Blood and Treasure: The Social and Cultural History of Money during the First World War

How did the First World War change uses and perceptions of money, and what do those changes teach us about popular ideas about government and state, the war and society?

In peacetime, we often use money without a second thought. We spend, save, use, and keep count of it, with little consideration of its value. Money works, like a language does, because everyone tacitly agrees to let it do so.

War, however, can threaten or shatter that consensus. Money can no longer be taken for granted and people start to behave towards it in unusual ways. For example, materiality suddenly has value: gold and silver coins become more attractive than coppers or paper banknotes. The value of fiat currencies fluctuates with the legitimacy and effectiveness of government, prospects of victory, and with the level of trust within society. The very utility of money fluctuates, with commodities such as food or cigarettes sometimes emerging as alternative means of exchange and stores of value. At the extreme, trust collapses and barter replaces the money economy. Hierarchies of value flex, with money sometimes losing priority relative to other intangible or tangible goods such as courage or a new coat. Attitudes to rich and poor change, with profiteers and conspicuous consumers attracting suspicion, opprobrium, or worse. Money offers a unifying focus for patriotism or, for populations under enemy occupation, serves as a daily sign of foreign oppression. Saving can become an expression of patriotism and confidence in ultimate victory, or an unwelcome duty driven by peer pressure.


This research project, informed by diverse disciplines such as economics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and history, will explore such themes via two strands. The first is a historical research project on money during the First World War: drawing on archival resources and museum collections, including those of the Imperial War Museum (IWM), it will explore the 'functional instability' of money in wartime and investigate themes of societal trust, government legitimacy and patriotism from a new perspective which complements and goes beyond existing works of economic and financial history.

The second strand aims to stimulate public debate about the nature of money by raising awareness of the IWM's collection relating to money and finance. The Fellowship will integrate study of IWM collections into this research project.

Research team

Outputs and engagement

There will be a series of public lectures, and a collaboration with the IWM on the design of a major public season on the topic of Money in Wartime.