$$ The Dollar Sign $$

By Nichole Fernández (Editor) 

The symbol of the US dollar looks like this: $. But you don’t need me to tell you that. The dollar sign is so widely recognized that it often surpasses its literal meaning as the symbol for US currency and comes to symbolize money and wealth in general. The dollar sign, in short, has become part of a language of symbols. This bank of socially recognized symbols, placed onto images to communicate an idea is what Judith Williamson refers to as ‘currency of signs’[1]. These reallocated symbols are transformed to create new ideologies, symbols, and realities.  The dollar sign is commonly used in image production to represent not just US currency but money, wealth, success, and – sometimes - to critically represent greed and ostentatious behaviour. The dollar sign is regularly seen in advertising, it has a presence in media, it appears in popular culture (from Ke$ha to Salvador Dalí's mustache dollar sign), and it is widely used in computer coding languages. The symbol surpasses linguistic barriers crossing international borders with its meaning intact and maintaining its widespread recognition. While we immediately understand the symbol’s meaning, we are less aware that it is a modern construction: it was created and designed.

We are more aware of the design of US printed money. It is notoriously shrouded in mystery and hidden symbols. For example the “Eye of Providence”, or the triangle on the dollar bill which sits atop a truncated pyramid, is commonly referred to as a masonic symbol [2]. It is meant to represent the omnipresent all-seeing power of god. The pyramid has thirteen levels representing the original 13 colonies, but it is unfinished because the project of the US is not yet complete [3]. The eye above the unfinished project represents the future aspiration of the US as being divinely destined. US paper money also holds less mysterious and more blatantly national symbols such as important government buildings, monuments, and historical figures. All together these symbols, inscribed on paper money, belong to a family of national symbols created and invented in order to form a national identity and to give the nation necessary historical legitimacy within an international sphere. In order to prove a nation’s right to autonomous rule its origins, history, and traditions are invented and used to legitimize national claims [4]. This creation of history is then imbedded in to the design of national currency. The dollar sign while not ever actually appearing on paper money, is meant to represent this physical currency, with all its symbolic meaning. However the meanings imbedded into the paper money in the US is vastly different from the symbolic meaning we associate with the dollar sign.

The dollar sign symbolizes not much beyond money, greed, and wealth. But it is so engrained into our symbolic language that we forget that - just as the traditions on the dollar bill - it was invented. The dollar sign’s origins are not completely clear. It has been connected to an old Bohemian currency called the thaler, after which the dollar is meant to be named [5]. On the reverse side of the thaler coin was a symbol of a serpent on a cross, an image based on a biblical story in which Moses put a snake through a pole in order to cure any who laid eyes on it [6]. It has therefore been claimed that the dollar sign might represent the biblical story of the serpent. The dollar symbol could also be based on the alchemy symbol of an S on top of the letter T [7]. This was also used as a symbol of the “brazen serpent’ of the bible and represented health to alchemists [8]. Other theories connect the symbol to the “Pillars of Hercules” with the Spanish banner in between, and yet more theories claim the letter 8 played a role in the symbol’s current form because 8 US dollars were equivalent to 1 Spanish real [9]. One of most commonly mentioned origins of the dollar sign is the layering of the letters US, one on top of the other, to create the double strike in the S, however this was called into question by the most commonly cited peso theory [10]. The peso theory claims that due to the trade between the new American colonies and Spain, the Spanish peso was a commonly used currency. The letter P representing the Spanish peso was used in bookkeeping at the time, the plural of pesos being Ps. Through lazy handwriting the P and the S began to combine into one image. Over time the symbol we now know as the dollar sign became the symbol for the pesos, and after the creation of a US currency the symbol remained.

However, in the 1790s the first dollar symbol was made in a printing press [11]. In my opinion this is where the dollar sign as we know it today really began. Regardless of its origins, the dollar sign had previously only been handwritten and was vastly inconsistent. Even if there was a consensus on what the dollar sign should look like, each author, through the process of hand writing the symbol, lent their own interpretation to the design. When the dollar sign was eventually subject to conscious design by use of a printing press, it officially became standardized as the symbol we know today. So who made the first dollar sign? A Scotsman named Archibald Binny [12]. An anti-English pro American looking to create an American typeface that could separate itself from English style fonts. Archibald Binny became famous for the creation of the font we now call Monticello, which was uniquely “celebrated as an American product” [13].

In the digital age we currently occupy, paper money is slowly loosing ground to the dollar sign. Cash is in decline and electronic payment is taking its place [14]. What is left in a paperless electronic age is the symbol denoting the currency: US dollars ($), British pounds (£), Euro (€), Japanese yen (¥), Thai Baht ฿, Indian Rupee (₹), Israel Shekel (₪), Iran Rial (﷼), and many more [15]. These symbols are a small relic of the paper currency they are meant to represent and it seems unreasonable to assume that much of the national historic symbolism of US paper money transfers to and through the dollar sign. The invented historic symbolism, national monuments, and former leaders on the dollar bill formed part of an everyday nation building where these daily reminders of national belonging helped to reinforce national ties [16]. It is possible that the globalized digital era we continue to occupy removes some of these small daily reinforcements of banal nationalism. The way we use money is changing and the artful national symbols that create daily national reminders are fading away. This change may be a point in favor of the argument that technology, transnationalism, and overall increased interconnectedness is reducing the significance of nations and national identity. However, I don’t buy into the post-nationalist argument, instead I argue that national identities are never fixed; they are constantly changing, reimagining, and recreating themselves. Nations and national identity may no longer be reinforced on a daily basis through paper money but maybe now we have the capacity to reimagine nations in new and more egalitarian ways. 

[1] Williamson, Judith. 1978. Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and meaning in advertising. London: Marion Boyars.

[2] Ovason, David. 2004. The Secret Symbols of The Dollar Bill.

[3] Ovason (2004)

[4] Hobsbawm, Eric; Ranger, Terence. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press.

[5] Ovason (2004)

[6] Ovason (2004)

[7] Ovason (2004)

[8] Ovason (2004)

[9] Cajori, Florian. 2006. A History Of Mathematical Notations V2: Notations Mainly in Higher Mathematics.

[10] Cajori, Florian (2006)

[11] Garfield, Simon. 2011. Just My Type: A book about fonts. London: Profile Books.

[12] Garfield (2011)

[13] Garfield (2011: 198)

[14] http://www.smh.com.au/national/about-us/australians-are-using-less-cash-and-more-card-to-pay-and-play-every-day-20150124-12xi8b.html


[15] http://www.xe.com/symbols.php

[16] Billig, Michael. 1995. Banal Nationalism. London: Sage