The tales emergency currency can tell

After the end of World War I, Germany was in economic crisis and was unable to provide enough currency for its citizens. In response, cities and towns under German control created their own form of emergency currency, called notgeld, to supplement the limited national currency in circulation. The locally-issued notgeld were highly illustrated, colorful, and featured scenes of local architecture and culture.

One particularly interesting element of these notes is the frequent depiction of local legends and folklore. These scenes provide a lens into how local folklore and history  might have provided messages of comfort or warning at a time of uncertainty. The following four pieces of notgeld offer a glimpse into life in Germany after the end of the First World War.

Gnomes    

25 note showing a small blue gnome
25 pfennig note, Bevern, Germany, 1921. This note is included in The Value of Money exhibition.

The mythological gnome appears frequently in German history and folklore. Gnomes were thought to live in caves or underground guarding precious treasures, and Germans often placed sculptures of them in their gardens to protect their homes. Indeed, the first mass-produced gnome sculptures are believed to have come from Germany. Given their popularity, it’s not surprising that they made many appearances on notgeld.  The 25 pfennig note issued in Bevern, Germany, in 1921 (shown above) touches on the local belief that gnomes are only active at night. At a time of instability, the idea of a guardian creature such as a gnome, may have been a comforting thought and provided a sense of security.

Witches

25 note showing witches riding brooms
25 pfennig note, Brocken, Germany, 1921

The German Harz Mountains and the small towns settled within them have a set of legends that reflect their local geography. The foggy town of Brocken is located at the top of the range’s highest peak, and the townspeople embrace the folklore with themes of witchery and devilry that helped to make the region famous. One trail is called the Witches' Path and there are local landmarks called Hexentanzplatz (Witches’ Dance Floor), Teufelsmauer (Devil’s Wall), Hexenaltar (Witches’ Altar). This 25 pfennig note from Brocken illustrates this folklore by depicting witches flying to meet with the Devil on Walpurgis Night, the eve of May Day. On that night, townspeople in Germany light fires on hillsides or dress up as witches and demons while playing loud music and lighting fireworks as a method to drive away evil spirits and witches.

Headless Horseman

25 note showing the Headless Horseman
25 pfennig note, Berga, Germany, 1921    

Stories from the Brothers Grimm appear on notgeld all throughout Germany, such as the headless horseman on this 25 pfennig note from Berga. Often, stories associate the headless horseman with loud or mysterious sounds or even sudden windstorms. It is believed that if a headless horseman appears to you, it is a warning to change your behavior and actions for the better or you too will suffer the same fate to wander the earth as a headless horseman.

Pied Piper of Hamelin

50 note showing the Pied Piper
50 pfennig note, Hameln, Germany, 1918

According to legend, the Pied Piper of Hamelin saved the townspeople from sickness by playing his flute and leading the rats—which had caused the plague—out of town. When he did not receive payment for saving the town, the Piper then led the town’s children away into the mountains, never to be seen again.

Although the exact origin of this story has been lost with time, it’s believed to be tied to an event in Hamelin’s history where a large number of children died, or a mass emigration occurred. In Hamelin, the legend is also commemorated through monuments and a street where they still don’t play music to this day.
Notgeld from Hamelin, such as the 50 pfennig note from 1918 (shown above), depicts the Pied Piper story, perhaps to convey a message of perseverance after a grave hardship.

As these legends on notgeld show, money can be a way to understand and connect to a community’s history, geography, and beliefs. These everyday objects also show how folklore helped communities function and survive in a national crisis.

Alisha Ankin is a collections specialist working with the National Numismatic Collection in the Division of Work and Industry.