Where the Dollar Sign Comes From

Daven Hiskey June 9, 2010 26
Dollar SignToday I Found Out where the dollar sign ($) comes from.

This symbol first showed up in the 1770s, appearing in documents of English-Americans who had business dealings with Spanish-Americans.  However, it wasn’t until the very early 1800s that it became popularized, around the same time as the first official U.S. dollars were being minted.  Previous to this, the symbol had already been in use as an abbreviation for names of Spanish currency, namely as an abbreviation for the Spanish peso “p”.

So how do you get from a “p” to the dollar sign, “$”?  When writing financial documents referring to pesos, it was common to abbreviate the peso, for instance, “1 peso” to “1 p”.  However, when pluralized, as in “1000 pesos”, it becomes “ps“.  Now when writing up financial documents and having to write “ps” numerous times, it started to become common among the English-American colonists to merge the “p” and the super scripted “s” as one.  The top half of this symbol then produces something looking very much like a double vertical lined dollar sign.  In an even further bout of laziness, it became common among the English-American colonists to write the “p” with just one downward stroke vertically slashing the “s”, thus the ‘$’.  In some of the earliest documents containing this short hand, it was common to see both the double slashed version as well as the single slashed version in the same document, referring to the same thing, the Spanish peso.

How then did this symbol that originally denoted pesos spread to also denote the U.S. dollar?  Around the same time the U.S. was minting its first dollar coins, in 1792, Spanish currency was extensively circulated in the U.S. and around the world.  In large part due to this, the U.S. chose to design the U.S. dollar coins to duplicate the Spanish coins, in terms of matching the material and weight, hence value (at the time, the coins were made of silver and valued after the price of silver).  Doing this allowed the U.S. coin to be exchanged for a peso in a 1 to 1 exchange.  Thus, it was natural to use the same symbol to denote the U.S. dollar as was used for the Spanish peso.

Bonus Facts:

  • One interesting thing to note here is that it was the English-American colonists who first started merging the “ps“, which eventually formed the dollar sign.  So while the dollar sign was first referring to the peso, it was the English-Americans who “invented” the symbol.  This is only noteworthy because it explains why we write dollar based monetary sums as “$10″ instead of “10$”, as the Spanish-Americans would have written it.  Having the symbol proceed the numeric value was the common custom with the English pound and thus with the English-American colonists.
  • You will also occasionally hear that the dollar sign actually comes from superimposing the “U” and “S” from United States on top of each other, but this is proven false in Cajori’s book, written in 1929, “History of Mathematical Notations Volume 2“;  here he references some of the earliest documents containing the “$” symbol, which not only were referring to the peso in terms of the usage in those documents, but preceded the United States, so named, and also preceded the U.S. dollar.
  • Yet another popular incorrect theory held by many is that the dollar sign was derived from the “pieces of 8″ in the Spanish currency, with the 8 forming the “S” and the slash through it to denote currency.  But once again, the earliest documents using this symbol clearly show that it is derived and used interchangeably with the “ps“, which denoted pesos, not the smaller coinage “pieces of 8″.
  • The name ‘dollar’ derived from the word ‘thaler’ which is an abbreviation for the word “Joachimsthaler”, a coin type from the city of Joachimsthal (Jáchymov) in Bohemia, where some of the first such coins were minted in 1516.

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26 Comments »

  1. Jay Kal June 15, 2010 at 12:38 am - Reply

    I believe you have been mislead.
    The $ sign came from the Potosi Bolivia.
    This was the place where Silver was mined and deployed to the rest of the world in coins for around 300 years, the name of the coin was Real Potosi.
    Potosi’s Mint stamp was PTS all letters stamped on top of each other.
    This coin was in circulation around most of the known world and thus when written quickly PTS became $

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey June 15, 2010 at 1:34 am - Reply

      @Jay kal: and your source for this is?

  2. ejsjaj June 15, 2010 at 4:31 am - Reply

    I once read on the Inet (reliable source) that the two strokes on the S came from the columns in the Spanish coat of arms….

  3. My-Gate.NET June 15, 2010 at 6:21 am - Reply

    I know that you can’t always trust Wikipedia, but it does support blog post!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dollar_sign

    But it does also show diffrent version for the origin…

    My-Gate.NET

  4. Will June 15, 2010 at 8:10 am - Reply

    Thanks for the well researched and interesting tidbit and thorough coverage! I especially enjoyed your clarification of common myths and inclusion of multiple sources.

    @ Jay Kal An interesting possibility, where could we find out more about this?

  5. Ghoti June 15, 2010 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    Intriguing. I’d heard just last year from my Latin professor that the dollar sign was a initial abbreviation of the Roman sestertius, otherwise abbreviated as HS in documents written by such persons as Cicero. By combining the H and the S of the great Roman Empire’s currency, you get a S with two strokes.

    ‘course, he didn’t say any source, but–well, it made the Latin students feel special. This peso theory–er, hypothesis–probably fact, actually–doesn’t make me feel as happy (ha ha!) but it’s nice to know as well.

  6. Bhalper June 15, 2010 at 12:52 pm - Reply

    Old US postage stamps from the late 1800′s have a U superimposed on top of an S.

    It honestly seems a little backwards for the symbol for the Peso to be modified and adopted throughout the US when original colonies were all English. Shortening the superimposed “US” to the single stroke dollar sign seems much more logical.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey June 15, 2010 at 3:43 pm - Reply

      It seems logical, but primary documents from the age show it is from the PS in Pesos as explained in the article.

  7. Rattus June 15, 2010 at 10:14 pm - Reply

    The prediction about the US population is that spanish will be the language spoken by the majority in the USA by 2050, so maybe the Peso will replace the dollar anyway.

  8. FM June 16, 2010 at 1:05 am - Reply

    I was led to believe that the Dollar was originally called the Simoleon before it became the latter name and that the stroke or strokes were added to denote it was a currency symbol and more importantly, to separate it away from the alphabetical letter “S” to avoid confusion.

  9. Wiseman June 16, 2010 at 1:27 am - Reply

    All symbols in the finance world comes from esoteric sources and is never coincidences.

    The dollar sign is a contraction of the name of godess Isis. You also then have the represenation in Venus, which is again represented by the color green, which gives the dollar bill its color.

  10. Nadia June 16, 2010 at 10:02 am - Reply

    The dollar sign was derived from the Rod of asclepios(It is also known as the asklepian):An ancient symbol associated with astrology, the Greek god Asclepius, and with medicine and healing.It consists of a serpent entwined around a staff. The symbol represents the healing and life giving power of the serpent.(Genesis 3:1-6)

  11. Michael Wilkes June 19, 2010 at 3:18 pm - Reply

    I too heard a story in Spain that the “US dollar sign” (with two vertical bars) comes from the spanish flag’s depiction of the pillars of hercules, and an entwined ribbon/banner that read “non plus ultra” meaning there is nothing beyond.

    With the discovery of the new world, it made sense to simply drop the “non” and come up with “plus ultra” meaning there is always more (and thus fitting for the capitalist expansion that followed, consuming the world’s resources at an alarming rate of course).

  12. nora October 10, 2011 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    I’ve read research into Europe’s west African slave trade records indicate the dollar sign was used to measure the number of slaves — the dollar sign being a symbol for the shackles holding each slave.

    This might be another avenue of search for the source of this symbol.

    It is surprising to me that something as recent as the adoption of dollar sign should have so hazy an explanation in European/American history of symbols. Obviously a philologist (preferrably who is not a racist), needs to be put on the case of the origin of the dollar sign.

  13. adrian October 5, 2012 at 3:07 am - Reply

    I have a signed photo of Stuart Inverness above signature: is a $ looks like crowns at ends of aa points

  14. Bjorn April 17, 2013 at 4:38 am - Reply

    There are a lot of alternate explanations listed here in the comments. But as Daven called for earlier, where are the sources for these explanations ? Logic alone is not definitive; and for that matter neither is wikipedia.

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