1830-1914: a young nation’s coins and notes
When Belgium was young it was not easy to choose a national currency unit; there were both economic and political reasons for adopting "the franc" following the French example.
It took a long time to produce enough coins to meet the country’s needs; in the meantime, Belgium accepted certain foreign currencies. The franc is defined in terms of its weight in silver. The first coins were therefore struck in that metal, and in bronze for the small denominations. The law allowed the option of minting coins in gold; these were rare, and this bimetallism gave rise to numerous problems. In 1860, Belgium became the first country in the world to issue coins made of cupronickel, which is nowadays the commonest alloy used for minting coins.
The first coins with inscriptions in Dutch appeared in 1886; the first bilingual banknotes followed a year later.
During the first twenty years of Belgium’s independence, banknotes represented only a small fraction of the means of payment. They were issued by private banks. In 1848, a banking crisis prompted the legislature to accord to the banknotes of the two main issuing banks, the Société générale and the Bank of Belgium, the status of legal tender – people had to accept them as payment – and that status was compulsory – people could not ask the banks to change the notes for precious metals. The desire to unify the circulation of banknotes was one of the reasons which prompted the Finance Minister, Frère-Orban, to establish the National Bank in 1850.
In 1865, Belgium joined in with France, Italy and Switzerland to create the Latin Union. This had a turbulent existence until it was officially dissolved in 1926.
The National Bank was provided with a printing works immediately on its establishment by a law dated May 1850. However, the preparations were so laborious that the first series of banknotes could not be issued until January 1851. This first series featured black typographical printing, with a lightly coloured security background on the reverse; at the time, the governor signed the notes by hand: it is vital to inspire confidence! Ordinary people avoid paper money; the collective memory is still scarred by the catastrophe of the French assignats banknotes issued in the post-revolution era: the public were forced to accept them, but they were ultimately burnt without ever being repaid. However, paper money was to gain favour, beginning with people in business. The purchasing power of the first banknotes – 1,000, 500, 100, 50 and 20 francs – was actually so great (over € 4 000 for the largest denomination!) that they were not used in everyday life.
Up to the mid 20th century, the illustrations on Belgian banknotes were largely allegorical, i.e. they were composed of more or less symbolic figures. They generally depicted trade and industry. Trade was associated with pictures of the Escaut, the port of Antwerp, and navigation. Industry was often represented by iron and steel, mining and the Meuse. But there were also pictures representing Belgium, economic affairs, labour and even the railway. Before the end of the 19th century the National Bank was printing banknotes in four colours; the dramatic, colourful denominations designed by Constant Montald, in the early 20th century, recall the art nouveau style. They are among the most beautiful in Belgium’s history.
In comparison with other countries, Belgium had a relatively large volume of banknotes in circulation at the end of the 19th century. After fluctuating at around 3 to 4% of GDP in the first two decades of the National Bank’s existence, banknote circulation was expanding steadily by the beginning of the 1870s, exceeding 12 % of GDP on the eve of World War I. In 1873, the granting of legal tender status to notes issued by the National Bank encouraged that expansion.