Arguably, the Holy Roman Empire has two lasting legacies. First, it gave us Voltaire’s famous quote about how the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.
Secondly, it gave us the Maria Theresa Thaler — one of the first truly international forms of currency.
Maria Theresa was never an official ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. The title of “Holy Roman Emperor” was, technically, an elected position and women were ineligible. Instead, it was her husband, Francis I, who had been crowned emperor.
But like other strong-willed and intelligent women who managed to become de facto rulers of patriarchal empires, like the Empress Dowager Cixi of China, Margaret I of Denmark or Edith Wilson, Maria Theresa didn’t let her gender hold her back. After all, she had come to the poker table wielding some pretty impressive cards. Thanks to the efforts of her father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, she had inherited all of the Habsburg Family lands, which included the largest Holy Roman Empire states like Austria, Hungary and Croatia and Bohemia.
In fact, her father had foreseen the difficulties of having a female heir and had tried to negotiate with the other powers in Europe into accepting Maria Theresa’s inheritance – in defiance of prevailing laws precluding female heirs, to say nothing of local custom. He got several European countries to accept what was known as the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, which paved the way for Maria Theresa to claim all Habsburg family lands after her father’s death. Of course, some of these signatories reneged before Charles VI’s body was even cold and went to war against the new empress. That she managed to survived those wars with only the loss of Silesia to show for it strengthened her hand. Ultimately, she held sway over the Holy Roman Empire for four decades, establishing herself as one of the most powerful individuals in Europe.
In 1741, one year into her reign, the Maria Theresa Thaler (MTT) was released as official currency within the Holy Roman Empire. (“Thaler” is pronounced like “taller,” and is where the word “dollar” comes from). Made from 28.82 grams of 0.875 oz. fine silver, the coin bore different designs depending on which part of the empire it hailed from. For instance, the Hungarian one had a portrait of the young empress on the obverse and an image of a Madonna and child on the reverse, while the Austrian one had a different portrait of the empress on the obverse and the Austrian coat of arms combined with symbols representing Hungary, Bohemia and other Habsburg dominions on the reverse.
Subsequent MTTs would use less silver, in large part, because the inheritance wars had drained the crown’s coffers. Starting in 1750, the silver content of thalers was decreased. This change was solidified in 1753, when Maria Theresa signed a coinage convention with the Prince Elector of Bavaria, which standardized silver composition in coins throughout their realms. The Conventionthalers that were minted after this deal were comprised of 28.06 grams of 0.833 oz. fine silver.
The decrease in silver content did not dampen the coin’s popularity. In particular, the MTT became a highly coveted trading coin — especially in the Near East and in the Arab world. While the silver content of the MTT was lower than its chief international trade coin competitor, the Spanish 8 Reale coin that was in use in Mexico and parts of U.S. (the famed “piece of eight”), the thalers were better struck and more beautifully designed, making them highly attractive and eye-catching.
Additionally, the intricate lettered edge made the MTT a difficult coin to forge or clip, making it a stable and somewhat safe form of trade currency. In his piece, “Maria Theresa’s Thaler: A Case of International Money” published in the Eastern Economic Journal in 2001, Adrian Tschoegl argued that the MTT’s stability made it an appealing option to many countries still struggling to figure out how to base their entire monetary system on fiat currency (paper money backed by the full faith and credit of the issuing government).
[The MTT] succeeded and survived not because it changed but rather because it did not. What gradually eroded demand for the MTT was the spread of the modern state with its national money. Over time states generally were able to induce their citizens to use the domestic currency, an inducement that rested on the states’ success in learning how to create their own fiat monies, which on other grounds (such as cost of production and ease of use) were a better instrument. This process of replacing the MTT also rested in part on states’ ability to enforce legal tender laws, which were probably critical in bringing about coordinated switches out of a well-established standard (the MTT) to a new standard (the domestic fiat currency).Adrian Tschoegl, “Maria Theresa’s Thaler: A Case of International Money,” The Eastern Economic Journal, Fall 2001.
Others, meanwhile, have argued that it wasn’t all about trade. As Shepard Pond wrote, the aesthetic qualities of the MTT helped make it popular in what was then known as the Near East/Levant region and now encompasses much of the Middle East:
Coins have always been much used in the Near East as women’s ornaments, jewelry, etc., and the thaler’s fine worksmanship made it especially attractive for this purpose. Moreover, the buxom portrait of the Empress is said to have carried a strong appeal to Levantines, who ‘liked their women plump.’Shepard Pond, “The Maria Theresa Thaler: A Famous Trade Coin,” Bulletin of the Business Historical Society, vol. 15, no. 2, 1941.
Coinweek, in its retrospective on the MTT, took issue with this hypothesis, pointing out that Islamic attitudes towards female modesty and would actually work against the MTT. Either way the demand for MTTs was such that when Maria Theresa died in 1780, the empire continued minting MTTs for centuries— all with the 1780 date and bearing the design seen above. In the years following her death, instability in Europe (particularly with the French Revolution in full swing — something Maria Theresa’s daughter, Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, experienced first hand) allowed the MTT’s popularity to explode. Even Napoleon’s termination of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and the demonetization of the thaler in 1857 throughout the Austrian Empire did not blunt enthusiasm for the coin throughout the world. Tschoegl estimates that over 390 million MTTs have been struck in mints throughout the world, including London, Paris, Utrecht, Bombay, Rome and Birmingham.
MTTs were especially widespread in Ethiopia, where they were legal tender and became the main form of currency. When Italy invaded in 1935, Benito Mussolini demanded the actual MTT dies from Austria so that his troops would have spending cash during the campaign. Mussolini also got a 25-year exclusive license to mint the coin from his good friend, Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss.
Other countries, in particular Great Britain and France, who both had expansive African empires at the time, were alarmed at being cut off from the supply of new MTTs. So they did what any resourceful country would do — they made their own dies. According to Tschoegl, the Paris and London mints produced over 18 million thalers during World War II, and would continue to do so in the years afterward. It wasn’t until Mussolini’s original 25-year license ran out in 1960 (15 years after he was executed) that foreign mints agreed to stop producing the MTT. The popularity of the coin waned and today, the Austrian mint mainly restricts production of the MTT to collectors.
The MTT I have in my collection was a gift from my aunt. It’s one of the many 1780 restrikes — based on the design, it looks like this coin was minted in either London, Birmingham, Bombay or Calcutta between 1936 and 1961. So this coin could have been one of the MTTs minted in defiance of Mussolini’s monopoly. Or it could have been one of the last ones off the conveyor belt before exclusivity went back to Austria. Or it could have been minted at some random point in the 1950s.
In any event, this is a truly beautiful coin and is one of my absolute favorites. As Tschoegl summed up: The MTT was “a unique phenomenon for its combination of longevity and geographical spread… many countries’ consumers used a coin that bore the portrait a 200 year-old monarch of a state that no longer existed and was of a denomination long superseded.”
Who knows? As cryptocurrency starts to gain more mainstream acceptance, maybe some creator will name one after Maria Theresa. There are certainly worse strategies than associating your newfangled currency that most people don’t understand to one of the most successful and popular coins in the history of the world.