What is the origin and history of the dollar sign?

The dollar, the standard unit for money in the United States, Canada, Australia, Mexico, and several other countries, has a fascinating history, and so does the sign which is generally used to represent it. The word “dollar” comes from the German word “Thaler,” which is an abbreviation of “Joachimsthaler.” Joachimsthal is a little town in Bohemia, which, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, a rich silver mine was discovered. The feudal lords of the town had coins made that were soon used all over Europe because of its excellence. These and similar other coins were called “Joachimushaters” or simply “Thalers.”

Coins of similar values were also issued in Spain. These coins were called “pieces of eight” because their value was divided into eight smaller coins. All these coins circulated in the colonies found in both North and South America. In North America, they were simply called dollars.

When the United States was founded, the word “dollar” was adopted by its people for its unit of coinage, since the people there have already become accustomed to using the term for their money, but the sign for their new coins was that of the old Spanish piece of eight. This sign showed the figure 8, which resembled the letter S, with two vertical lines at the center representing the Pillars of Hercules, the gateway between the Atlantic and Mediterranean at the southernmost tip of Spain.

Regarding the Pillars of Hercules, the first recorded use of its symbol was by Ferdinand II of Aragon, who adopted it in 1492. The symbol was then modified and adopted by Christopher Columbus, who changed Ferdinand II’s phrase “Non plus ultra” to “Plus ultra,” which means “further beyond.” The Pillars of Hercules, under Columbus’ usage, became the symbol for the New World or the Western Hemisphere. The S on the dollar sign is said to be the banner that is placed horizontally on the Pillars of Hercules, and it was eventually placed vertically and enlarged to look like what the dollar sign is today.

The earliest form of the dollar sign was used by Charles V to indicate possessions that came from America. Because of its popularity, the dollar sign was then adopted to be stamped on Spanish coins. The Spanish dollar then became the first global currency in the world. The coins then began to spread throughout Europe, Asia, and America, and most of the countries found in the said continents eventually adopted the dollar sign in their money, including the United States, who created the US dollar after they gained independence from Great Britain.

The sign has nothing to do with the letter S, nor was it, as many people believe, originally formed by placing a narrow U under an S to form the monogram of the United States.

The theory that the dollar sign stands for “US” came from the papers written by James Alton James, a professor at Northwestern University who taught history from 1897 to 1935. According to James, the modern dollar sign is supposed to be a modified version of the one created by one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Robert Morris. The United States government also believed in the theory by creating a $1 note in 1869 that has a symbol wherein the letter U is intersecting the letter S.

Robert Morris was the first American who utilized the US dollar sign for documents officially filed by the government. However, Morris based his design on the already existing Spanish dollar sign. The US sign was then first cast at a foundry located in Philadelphia in 1797. It was cast by John Baine, who is considered as the “father of type-founding.” However, the US dollar sign did not become popular instantly, as the Americans have become used to using Spanish dollars. The US dollar only became the most common currency in the country when the government passed the Coinage Act of 1857, which aimed to demonetize foreign currencies. Despite the popularity of the dollar sign’s usage in the US after 1857, the symbol did not appear on official US coins until 2007.

In computing and coding, the dollar sign serves different purposes in encoding and programming, as computer languages would often need more symbols to represent character sets other than numbers and letters of the alphabet.