Money makes the world go round and the Swiss franc today holds an enviable place in the top tier of global currencies. But it did nor arrive there quite as easily as most imagine, as our series on national icons reveals.
The story has it that General Pyffer, the celebrated Swiss mercenary soldier, was taking a much-needed rest on a mountaintop in a rural canton when he spotted a peasant and asked him to help carry his baggage. The peasant refused, so the General offered to give him money "You have money?" he was asked. "Yes." "Show it to me then. I've never seen any?" The General handed him some coins which were minutely examined and then handed back. "What would I do with this?" the peasant queried. "We have confidence in God, we make our own clothes and we get milk from our flocks:'
In the 18th century even a Swiss who had any use for money was faced with a bewildering dilemma. Coins issued by over 50 authorities - cantonal, municipal, overlords - were in circulation on Swiss territory. According to calculations made by Gerold Meyer von Kronau, a Zurich state archivist in the last century, more than 700 currencies were being used (with 8,000 variations of coins) without counting the "heavy" international currencies, consisting of French louis, ecus, and gold and silver francs; Kronentalers from Bavaria, Baden and Wurtemburg; Brabantaler, pistoles and ducats from Spain; Conventionstaler from Austria and Germany and so forth. Coinage had become an inextricable jungle, with a tangle of often discredited currencies, or others only being accepted at their real value in single cantons. Extreme precaution had to be taken for counterfeit, defaced or badly worn coins abounded. The situation made any commercial transaction between the cantons very difficult and led to daily disputes and often to heavy losses - only the money-changers could expect to profit every time.
Once drawn into the Napoleonic orbit, Switzerland became the Helvetian Republic from 1798 to 1803 and was attached to the French revolutionary monetary system. It clearly needed to have a new coinage to replace the chaos which had previously reigned. It was the beginning of the movement which was to lead to the Swiss franc and centime, but it was to take almost half a century to get there. Although the cantons were authorised by Napoleon to strike their own individual coins from 1803, many were impoverished because the Emperor had pillaged their coffers to pay for his campaigns (like Berne, whose entire reserves were seized to cover the cost of the conquest of Egypt). This meant that the currencies they produced remained largely subservient to the French franc so they avoided striking high-value coinage. Certain cantons began to draw up agreements as time went on and the Swiss cross started to make its first appearance on one side of coins, with the cantonal badge, date and indication of value on the other.
The Swiss constitution of 1848 simplified matters. Stopping the cantonal minting of coinage it finally brought monetary unification to the country. But what should the new unit be called? Supporters of the French franc or the Gulden from Lower Rhineland, depending on their commercial and other affinities with east or west, engaged in noisy and often acrimonious combat over the issue. An entirely Swiss middle road was proposed by mediators, but in the end, the partisans of the French standard measure ended up by convincing the Federal Council of 1850, and so the Swiss coinage we know today began to be struck. The first five, two, one and half franc coins were engraved by the Genevan sculptor Antoine Boy, one of a family who had been turning out currency for Geneva from its own studio for many years - the city-canton had adopted the French decimal system in 1838.
Switzerland finally had its own coinage, proudly bearing the matronly seated figure of Helvetia and her cross-emblazoned shield. But its early years were not to be without problems. Foreign currency continued to circulate officially in Switzerland after 1850, because that minted by the Confederation only partially covered the needs of the population. Francs and centimes from France, Sardinia, Parma, the old Cisalpine Republic and the new kingdom of Italy were still in use. But there was no backsliding to the old chaos of batz, sols and kreuzers. An essential modification had been carded out which eliminated complicated calculation every time money changed hands. All coinage had an exact face value and belonged to the decimal system and eventually it was to oust any competitors.
The Swiss franc was on its way, becoming over the next century and half today's living symbol of the solidity and soundness of the nation's economy, a worldwide visiting card and a very worthwhile collector's item, whether openly or in a numbered account.
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|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2000|
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