Many suggestions have been made about the origin of the dollar symbol $, one of the commonest being that it derives from the figure 8, representing the Spanish ‘piece of eight’. The word ‘dollar’ itself derives from the Flemish or Low German word daler (in German taler or thaler), short for Joachimstaler, referring to a coin from the silver mines of Joachimstal, in Bohemia (now Jáchymov in the Czech Republic). The term was later applied to a coin used in the Spanish-American colonies and also in the British North American colonies at the time of the American War of Independence. It was adopted as the name of the US currency unit in the late 18th century.
Spain’s coat of arms
A common hypothesis holds that the sign derives from the Spanish coat of arms, which showed the Pillars of Hercules with a banner curling between them. In 1492, Ferdinand II of Aragon adopted the symbol of the Pillars of Hercules and added the Latin warning Non plus ultra meaning “nothing further beyond”, indicating “this is the end of the (known) world”. But when Christopher Columbus came to America, the legend was changed to Plus ultra, meaning “further beyond”. The Pillars of Hercules wrapped in a banner thus became a symbol of the New World. The link between this symbol and the dollar sign is more clearly seen in Spanish coins of the period – which show two pillars, each with a separate banner, rather than one baner spanning both pillars. In this example the right-hand pillar clearly resembles the dollar sign.
The symbol was adopted by Charles V and was part of his coat of arms representing Spain’s American possessions. The symbol was later stamped on coins minted in gold and silver. The coin, also known as Spanish dollar, was the first global currency used in the entire world since the Spanish Empire was the first global Empire. These coins, depicting the pillars over two hemispheres and a small “S”-shaped ribbon around each, were spread throughout America, Europe and Asia. According to this, traders wrote signs that, instead of saying Spanish dollar (piece of eight, real de a ocho in Spanish or peso duro), had this symbol made by hand, and this in turn evolved into a simple S with two vertical bars. When the US got independence from the UK, they created the American dollar, but in the first decades they still used the Spanish dollar because they were more popular in all markets.
A dollar sign with two vertical lines could have started off as a monogram of ‘USA’, used on money bags issued by the United States Mint. The letters U and S superimposed resemble the historical double-stroke dollar sign Cifrão symbol.svg: the bottom of the ‘U’ disappears into the bottom curve of the ‘S’, leaving two vertical lines. It is postulated from the papers of Dr. James Alton James, a professor of history at Northwestern University from 1897 to 1935, that the symbol with two strokes was an adapted design of the patriot Robert Morris in 1778. Robert Morris was such a zealous patriot – known as the “Financier of the Revolution in the West” – that conjecture does not overstep its bounds in purporting this hypothesis as viable. A similar idea claims that the letters U and S would stand for unit of silver, referencing pieces of eight again, but that is unlikely since one would expect it to be in Spanish instead.
Another hypothesis is that it derives from the symbol used on a German Thaler. According to Ovason (2004), on one type of thaler one side showed a crucifix while the other showed a serpent hanging from a cross, the letters NU near the serpent’s head, and on the other side of the cross the number 21. This refers to the Bible, Numbers, Chapter 21 (see Nehushtan). A similar symbol, constructed by superposition of “S” and “I” or “J”, was used to denote German Joachimsthaler (“S” and “J” standing for St. Joachim who gave his name to the place where the first thalers were minted). It was known in the English-speaking world by the 17th century, appearing in 1686 edition of An Introduction to Merchants’ Accounts by John Collins.
But the best attested story on the origins of the “$” is something else altogether. Can you guess it? Send your best guess to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Winners will get a $20 coupon, good for $20 off any in-store purchase. If wrong, the first 20 people who respond with get a $10 consolation coupon! Let us hear from you.