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Where did the dollar sign come from?


If you’re wondering where the dollar sign ($) came from, you’re in good company. No one really knows for sure, and several theories have emerged over the years. The most widely accepted explanation, according to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, goes back to the Spanish peso, which was accepted as the basic unit of value in colonial America during the late 1700s. Handwritten manuscripts dating to that time show that the peso—formally “peso de ocho reales” or “piece of eight” in America—was abbreviated PS. It’s believed that as time went on, the abbreviation was often written so that the S was on top of the P, producing an approximation of the $ symbol. The $ first appeared in print after 1800, and was widely used by the time the first U.S. paper dollar was issued in 1875.

Though the PS theory is now widely accepted, various alternate explanations have been proposed over the years for how this ubiquitous symbol came into existence. One of the most popular came from libertarian philosopher and author Ayn Rand, who in her 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged” included a chapter on the dollar sign, which she claimed was a symbol not only of American currency but of the nation’s economic freedom. According to Rand, the dollar sign (written with two downward slashes instead of one) came from the initials of the United States: A capital U superimposed over a capital S, minus the lower part of the U. No documentary evidence exists to support this theory, however, and it seems clear the dollar sign was already in use by the time the United States was formed.


The Dollar BillCollector

Although experiments with paper money did occur throughout the early history of the country, they were largely unsuccessful. People, for good reason, didn't trust the notes and preferred gold and silver coin. In 1861, needing money to finance the Civil War, Congress authorized the issuance of Demand notes in $5, $10 and $20 denominations. The Demand notes were so named because they were redeemable in coin "on demand." The notes were nicknamed Greenbacks, a name which is still in use today to refer to United States currency.

The first $1 bill was issued in 1862 as a Legal Tender Note with a portrait of Salmon P. Chase, the Treasury Secretary under President Abraham Lincoln.

The National Banking Act of 1863 established a national banking system and a uniform national currency. Banks were required to purchase U.S. government securities as backing for their National Bank Notes. Although United States Notes were still widely accepted, most paper currency circulating between the Civil War and World War I were National Bank Notes. They were issued from 1863 through 1932. From 1863 to 1877 National Bank Notes were printed by private bank note companies under contract to the Federal government. The Federal government took over printing them in 1877.

Gold certificates, were first issued in 1863 and put into general circulation in 1865. The severe economic crisis of the 1930s - better known as the Great Depression - resulted in runs on the banks and demands by the public for gold. In 1934 all Gold Certificates were called in from the Federal Reserve Banks and between the years 1934 and 1974 it was illegal for US Citizens to hold gold bullion or certificates.

Silver certificates were first issued in exchange for silver dollars in 1878. For many years silver certificates were the major type of currency in circulation. However, in the early 1960s when rising silver prices threatened to undermine the currency system, Congress eliminated silver certificates and also discontinued the use of silver in circulating coinage such as dimes and quarters.

The current design of the United States one dollar bill ($1) technically dates to 1963 when the bill became a Federal Reserve Note as opposed to a Silver Certificate. However, many of the design elements that we associate with the bill were established in 1929 when all of the country's currency was changed to its current size. Collectors call today's notes "small size notes" to distinguish them from the older, larger formats. The most notable and recognizable element of the modern one dollar bill is the portrait the first president, George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart.

The one dollar bill issued in 1929 (under Series of 1928) was a silver certificate. The treasury seal and serial numbers on it were dark blue. The reverse had a large ornate ONE superimposed by ONE DOLLAR. These $1 Silver Certificates were issued until 1934.

In 1933, $1 United States Notes were issued to supplement the supply of $1 Silver Certificates. Its treasury seal and serial numbers were red. Only a small number of these $1 bills entered circulation and the rest were kept in treasury vaults until 1949 when they were issued in Puerto Rico.

In 1934, under Washington's portrait, the words ONE SILVER DOLLAR were changed to ONE DOLLAR due to the fact that Silver Certificates could be redeemed for silver bullion. The treasury seal was moved to the right and superimposed over ONE, and a blue numeral 1 was added to the left.

In 1935, design changes included changing the blue numeral 1 to gray, the treasury seal was made smaller and superimposed by WASHINGTON D.C., and a stylized ONE DOLLAR was added over the treasury seal. The reverse was also changed to its current design, except for the absence of IN GOD WE TRUST.

The World War II years featured several special printings including the Hawaii overprints. The Government was concerned that Hawaii might be lost to the Japanese and wanted to be able to devalue the money should this invasion occur.

In 1957 the $1 bill became the first U.S. currency to bear the motto IN GOD WE TRUST.

In 1963 production of one dollar Federal Reserve Notes began to replace the $1 Silver Certificate. The border design on the front was completely redesigned and the serial numbers and treasury seal were printed in green ink.

In 1969 the $1 bill began using the new treasury seal with wording in English instead of Latin.


Why do we call it a 'dollar'?

Many people are fascinated by etymology, and will happily spend a large amount of time tracing some specific word’s history, looking back through hundreds of years of history in search of lexical information. While we are always happy to see people indulge their passion for language, we must also say that in many cases the story of a word’s history is likely to be a rather dry affair. If you are at a dinner party, and someone tries to engage you in small talk by telling you the interesting story of a word such as posh there is a good chance that the word’s history will not actually be as supposed.

It all begins, logically enough (if you accept a somewhat loose definition of “logically”), in a small mountain town in northwestern Bohemia, named Jáchymov. In the beginning of the 16th century this town (located in what today is the Czech Republic) was known by its German name, Sankt Joachimsthal, which may be translated as “dale (or valley) of Joachim.” This may not seem yet like it allows a logical path to the modern dollar, but it will.

About the beginning of the 16th century the Count of Schlick (a name that comes from genuine history books, and not from a Lemony Snicket novel) opened a mine in this town, and from its ore began to mint and issue a good amount of silver coin. William Lyman Fawcett, in his Gold and Debt an American Handbook of Finance (1879) informs us that these coins were “of uniform weight and fineness” and that “traders of the time were in want of some international standard,” and so “these coins soon became in good repute all over Europe under the names of Schlicken thalers or Joachim’s thalers.”

The second of these names, more often written as joachimstaler, appeared to have had more success than did schlicken thaler, although it did not last for a terribly long time. Soon the name of this coin became shortened to the German taler, and from there became daler. By the middle of the 16th century the English language had added daler to its vocabulary, used in reference to an increasing variety of coins from Europe and elsewhere which were being so described.

The dollar was proposed as the monetary unit of the United States in the early 1780s, and adopted formally in 1792 (although they were not actually issued as currency until 1794). Since that time our language has taken on a remarkable number of synonyms for this word for “100 cents,” often found in the form of slang. We have paid for things with bones, bucks, smackers (and smackeroos), clams, iron men (for silver dollars), plunks, and simoleons.

Although the list of slang and colloquial terms for the dollar (and other denominations of our currency, such as Benjamin for the $100 bill, which bears the portrait of Benjamin Franklin) is long and quite creative, we are sad to report that the word based on the long-dead Count appears to have been largely overlooked. If you are of a mind to try to introduce a new bit of slang for the dollar, and would like to spice your coinage with a degree of historical flair you could certainly do worse than schlickenthaler.


So, Just Where Did The ' You&rsquoll Never Guess Why the Dollar Sign is an S

It&aposs usually pretty easy to figure out where our most common symbols come from. Take the trademark symbols, for example: ® means registered © means copyright and ™ means trademark. Fahrenheit (F) and cents (c) are equally intuitive.

Then how did we begin using an uppercase S with one or two lines through it ($) to represent U.S. dollars?

In one popular origin story, the dollar sign started as a U on top of an S, as shorthand for "United States." Over time, the bottom of the U disappeared, leaving the S with two lines through it. Later it was simplified to only one line. Makes sense, right?

The real story, however, is a bit more complicated, and it begins in Europe.

According to Reader&aposs Digest, the tale begins in the sixteenth century, when Spanish explorers found massive quantities of silver in their newly-conquered South American lands—lands that would later become Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia. Swimming in silver, Spain went to town minting silver coins known as "pieces of eight," or peso de ocho— "pesos" for short. The silver supply in Europe was dwindling at this time, allowing the Spanish peso to replace the German joachimsthaler (the root of the word "dollar") as the primary coin for international trade. And so the "Spanish dollar" was born.

Rather than write out the whole word, merchants began using a P with a superscript S (ps) as an abbreviation for "pesos." Over time that morphed into an overlapping P and S, which eventually became an S with only the stem of the P: An S with a line through it.

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English American colonists where the first to use the symbol, which began showing up in documents around 1770—six years before the birth of the United States.

Now, almost 250 years later, the good old $ sign is nearly as iconic as the American flag… and you can take that to the bank!


The origin of the dollar

A mining hole in the mountains of Bohemia produced so much silver it became the official source of coinage for the entire Holy Roman Empire.

The mine was in a valley called Joachimsthal, and the coins came to have the same name: “Joachimstalers.” Over time this became shortened to “Talers” and over more time, the American pronunciation of the word became the name for the currency that you would like to have in your pocket.

The above image is the silver coin first struck as a “Guldiner” in 1486 in Tyrol. The name “Taler” was first given to the silver coin of the same size struck in Joachimstal in Bohemia.

The $ sign

The $ sign was designed in 1788 by Oliver Pollock, a New Orleans businessman, using a combination of Spanish money symbols.

The $ sign is used in many countries other than the United States, including the use for the Argentine peso, Brazilian real, Cape Verde escudo, Chilean peso, Colombian peso, Cuban peso, Dominican peso, Mexican peso, Tongan pa’anga and Uruguayan peso.

Some countries trade their currency as dollars but with different symbols: Australia, Bahamas, Canada, Liberia and others.

Weight of $1 million

If you stack one million US$1 bills, it would be 361 ft (110 m) high and weight exactly 1 ton.

A million dollars’ worth of $100 bills weighs only 22 lb (10 kg).

One million dollars’ worth of once-cent coins (100 million coins) weighs 246 tons.

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That creepy eye on the back of the dollar bill, explained

First thing to remember: There are lots of conspiracy theories about the dollar bill’s eye and pyramid. I wanted to see which ones were most popular. So I headed to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in downtown Washington, to do my own, informal street survey.

First up, Ginny Cochran — who actually works at the Mint. Her theory: “Something to do with the Masons, and I know it goes farther back than that.”

Well – it does go way back, to the founding of our country. Some of the founding fathers were Masons, and the eye has become a Masonic symbol. But it was actually added by an engraver who wasn’t a Mason.

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“The official term is that’s the eye of providence. The eye of God, in some general way,” says Steven Bullock, a history professor at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

So, OK, but where did the pyramid come from? The next theory from my impromptu survey comes from 9 year-old Brian Bush.

“Maybe King Tut? That might be his pyramid?” he asks.

Brian had just finished touring the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. He says they didn’t mention the dollar bill’s pyramid on the tour. The conspiracy theorists would say, they don’t want us to know. But actually, Brian’s onto something.

“The pyramid was seen as the kind of human structure that lasted out the ages,” says Bill Ellis, a professor emeritus of American Studies at Penn State.

He says the founding fathers wanted the country to last as long as the pyramids.

But the pyramid and eye didn’t show up on the dollar bill until 1935. They started out as part of our Great Seal. FDR added them to the dollar.

That brings us to our next conspiracy theory, c ourtesy of Andrew Epting, who was waiting for a bus near the Mint.

“New world order. It’s very folklorish,” he says about the back of the dollar.

“New order.” It does say that, in Latin, under the pyramid. Historians say that refers to the birth of a new country. And FDR liked the way it jived with his New Deal. But, for conspiracy theorists, the words “new order” on the dollar bill were a signal that the U.S. government had been taken over by evil forces.

“I’m glad we have video games [and] TV to take people’s minds off some of this stuff nowadays,” he says, laughing.

Of course, some video games actually revolve around conspiracy theories. So, is it any wonder that there’s so much conjecture about such a strange symbol?

Especially since we carry it around in our pockets.

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What is the difference between 20$ and $20?

It is the convention of some countries to put their currency symbol before the number, while others put it after the number.

At least one country has put it in the middle.

So you could assume, in the absence of any context, that the 20$ is a different currency to $20.

In English, the dollar sign is placed before the amount, so the correct order is $20, as others have noted.

However, when you see people using 20$, it's likely they're being influenced by a few different things:

  1. Many other countries (and the Canadian province of Quebec) put the currency symbol after the amount
  2. In spoken English the word dollars follows the amount, e.g. twenty dollars
  3. The sign for cents is placed after the amount: 25¢

Because of these inconsistencies, writing 20$ is a very common mistake. I've been known to do it myself.

In American English, the currency symbol is placed before the amount the same is true for British English.
It is $20, not 20$.

The location of the currency depends on the language in which it appears.

For instance, English texts should use "€ 20" while French ones should use "20 €".

As others have mentioned in passing, those are not the only two possibilities. In France at least, you sometimes find prices written as 19€95, as an alternative to 19,95€ (and yes, the decimal separator there is the comma).

20$ is French-Canadian and $20 is English-Canadian/American.

In Argentina other countries it's the same, $20, I think it's the most widely used convention. Happens the same with Euro €20.
If you think of it as a unit (Not sure if it's considered as such) then it's the only unit I can think of that comes before the number. Consider 23 cm, 6 in, 2"

Edit: removed a mention to a country which doesn't seem to be relevant to this site and the English language.

$20 is conventional, but to throw a wrench in the whole thing: if it is casual correspondence, either way is OK.

For dollars, the correct way is $20. When I see 20$ it means the writer was thinking "twenty dollars" (not "dollars twenty") and accordingly it is natural to type 20$ and if the writer is feeling lazy she will not backspace to correct it. Laziness is more common in casual contexts.

Why all the overcomplication? The difference is that, in English, $20 is the correct way to use the dollar sign, while 20$ is an incorrect way to use the dollar sign. That's all there is to it.

Other languages and currencies are irrelevant to the question. Heck, how the cent sign is used is irrelevant to the question, even though it is arguably the same currency and definitely the same language.

I think that part of putting the symbol preceding the number is to help differentiate between dollars and cents. The dollar symbol always precedes, while the cent symbol always follows. If both were to followed, this could potentially become confusing, as a roughly written S with a vertical strike could be mistaken for a c with a vertical strike.


The History of the Dollar as a Currency

The currency in the United States is the dollar. You probably already knew that.

It is also the name of the currency in over 20 other countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore.

What is a dollar exactly, and why is that the name of the currency in these countries?

Learn more about the history of the dollar on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

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The rise of money as a fungible means of exchange for goods and services was inexorably tied to the use of precious metals such as silver and gold.

These metals had properties which lent themselves to use as a currency, primarily that they were scarce, easy to divide, and were elements. You could melt silver, for example, to create smaller pieces, or melt them together to make larger ones.

Even though these metals were great as stores of wealth and units of exchange, they weren’t always the same. You could blend less expensive metals to create a coin which looked like a normal coin, but had less of the precious metal in it. Likewise, you could shave down a coin to make it slightly smaller, and take the shavings to make a new coin.

Hence, quality coins which had a guaranteed size and purity were more valued than other coins.

With that, we now turn to the Kingdom of Bohemia in the year 1520, where they began minting coins from silver which was mined in a silver mine in the town of Joachimsthal, today known as Jáchymov in the Czech Republic. The name of the town is German coming from St. Joachim and “thal” which is German for valley.

The coins which were produced from this mine in Joachimsthal were called Joachimsthalers. Over time, the first part was dropped and they simply began being called thalers.

The thaler was a large silver coin about the size of an American silver dollar to use as a comparison.

As the coins spread, the term thaler became a generic term for a silver coin of that size, and the word morphed as coins spread.

Thaler became dalar in Scandinavia and dolar in England and the Netherlands.

As other countries began circulating silver coins, they were called dollars. The Netherlands issued a silver coin with a lion on it which became known as the lion dollar or the leeuwendaalder. The first half of that, the lion part, became the basis of currencies in Romania and Bulgaria. The leu and the lev.

Likewise, a Spanish silver coins known as the pieces of eight, were of similar size to the thaler and became known as Spanish dollars.

At this point, you might be asking yourself why did the United States wind up with the word dollar for its currency, when it was a British colony? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the Americans to use pounds?

Both the Dutch and Spanish dollars were circulated in the early Americas, especially the Spanish Dollar, as Spain produced an enormous amount of silver and had an outsized presence in the western hemisphere.

When the American Revolution happened, the colonies issued paper money which was backed with the silver from Spanish dollars. In Virginia, Spanish dollars were even legal currency used in everyday transactions.

In 1792, the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, evaluated the amount of silver found in the Spanish dollar coins which were circulating around the United States.

With this, they created a new United States dollar, based on the silver content of the Spanish dollar. The US dollar had 371 4/16th grains or 24.057 grams or pure silver.

It was also determined that the accounts of the new United States would be in denomination of dollars.

That is how the United States adopted the term dollar for its currency. It is a German word which was adopted for Spanish coins, which were in use in the early colonies.

The definition of a dollar has changed over time. The amount of silver which makes up a dollar went down, and now it has no set value whatsoever. It is just a fiat currency.

So, if that explains the American use, why do other countries like the ones I listed in the introduction use dollars? Most of them were also British colonies at one point and they didn’t have Spanish coins floating around.

This has to do with decimalization. If you remember back to my earlier episode on why the US doesn’t use the metric system, the United States was actually a very early adopter to decimalized currencies.

The British pound used to be divided into shillings, which was 1/20 of a pound, and pence, which were 1/12 of a shilling. That means there were 20 shilling in a pound and 240 pence in a pound.

The US dollar was the second currency after the Russian Ruble to become decimalised, and in the 19th century the word dollar became associated with a decimalized currency.

When many Commonwealth countries moved to a decimalized currency they chose the name dollar to distinguish their currency from the previous pound.

Britain didn’t decimilize their currency until 1971.

The name of coins have similar histories tied to precious metals.

The word penny comes from the term pennyweight. A pennyweight is ?1?240 of a troy pound, which is exactly the same as the ratio of a penny to a British pound. Both of them were units of weight of sterling silver.

The American use of the word penny derives from this, but it is not an official term. Officially it is simply a One-Cent coin. There is a huge debate about getting rid of the penny in the US, but I’ll save that for another episode.

The American and Canadian five-cent coin is known as a nickel due to the metal it is composed of. The nickel has been produced since 1866, and it replaced the silver half-dime coin. The US and Canada are the only countries which call five-cent coins “nickels”.

Speaking of dimes, the word dime comes from the French word of the same pronunciation, which means “tithe”, and a tithe of course is 1/10.

The United States and Canada have 25-cent coins, aka a quarter, whereas most of the rest of the world has 20-cent coins. The reason for this dates back to the Spanish dollars which circulated in the early United States. The coins would regularly be split into eight parts, hence them being called pieces of eight. Each eighth was called a “bit”, and 2 bits made up a quarter.

Countries like Australia which decimalized later just skipped the 25-cent coins as they had no history.

The United States is one of the only countries which still has a paper one-dollar note. This is one of those stubborn things like imperial units which just doesn’t seem to go away. The US has tried circulating dollar coins, but people just don’t seem to use them. You can actually find them in regular use if you go to countries which use the US dollar, like in Ecuador.

The problem with the dollar coins is that they were always too close in size to the quarter. The US Mint hasn’t produced dollar coins for general circulation since 2011 because of the lack of demand.

Finally I’ll end with the origin of the dollar sign.

There are two variants of the dollar sign. One with a capital S with a vertical line running through it, and another with two vertical lines running through it. The two lined variant is called a Cifrão in Portugese.

The one lined variant was originally for the Spanish Peso. The large S indicated Spain, a P was used as a superscript. Eventually, the P and the S were written over each other, and then the round part of the P disappeared, leaving a vertical line through the letter S. The dollar sign is also the peso sign today in Mexico.

The double line variant might have been a monogram of the letters U and S superimposed on each other.

Today, the double line version has fallen out of use and it isn’t even available in the unicode character set on computers.

So in summary, the dollar today comes from a German word, popularized by Dutch and Spanish coins, and spread because of American decimalization.

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The origin of the "$" money sign is not certain. Many historians trace the "$" money sign to either the Mexican or Spanish "P's" for pesos, or piastres, or pieces of eight. The study of old manuscripts shows that the "S" gradually came to be written over the "P" and looking very much like the "$" mark.

Likely the earliest form of currency in America was wampum. Fashioned from beads made of shells and strung in intricate patterns, more than simply money, wampum beads were also used to keep records of significant events in the lives of Indigenous people.

On March 10, 1862, the first United States paper money was issued. The denominations at the time were $5, $10, and $20 and became legal tender on March 17, 1862. The inclusion of the motto "In God We Trust" on all currency was required by law in 1955. It first appeared on paper money in 1957 on One-Dollar Silver Certificates and on all Federal Reserve Notes beginning with Series 1963.


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