hyperinflation. The central bank could not produce enough notes to keep up with inflation, so new notgeld was issued in denominations of thousands, millions and billions of marks. Notgeld was also issued in the form of commodities or other currencies: wheat, rye, sugar, coal, wood, natural gas, electricity, gold or U.S. dollars, known as “Wertbeständige” or notes of “fixed value.”
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