Out of the darkest days in Germany during World War I came NOTGELD, the bright, utterly charming and exquisite accomplishment of German graphic art that will never be seen again. The days were indeed dark, as the Allies had blockaded Germany and vital materièl was in short supply—especially silver, nickel, and copper used to mint coins. Being in such short supply, German towns, cities, and states soon started issuing paper notes to replace the small denominations usually found in metal coinage.
Since “Notgeld” means Emergency Money, it was a singularly apt term and the paper notes proliferated from 1915 to1922 until 63,000 different notes had been issued by 3,600 sources. In the end, notes were produced by companies, steamship lines, shopkeepers, and even Prisoner-of-War camps.
The first notes were simple in design, being run off by local printers, but as more substantial groups began issuing them some of Germany’s leading artists were asked to design the notes. They became marvels of graphic design and illustration and the German penchant for glorious calligraphy showed up as well. Competition between groups worked to produce finer and finer examples of graphic art at its most inspired, all produced by world-class practioners of the graphic arts since the days of Gutenberg.
The notes shown here are a small part of a collection that is part of my archives in the Special Collections of the UBC Library.