Helvetia personified, Oak Leaves and Alpine Rose: How in 1875 Swiss emancipated its Franc from the French Role Model with explicit Alpine Connotation and Democratic Topics
Today’s Swiss Frank features the same picture as in 1875. Anyway, since the Frank’s introduction in 1850 the subject has changed only once. This podcast explains the pictures andtheir meaning.
Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Switzerland. We are in the year 1875 A.D.
This is what the money used for payment in Switzerland looks like today.
And this is what it looked like in 1875. In this year, Swiss francs were embossed with the image of the standing Helvetia for the first time. At this time, Swiss currency had already existed for a quarter of a century.
It was one of the first achievements of the Swiss state which was founded in 1848. A multitude of different types of currency had hindered the economy for too long. The new country of Switzerland decided to introduce a unified currency in its territory. In 1850, the first Swiss franc was struck. The name itself indicates which currency served as a role model.
Under ruler Napoleon III, France was considered the strongest economic power on the Continent. French francs circulated throughout Europe. Nevertheless, a vehement battle took place between German and French Switzerland concerning whether they should join the Southern German or French currency area. French-speaking Switzerland won, and the French franc became the model for the Swiss franc.
The French franc also displayed a wreath on the rear side. It contains the denomination and the year. This wreath was woven from oak leaves. The wreath on the Swiss franc is more varied. The left side is composed of oak leaves, the right side of alpine rose.
Oak leaves were often used on coins in the 19th century when a country wanted to characterize itself as particularly citizen-oriented. This was a reference to antiquity: the civic crown, which was awarded to anyone who saved the life of Roman citizen, was made of oak leaves at the time of the Roman Republic.
The crown of alpine rose, on the other hand, was a new symbol in the 19th century. It points to the fact that the Swiss saw themselves as mountain dwellers back then. In the 19th century, mountain dwellers were considered especially freedom-loving and democratic. Schiller had made William Tell and democratic Switzerland famous all over Europe. This is why the mountains played such an important role on the first franc.
Helvetia, the personification of Switzerland, sits surrounded by a sublime mountain backdrop. She rests her left hand on a shield with the Swiss Cross, the coat of arms of the Confederation. Wheat ears and a plow can be seen behind her. Such attributes were very popular in the 19th century. They stood for the fertility of the land. The models Antoine Bovy, the creator of this coin image, used are the reason Helvetia is stretching out her arm with such lack of motivation.
He based his work on the goddesses which populated the Roman bronze coins. Many of them carried a bowl or other attribute in their right hands, which they held stretched out in front of their bodies. Bovy left out the bowl, but kept the gesture.
By the way; even though the draft came from Switzerland, the first francs did not, which can be seen from the mint mark. The hand and the wing stand for Charles-Louis Dierickx, the director of the French Mint in Paris. The letter A on the rear side stands for this institution.
Today, the Swiss franc is embossed with the letter B. It stands for Bern. Today, Swiss francs are minted there. The Federal Council was not very happy with the French products. Countless faulty mintages in particular angered the responsible politicians.
This is why the Swiss Federal Mint was opened on September 1st, 1855. Where the high-class restaurant “Zur Münz”, which serves the guests of Hotel Bellvue, now stands is the place where the first francs with the standing Helvetia were produced in 1875.
The mountains in the background have disappeared. The alpine image was no longer contemporary. In 1875, Switzerland was a highly industrialized land, proud of its booming economy.
Helvetia has stayed, however. She now holds a spear in her right hand. She still rests her left hand on the shield with the Swiss Cross.
The second motif of the 1-franc coin was also designed by Antoine Bovy, which can be seen in every franc: A. BOVY INCIDIT – translated, A. Bovy cut this stamp.
And, by the way, a tiny detail differentiates the franc in your wallet from the 1875 franc: count the stars. There are 22, one for each canton. When Canton Jura broke off from Canton Bern in 1979, this had numismatic effects as well. Since 1982, 23 stars have surrounded Helvetia.
And one more thing: if you should find a franc that was issued before 1968, then you’re holding a piece of real silver. It’s not much, but still more than 4 grams!