The single currency of the Swiss Confederation proved to be a bone of contention. There was also fierce debate about Helvetia’s arm. Illustration by Marco Heer.
The single currency of the Swiss Confederation proved to be a bone of contention. There was also fierce debate about Helvetia’s arm. Illustration by Marco Heer.

The first Swiss franc

Francs or guilders? In the mid-19th century, this question divided Switzerland. In the end it was the franc, but further dispute erupted over the design of the new national currency.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

It was infuriating. If you were travelling through the young federal state in 1849, you had to either have at least ten money purses, or be constantly running to the bureau de change. In Zurich people paid with ducats or thalers, in Schwyz they wanted centimes, and in Chur the bill for your dinner was in batzen. It was clear to everyone that this couldn’t go on. But what should the new single currency look like? And more importantly, on what system should it work? Opinions were divided. The choice was between the French decimal system with the franc, or taking the Southern German guilder as a basis. The currency gap ran right across Switzerland: French-speaking Switzerland, Bern and Basel wanted the franc, while Eastern Switzerland and Zurich insisted on guilders.
Two ducats minted by the City of Zurich, 1776.
Two ducats minted by the City of Zurich, 1776. Swiss National Museum
The federal government commissioned Johann Jakob Speiser to conduct an expert assessment. The bank manager from Basel concluded that Switzerland’s currency was to be based on the French monetary standard. This not only facilitated access to the world economy, which in many places worked with the franc; it was also easier to convert. But those in favour of the guilder weren’t ready to give up yet. They had a few months until the vote in the National Council in April 1850, which they used to collect signatures for petitions against the French system.
Portrait of Johann Jakob Speiser.
Portrait of Johann Jakob Speiser. Swiss National Museum
Petition from Zurich (Aussersihl) for a Swiss franc based on the guilder.
Petition from Zurich (Aussersihl) for a Swiss franc based on the guilder. Swiss Federal Archives
But all the pleading, begging, cajoling, ranting and cursing was of no use. Following the lead of the Council of State, the National Council decided to introduce the franc in line with the French system. The corresponding federal law on the national coinage was enacted in early May 1850. Scarcely had the currency gap been filled in than new trouble loomed. The Helvetia figure created by Geneva engraver Antoine Bovy had many politicians up in arms. Not in the folkloric tradition, unattractive, too feminine… The list of criticisms was long. Almost as long as the outstretched arm of the Mother of the Nation, which looked somehow unnatural because − unlike the archetypes from antiquity − she wasn’t holding anything in her hand. Or was it a hidden message? In any case, the Neue Zuger Zeitung noted in early 1853 that ‘the long-armed Helvetia’ was reaching into every cash register, bag, purse and savings bank and challenging the old money that people had been used to for 100 years. So she was not only ugly, but cheeky as well!
5-franc coin from 1850 featuring the Helvetia by Antoine Bovy.
5-franc coin from 1850 featuring the Helvetia by Antoine Bovy. Swiss National Museum
The National Council thought so too. As per the Council’s request, the ‘generally hated Helvetia’ on the obverse (front face) of the new coins should be removed, wrote the Eidgenössische Zeitung on 24 December 1851, because ‘throughout the whole of Switzerland there is a single opinion on this distasteful and unrepresentative image of Madame Helvetia, and it would probably be worthwhile to change this stamp’.
Design for the first federal coins.
A number of designs were submitted for the first coins. Swiss Federal Archives
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Design for the first federal coins.
There were those with a Helvetia… Swiss Federal Archives
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Design for the first federal coins.
…and with animals. Swiss Federal Archives
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Design for the first federal coins.
Or those that focused more on the coat of arms. Swiss Federal Archives
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Design for the first federal coins.
Those with archetypes taken from antiquity or… Swiss Federal Archives
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Design for the first federal coins.
…with the Gessler hat as a hallmark. Swiss Federal Archives
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Design for the first federal coins.
And, of course, the Rütli oath had to be in there somewhere. Swiss Federal Archives
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Design for the first federal coins.
There were also some graphic proposals to marvel at. Swiss Federal Archives
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But Switzerland’s most contentious lady rode out the storm. At least until 1875. Since then, she has had to stand. At least she still had the same ‘father’; the new engraving was also by Antoine Bovy.
Studio portrait of Antoine Bovy, around 1850.
Studio portrait of Antoine Bovy, around 1850. Swiss National Museum
The Eidgenössische Zeitung printed the unfavourable opinion of ‘Madame Helvetia’ in December 1851.
The Eidgenössische Zeitung printed the unfavourable opinion of ‘Madame Helvetia’ in December 1851. e-newspaperarchives
Incidentally, the choice of the franc over the guilder was ‘spot on’. In 1871 the mark was brought in as the single currency of the German Empire and guilders, thalers and ducats gradually disappeared from the scene.

The first time…

There’s always a first time. In this series, we will be looking at historic Swiss firsts. The topics covered are very diverse: from the first zebra crossing to the first ever popular initiative. The articles have been produced in cooperation with the Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv (Swiss Federal Archives).

Further posts

Address & contact
Swiss National Museum
Landesmuseum Zürich
Museumstrasse 2
P.O. Box
8021 Zurich
info@nationalmuseum.ch

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Swiss National Museum

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).