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National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History, via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History, via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Hyperinflation Gone Mad: When German Children Made Kites From Money

National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History, via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History, via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Early in 1922, the German Papiermark—the currency of the Weimar Republic—was valued at around 200 Marks to the U.S. dollar. By November 1923, that figure had risen to 4,200,000,000,000. Put another way, if you had just U.S. $1 to your name, in 1920s Germany you would have been a multi-trillionaire.

How did such an absurd exchange rate come about? Precisely what set the wheels of hyperinflation and devaluation in motion in post-war Germany is debatable, but arguably the entire process began almost a decade earlier, at the dawn of the First World War.

With its efforts to secure victory in Europe in full swing, the German government opted to suspend the Mark’s gold standard—the relationship between the value of currency and the price of gold—and fund its on-going and ever-enlarging military operations by borrowing. It was an immense risk, solely reliant on one thing to succeed: Germany had to win the war.

Victory in the war, Germany presumed, would solve everything. The annexation of other European nations and their economies and assets, as well as the costly war reparations paid by the soon-to-be-defeated Allies, would together offset all the economic consequences of such a risky strategy. But unfortunately for Germany, the plan backfired. They lost the war, and by 1918, the Mark had already almost halved in value and Germany had accrued colossal international debts.

Not only that, but being on the losing side of the war meant that the costly punitive reparations the German government had intended to profit from were now being imposed on them. This only served to worsen things throughout the early 1920s, and when the government began to buy foreign currency at any price just to meet its financial obligations, the value of the Mark collapsed ever further. Inflation soon spiraled into hyperinflation—eventually peaking at a rate of 3,250,000 percent per month—and Germany quickly fell behind on its repayments.

In response, France and Belgium took control of the country’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr, in 1923, but that only served to add fuel to the fire.

The German government called on workers in the Ruhr to put down tools and resist the occupation, promising that while doing so they would continue to receive a wage from the state. The strikes, protests and campaign of passive resistance that followed all but ground industry in the Ruhr to a halt, crippling the German economy even further, while the occupation sparked a new international crisis.

For some, the occupation of the Ruhr was considered controversial and a punitive step too far. Tensions grew between the French (who had their own post-war economic problems) and the British (some of whom grew sympathetic to Germany’s position, and saw the French response as a new imperialist threat). Finally, with growing pressure from the United States, an interim agreement was drawn up by future Vice President Charles G. Dawes that lowered and staggered Germany’s reparation payments. The Ruhr occupation was brought to an end, briefly kick-starting the German economy, and for his work on the crisis Dawes was the co-recipient of the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize (the other winner was Sir Austen Chamberlain). But in the long term, the Dawes Plan failed—and even by the time it was implemented the damage to the German economy had already been done.

To combat the French occupation, the Reichsbank was being forced to churn out ever more banknotes just to function on a daily basis. Printing presses were commandeered by the state for no reason other than to print ever greater quantities of cash. In May 1923, there were 8.6 billion Marks in circulation in the country; by November there were 400 quintillion. In response, the value of the Papiermark spiraled out of control.

As the numbers on German bank notes soared to 50 trillion, daily life for the German people became increasingly absurd.

A man using money as wallpaper.
Bundesarchiv, Bild / Pahl, Georg via Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA 3.0 DE

Paper currency was by now next to worthless. Employees collected their wages in wheelbarrows and suitcases more valuable than the money inside them. Banknotes were used as wallpaper and kindling to light stoves. Children played with bundles of cash in the street, cut up piles of Marks to make confetti and paper chains, and even crafted kites out of money. Shopkeepers shunned currency altogether and switched to bartering to maintain the value of their goods and services. Astonishingly, the price of one egg in 1923 would have bought you 500 billion eggs just five years earlier.

Waiters in cafés and restaurants were now reportedly mounting tables to announce price changes to their menus every 30 minutes; by the summer of 1923, patrons might sit down to a meal in a German restaurant only to find they couldn’t afford it half an hour later. One famous anecdote involves a gentleman who drank two cups of coffee, priced at 5000 Marks each, at a coffee house in Hamburg, only to be presented with a bill for 14,000 Marks. When he queried the cost with his waiter, he was told that he should have ordered the two drinks at the same time—the price had nearly doubled in the time it had taken him to drink one cup.

The crisis finally abated in the winter of 1923, when the German government introduced a new currency, the Rentenmark, backed up by the mortgage value of agricultural and commercial land. Valued at the old rate of 4.2 to the dollar, one Rentenmark was ultimately equivalent to 1,000,000,000,000 of the Weimar’s Papiermarks, and returned the Mark to the same exchange rate it had been at before the war. The “Miracle of the Rentenmark,” as it was hailed, brought to an end one of the most extraordinary periods of hyperinflation in history.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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