Mathieu Bidaux | Université de Rouen, GRHis – The Bank of France’s banknotes (1830-1857): a rich currency used by poor people?

This study on the circulation, use and users of banknotes rests on:

  • 15 inquiries on counterfeiting
  • 380 cases of partly destroyed banknotes

  When counterfeit banknotes emerged in the circulation, the Bank of France (BoF) assisted the police’s inquiry and registered the names, occupations and circumstances and described the banknote. But with a bias: those that were handed these banknotes in the first place had been duped. The same information was gathered on partly destroyed banknotes, with a somewhat lesser bias, that of people behaving with neglect. The database starts in 1830, when the circulation was sufficient to fuel a higher number of partly destroyed banknotes and stops in 1855, when their increased number led to a downgrading of the gathered information.

  The BoF’s banknotes was meant for the use of large or wholesale traders. Smaller denominations appeared in 1847 (200 FF) and 1848 (100 FF). They thus escaped poor people’s daily use, but surprisingly many cases of partly destroyed banknotes featured poor people. In fact, they used these banknotes for savings; or destroyed them by ignorance.

  Some indirect literary evidence points to the novelty that banknotes represented to poor people: Les Misérables, from Victor Hugo, or Le Comte de Monte-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (père), or Les Mémoires d’un billet de banque, by Parseval deschènes. In the three examples, banknotes provoke fear or astonishment amongst the poor.

  In the case of BoF’s partly destroyed banknotes, many modest trades were involved, up to 40 or 45% of all registered cases. One reason is that they were ill-equipped to preserve their banknotes. But it is also interesting to remark their confidence in the banknotes, that represented sometimes all their savings. It also runs counter to the opinion of the board members of the BoF, opposed to reaching this sort of customers.

  It is also difficult to understand how these banknotes were acquired, except in a few specific cases (the cook of a Duke who received a 500 FF banknote, or a Rothschild house’s janitor). In some cases, the banknote partial destruction stem from the inability of the holder to identify its nature: for example, a worker use one to light his pipe.

  This source thus exhibit the variety of poor people’s attitudes towards banknotes, notably as a means of savings and also contradicts the common idea of a general resistance against the banknotes in France. But it also shows the strangeness of this currency to some, a proof enough that the banknote remained, up to the middle of the 19th c., a rich man means of payment.


Sophie Laligant – Would you rather call the neglect of some holders indifference or ignorance?

A. : Yes, rather ignorance.

Jérôme Jambu – There is a long tradition of hoarding metallic coins. Perhaps it is then not surprising that banknotes were dissimulated in the same caches as metallic coins. And what about the absence of resistance to receive banknotes? Maybe did they not have a choice? Remember the assignats and Law. Last comes the question of the poor people: were these people really poor? A farmer woman in the Paris basin is not necessarily poor. An example of a coin hoard at the same time in a rural setting: Tirepied hoard, Normandy, 2500 FF in 5 FF “écus”, 1824.

Frédérique Duyrat – Two notes: it’s important to draw a parallel with metallic savings. Still in the beginning of the 20th c. people in the UK buried banknotes. This behaviour raise the question of their access to appropriate means of preservation, and may explain the use of beams and mattresses. Such behaviour were very common in the past. In Ancient Greece, more than 5000 hoards have been uncovered, but we know that any rich Athenian kept hundreds of coins in his place.

Anders Ögren – How did the BoF inquire? Were banknotes a saving device?

Sophie Lalilgant – We must remember that it is very rare to find money, cash, in probate inventories. 

Emmanuel Prunaux – This hoarding behaviour appears also with the “mandats” (anterior to cheques) that remained in circulation months after their expiry date.

A. : Conversion to metal was always possible, provided that a bank was available.

Abstract of workshop : Money of the poor (4 – 5 July / Juillet 2019)
Organization : Patrice Baubeau, U. Paris Nanterre / IDHES (UMR8533)
Grant UPL (Université Paris Lumières) 2019/2021

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