These face values were extremely high and at the time 500 francs represented, for example, around five months’ salary for a Parisian worker. Banknotes therefore in no way constituted a widely-used payment instrument and were reserved for major merchants and industrialists and intended to facilitate their trade. This elitist aspect of banknotes was in keeping with the mentality of France at that time, extremely mistrustful of paper money. The previous experiments, promoted by governments (John Law’s System of 1716 to 1720, French Revolution Assignat notes, etc.) proved to be resounding failures and many savers were ruined, causing paper money to be rejected by almost all social classes.
The decorative motifs of these first denominations are those of the banknotes issued by the Caisse des comptes courants, designed by well-known artists (such as Charles Percier, who, together with Fontaine, was commissioned by Napoleon I to build the Arc de Triomphe of the Carrousel and the wing of the Louvre on the rue de Rivoli). The portraits of deities (Vulcan, Apollo, Ceres and Poseidon) and the antique motif of the 500-franc banknote reflect the fascination of artists at that time for the Graeco-Roman period. The presence of Vulcan, god of blacksmiths and protector of those who mint coins, is highly symbolic: it highlights the fact that paper money has the same value as gold or silver coins.
These first banknotes, printed in black and white, had several security features: a counterfoil that allowed, in the event of doubts regarding the authenticity, the banknote to be traced back to the stub kept at the Banque de France; the watermark; and an embossing, which was stamped simultaneously on both sides of the banknotes using a press.
These banknotes bore five signatures of Banque de France officials: on the front, those of two Regents and the Director General and, on the back, those of the Comptroller General and the Chief Cashier.
Due to their very high face value and low issuance volume, a very small number of these first banknotes are still with us.
Published on 23 December 2011.