The Rütli Oath on an American banknote

The Swiss National Bank is launching the CHF 20 note of the new series today, the CHF 10 note will be presented in October. Anyone expecting to see William Tell or the Rütli Oath on it will be disappointed. The main element of the new CHF 20 note is light. Actually, the Rütli Oath has already featured on a banknote – albeit an American one.

If we flash back a few centuries, we will find a banknote in the US state of Pennsylvania that not only depicts the Rütli Oath, but is also inscribed in German and denominated in thalers. How did this come about?

In the United States, Pennsylvania was the primary destination for early emigrants from Switzerland and Germany. At the end of the 18th century, around a third of the inhabitants of this federal state were of German extraction. The area of Northampton was even predominantly German-speaking. For that reason, the Northampton Bank issued banknotes in the 1830s that were inscribed in German as well as English. The design of the notes also differed greatly depending on the language. The German banknotes pictured famous German and Swiss people rather than Americans. Examples include Goethe, Haydn and, as in this case, the Zurich theologian and writer Johann Caspar Lavater and the German theologian and poet Christian Fürchtegott Gellert. The currency on the two notes was also different: thaler and dollar. Though, this difference is not as big as you might think at first glance. The name “dollar” comes from the Low German word “Daler”, old German “Taler”, and arrived in the United States via South and Central America.

Banknote issued by Northampton Bank for 5 thalers, Lecha County, Pennsylvania, 1836. Photo: Swiss National Museum

This 5-thaler note from the Northampton Bank looks very “helvetic” with the Rütli Oath and the depiction of Johann Caspar Lavater and dates from the year 1836. The Northampton Bank was the first American big bank, and it went bankrupt in 1843 – also a first. The bankers had invested their customers’ money in watercourses and forests. However, a huge flood rendered these investments worthless and the bank was forced to close its doors. The bank’s customers never saw any money again – neither thalers nor dollars.

The new CHF 20 note. Image: Swiss National Bank

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Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM). The permanent exhibitions at the museums present Swiss history from its beginnings to the present, and give an insight into Swiss identities and the rich tapestry of our country’s history and culture. Temporary exhibitions on current topics add to the experience.


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