It’s probable that in these abnormal times, you’ve been mainly using some form of contactless payment for your financial transactions, but even now there are probably smaller payments that you might still use cash for—a coffee or tip perhaps. Something you may not have noticed about your dollar bills is that there is no dollar symbol ($) on them—only the word “dollar” written in full. So how does a symbol like an S with one or two vertical strokes through it come to be associated with a dollar? After all, there’s no S in dollar. Though Andy Warhol’s take in his “Dollar Sign” series of silkscreen prints (1981) has achieved much artistic status (and $$$ value), there is no record that the symbol was ever designed, as such.
The pound sign (£) signifying British currency is present on all its notes (at least in the denominations I’ve ever had access to) and it does have a considerable history, but again, why is it something that looks like an L with a crossbar? There’s no L in pound—or is there? In the so-called Dark Ages of Anglo-Saxon Britain, that followed the departure of the Romans in the early 400s CE, the indigenous population continued to use the Roman unit of weight, the “libra pondo” in Latin (which freely translates as “pound by weight”—“libra” meaning scales). In a cultural shift, they used its symbol, L, to denote specifically one pound of silver as a unit of wealth, representing vast riches in those times. The horizontal crossbar was added much later to indicate that it is a symbol, not a letter. There is documentary proof that the present British form of a cursive L with a crossbar or two was in use by 1661. Incidentally, the abbreviation, lb, for “pound by weight,” also comes directly from the Latin “libra” and most European languages have identical or similarly derived words for pound (French “livre;” Spanish “libra;” Italian “libra”).
The history of the dollar symbol is not as clear-cut, though two of the current theories involve Spain. The most widely accepted of the two relates to the shortage of British currency in the colonies before the War of Independence that prompted much trade between Spanish Americans and British Americans. Later, the Coinage Act of 1792 specified the makeup of an American dollar coin by weighing a batch of Spanish dollars obtained by Alexander Hamilton, who was treasury secretary at the time. This made the two currencies effectively equal in value and interchangeable. The peso or “peso de ocho reales” remained legal tender in the U.S. until the much later Coinage Act of 1857. It was the most stable and least debased currency in the western world during this period, supported by the riches of the New World. The Spanish dollar or peso was denoted by the abbreviation “ps” and historians have noted that sloppy penmanship among time-pressed traders led to the S being written over the P, merging with it and losing the P’s curve to form the dollar sign we know today.
The Spanish dollar or peso de ocho reales (“piece of eight”) evokes in me an idealized image from childhood of one-legged Long John Silver with his eye patch and the parrot on his shoulder squawking “pieces of eight.” An iconic image of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island. For that flimsy reason alone, I find the second theory more attractive, as it centers on the Spanish coat of arms that embellished the “piece of eight” coin for decades. The arms are supported each side by pillars representative of the Greek “Pillars of Hercules,” the twin promontories that guard the Strait of Gibraltar and the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. Twined around each pillar is a banner and the representation doesn’t need much imagination to see these as dollar signs, especially after one or two rum punches.
A third rather mundane theory refers to the money bags issued by the then U.S. Mint, which carried a monogram with the letters U and S superimposed—the bottom of the U merging with the lower curve of the S leaving two vertical lines. It seems a pity if this unromantic explanation is the real one.
The dollar symbol can be written with one or two vertical lines, and the same symbol is employed for more than 20 other countries’ currencies. To be specific in identifying currencies adopting the dollar symbol, it is usual to prefix the dollar sign with a reference letter or two; for example, A$ for Australian dollars. There are also conventions for whether the symbol precedes the monetary number or follows it. For instance, $5 is the nomenclature used in the English-speaking part of Canada, while 5$ is used in French-speaking Quebec. Most of the world prefers to express the symbol first so that a criminal cannot add extra digits before the number.
Just as the £ sign can use one or two crossbars, the dollar sign can use either one or two vertical lines, but the first documented use of the dollar symbol on an American financial instrument is a bond signed by former President George Washington, dated January 17, 1792, on which he writes the single line version. An anti-English Scot named Archibald Binney, who was also the creator of the original Monticello typeface, produced the first printed version on a Philadelphia press in the later 1790s.
Nowadays, apart from its fame in denoting one of the world’s leading currencies, it has found uses, unrelated to money, in the computer world for programming and command languages, aided by its presence on the standard computer keyboard. Though the symbol may be represented differently in different fonts, they all have the same computer “code point,” which ensures the right symbol is selected despite differing fonts. It also ensures that the automatic substitution routine computers use for an absent font will always display the correct character.
Some mystery, therefore, still surrounds the true origin of the dollar symbol, but where does the word dollar itself come from? Clue: not from the Americas or Spain. To find out, read next month’s article!
© David Cuin 2021