Latvian National Currency – the Lats
The Latvian lats was a symbol of independence. Its banknotes and coins were decorated with characters and values that represent our cultural heritage. Not only was the lats a symbol of our culture, but also a celebrated design item. Over the years, Latvia’s top designers were invited to play their part in ensuring that the banknotes and coins were not only functional, but also pieces of art.
The story of the lats dates back to 3 August, 1922, when the Latvian government introduced its policy on money, which lead to the founding of the Bank of Latvia and determined the national currency.
Rihards Zariņš (1869−1939) was the designer behind the first ever lats banknote, which was released on 22 November, 1922. He was the head of the national printing press whose designs paved the way for Latvia’s money to become such a strong cultural icon. Between 1922 and 1940 he was also responsible for most designs to enter into circulation.
Other artists followed Zariņš’ example of telling the story of Latvia through its money. Graphic artist Kārlis Krauze (1904−1942) is known for his ten lats note, depicting the sower and his farm, while Jānis Šternbergs (1900−1981) created a one hundred lats note featuring a young couple of farmers.
Being as detailed and descriptive as they were, and featuring such easily recognisable scenes and symbols, many notes received nicknames. Zariņš’ twenty lats note, for example, became known as Sējējs (the Sower). His one hundred lats note is also famous. On it, the folk maid with her tools symbolised industry in Latvia, and the young farmer with her sheaf of grain and basketful of fruit and veg stood for agriculture.
Lat coins did not receive any less attention, and artists Rihards Zariņš, Ludolfs Liberts (1895−1959), Arturs Apinis (1904−1975) and Jānis Roberts Tilbergs (1880–1972) got involved in their design.
The best known is Zariņš’ five lats coin with the profile of a folk maid on it, also known as Milda. Folk maids or tautumeitas are a symbol of moral purity and dedicated work ethic.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the coin was often transformed into a brooch or pendant. This became popular once again in the 1980s and 1990s when remaining five lats coins became a symbol of patriotism and a sign against the Soviet occupation.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the lats was reintroduced in 1993 with the official verdict of the Republic of Latvia’s Money Reform Committee. The first banknote to be reintroduced was the five lats banknote on 12 February, which was gradually followed by the other denominations.
The Bank of Latvia’s Committee on Currency Design had already set out that the designs should be contemporary and untraditional yet simple, and should represent our cultural heritage and key 20th and 21st century events and characters. In charge of the design were screen printing expert Valdis Ošiņš (1958) and architect Imants Žodžiks (1955). By that stage, they did the work on a computer.
On the five lats note was a holy oak, while the River Daugava adorned the ten lats note. The twenty lats note featured a traditional homestead, and the fifty lats note – a sailing ship that symbolised Rīga as a member of the Hanseatic League. The one hundred lats note bore significant folklorist Krišjānis Barons (1835–1923) (best known for collecting and systematising Latvian folk songs; Barons was a symbol for the national awakening), and the five hundred lats note gave centre stage once again to the folk maid from the historical five lats coin.
Graphic designer Gunārs Lūsis (1950) was responsible for designing the santims (santīms) and lats coins of which the smaller denominations featured stylised Latvian ornaments to represent the sun and the day. With an image of a pine tree on it, the fifty santims coin represented the forest, while the one lats coin with its salmon symbolised water, and the two lats coin with a cow represented the land.
Starting in 2001, twice a year, the Bank of Latvia released limited edition one lats coins which remain a popular collectors’ item. The twenty-four special edition coins feature much loved characters, such as a stork, a hedgehog, an ant, a snowman, Sprīdītis (one of Latvian author’s Anna Brigadere (1861−1933) characters), a Namejs ring (a silver ring which represents the regions of Latvia and their unity, and is worn to show one’s Latvian nationality) and a chimney-sweep (Latvians believe that touching the button of a chimney-sweep’s uniform brings luck).
Since 1996, the Bank of Latvia has also released ninety-eight commemorative coins from precious metals. Designed by artists, including Ilmārs Blumbergs (1943−2016), Jānis Strupulis (1949) and Ligita Franckeviča (1947), the coins have gone down in history for their artistic and technical quality, as well as the imagery.
Initially, Latvia was expected to introduce the euro in 2008, so, in 2004, the Bank of Latvia launched an open call competition for what imagery to place on the Latvian euro coins. Ilze Kalniņa submitted the winning idea and suggested the folk maid. Meanwhile, the cent coins are adorned with Latvia’s coat of arms, and the graphic design is the work of artist Laimonis Šēnbergs (1947).
Eventually, Latvia joined the Eurozone on 1 January, 2014, becoming the eighteenth Eurozone country. In fact, the symbolism and high artistic quality of lats was even a strong enough argument for some to take a stance against the introduction of the euro to Latvia. For a national currency to hold such profound meaning to a nation is very significant, hence the Bank of Latvia’s Coin Design Committee maintained its work and traditions of excellence in design also within the Eurozone, continuing the release of limited edition design euro coins twice a year, and commemorative coins for special occasions.
It is interesting to take a deeper look into the history of Latvia’s money since it reveals so much about our nation, history and values. To provide insight, the National Library of Latvia has set up an exhibition on the third floor of its main building. When visiting, you’ll notice that each floor of the library has a different colour scheme. Each of the colours represents a former lats banknote.
Ramona Umblija on Latvian lats in the Latvian Cultural Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Announcement of defective 5 roubles and 10 roubles treasury note copies. (1919). Rīga, National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Description of the 10 lats courterfeit No. 3. (1930). Rīga, National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Draft law on Latvian money. (192?). [Rīga]. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Currency notes and coins of the Bank of Latvia: [booklet]. (1997). Rīga: Latvijas Banka. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Anniversary and commemorative coins: [brochure]. (2006). [Rīga]: Latvijas Banka. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Ramona Umblija on Latvian lats in the Latvian Cultural Canon, 2008.
Ducmane, Kristīne. (2004). Nauda: [enciklopēdija par savu un svešu naudu Latvijā no seniem laikiem līdz mūsdienām]. Rīga: Zvaigzne.
Ducmane, Kristīne. (2013). Naudas laiki Latvijā: no mārkas un vērdiņa līdz latam un eiro. Rīga: Lauku Avīze.
Nauda ar Latvijas dvēseli. Lats. (2013). Rīga: DD Stils.
Vēciņš, Ēvalds. (2000-2009). Nauda Latvijā XX gadsimtā: katalogs: 2 daļās 5 sējumos. Rīga: Zvaigzne ABC.