by Marcin Brzeziński
1794 was an exceptional year in Polish history. It saw the outbreak of the first Polish uprising against Russia, led by Tadeusz Kościuszko, who would become the national hero of both Poland and the United States of America. It was also the year when the citizens first started to use banknotes as a form of payment. Facing a shortage of gold and silver, the insurgent administration made the decision to turn to printed currency. Their banknotes did not gain much popularity, however. Made of an impermanent material, they were easy to damage, and only a small number has survived. Thus, they are now sold at auctions at astronomical prices.
From the Constitution to the Treason at Targowica
On 3 May 1791 Poland adopted a modern constitution, intended to reorganise the country and bring about far-reaching reforms. In reality, however, the act triggered a sequence of events that ultimately led to the discontinuation of the Polish State in 1795, when its territory was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria. After the constitution was signed, a group of citizens opposing the proposed changes gathered at Targowica in present-day Ukraine, and formed a confederation which asked the Empress of Russia Catherine II to intervene. Russian troops entered Polish territory in 1792. Two years later, the first Polish uprising against the occupier began.
Monetary Reform During the Insurgency
The 1794 uprising led by Tadeusz Kościuszko was the last attempt at defending Poland’s independence. The insurgent authorities proceeded, for instance, to reorganise the country’s financial system. King Stanisław August Poniatowski’s right to issue money was revoked. The monarch initially objected, but ultimately supported the Treasury Committee, offering his own reserves of silver and hard currency. Bullion for minting coins was also acquired through the confiscation of liturgical paraphernalia from temples of all religions.
The Supreme National Council, which was the central civil authority during the uprising, changed the official rate of mintage. One Cologne mark (233.812 g) was to be used to produce a total value of 84 ½ zloty in thalers, half-thalers and zloty. The minting of half-thalers and silver double-groschen was discontinued; the production of szóstaki (six-groschen coins) recommenced.
A numismatic curio from the year 1794 were the so-called półstanisladors (half-stanisladors; from the French ‘stanislaus d’or’) and stanisladors, minted of .833 fine gold. Their value was 1.5 and 3 ducats respectively. The stanislador coin weighed ca. 12.4 g; ca. 5200 such coins were issued. The mass of the półstanislador amounted to ca. 6.2 g; the total issue was ca. 8100.
Paper Instead of Coins
The banknotes that appeared in 1794 were an entirely new element in the Polish monetary system. They functioned as treasury and utility notes, substituting coins, which could not be minted at the time. The denominations of the first notes were 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 zloty, each printed on differently coloured paper. In practice, they were state-issued promissory notes. The caption put on the notes proclaimed that the National Treasury was obliged to pay each holder of the note the amount specified thereon, in coin, at a future date. National assets marked for sale were to serve as guarantee of the payment.
The face of the banknotes/treasury notes featured the text of the resolution passed by the Supreme National Assembly, and above it, the coats of arms of the Polish Republic – the Eagle and the Chase – as well as symbols of the French Revolution. The latter elements included a Phrygian cap, a section of prison walls and the chains of absolutism broken by the people. Interestingly, the signatures at the bottom of the notes and the serial numbers were written in by hand. The back of the note was blank. The highest denominations (including the 500 zloty notes) were issued in very small numbers, estimated at 500 to 1000 specimens. As for the 5 zloty notes, some 60,000 were produced.
Another novelty introduced during the insurrection were utility notes (paper means of exchange substituting coin). They had the form of small sheets of paper, with coats of arms, denomination and the name of the issuer depicted on the face. The back featured a facsimile of the signature of Filip Malinowski, one of the commissioners of the Directorate for Treasury Notes. The denominations of the utility notes were: 5 and 10 groschen, 1 zloty and 4 zloty.
People’s Mistrust and Subsequent Auction Records
The banknotes did not gain much popularity among the population, for a number of reasons. The promise of a future payment in hard coin, to be made after the sale of public property, had no guarantee. Insurgency authorities allowed citizens to pay only up to 50% of their taxes in treasury notes; the rest had to be handed in coin. Kościuszko’s armies, on the other hand, were permitted to pay for everything using paper currency. Consequently, people regarded the notes with a considerable dose of mistrust. Their circulation remained very limited. Due to the impermanent nature of the paper of which they were made, only a few specimens of the notes have survived. The extant ones are a collector’s item. .
The hitherto highest bid on a Polish banknote was made in February 2019, at a numismatic auction in Wrocław, where a 500 zloty note from 1794 was bought for 220,000 zloty (ca. 60,000 dollars).
Marcin Brzezinski is a graduate of the Faculty of Journalism and Political Science at the University of Warsaw. He is interested in the history of Polish aristocracy and old photography. Author and co-author of several books, including: “Adam and Jadwiga Czartoryski. Photographs and Memories” (2013), “Stanisław Kazimierz Kossakowski. I love photography” (2019). Co-creator of historical exhibitions, including: “For here we do not have an enduring city – a story about palaces on the Royal Route in Warsaw” (2010). He has been cooperating with the National Treasury (Skarbnica Narodowa) for several years. The area of his numismatic interest is primarily historical Polish coins.