ELKTON — Ever wonder where the dollar sign originated? While reviewing the Cecil Whig articles from June 1869, I came across a small feature in the June 19, 1869, edition of the paper that piqued my curiosity.
“Few who daily write this sign $ against certain figures, causing them to represent dollars and cents, are aware of the meaning of the symbol or that it bid its origin in the history of remote antiquity. American youths are educated to believe that the sign was originally a consolidation of the letters U.S., meaning United States currency, and that eventually the curve of the U was omitted, leaving only two parallel perpendicular lines which gradually approached each other till the present form of the character was fixed and became universal. We confess that this has hereto fore been our impression, but as a local editor’s experience with dollars or aught representing the commodity, is very limited, it is probable we were at fault. A historical writer gives the following version of the matter:
‘Spain of the present day was known to the ancients long ere the Europe of Rome arose or Carthage flourished. It was the Tarsus of scripture, and thither the Tyrians sent ships, which returned bringing silver and other products. The rock of Gibraltar and its sister height on the African Shore, were known as the pillars of Hercules, and the two perpendicular lines in $ are supposed to represent the aforesaid pillars, while the curved line is the symbol of the serpent which entered so largely into the worship of the Phœnician mythology. Thus we have Spain symbolized by the pillar and Phœnicia by the serpent. Even in the present day the ‘Pillar Dollar’ enters largely into the commerce of the East, the Spanish dollar having on its reverse two pillars, thus bringing down a tradition of the past into the usages of the present day.’”
Of course digital versions of the symbol abound and many forms simplify the symbol even further, but what I found really interesting is that while there is consensus and background for the origin, there does not seem to be conclusive proof on how the dollar sign was invented. The above article describes two theories for the formation of the symbol which are still wildly popular today. The U.S. theory seems to be wishful thinking on behalf of Robert Morris, who is described as a fervent patriot. He is known to have used the symbol in official documents, but the connection to the monogram of U.S. is a mystery.
The Pillar Dollar theory, which says the symbol originated from markings on Spanish silver, predates most other explanations but seems somewhat ex post facto. However, other explanations seem to tie elements of these two theories together. Another explanation suggests that the symbol originated from the blending of the letters “p” and “s,” which would be shorthand for pesos.
The Spanish American peso, aka “Spanish Dollar” or “piece of eight,” was used in trade early in the country’s history after the American Revolution while an American currency was developed. Even after the American dollar showed up on the scene, the Spanish Dollar was considered legal tender until almost 1860. It is thought that as the peso was used in commerce it was abbreviated in documents to “ps” and then it morphed into the dollar sign we know today.
In an article titled “The Curious Origins of the Dollar Sign,” University of Alabama history professor Joshua Rothman writes of a man named Oliver Pollock who traded with France, Spain and the soon-to-be Americans during the Revolutionary War. Pollock was instrumental in arranging trade during the war that gained American independence and even provided a great deal of funding to further support.
However, Pollock became overcome with debt in the consequent years and had to petition Congress to discharge it. He is said to have kept very detailed records of his financial dealings. He primarily used the Spanish Dollar in his trade which he referred to as peso and abbreviated to “ps.” He provided some of these records to a man named — you guessed it — Robert Morris to petition Congress on his behalf.
Stop in and see us at the Historical Society of Cecil County on Main Street in Elkton to learn about this and many other topics. Access to the digital newspaper collection is free to members and is included in the $5 library fee for non-members.