Popular Science Monthly/Volume 81/December 1912/The Evolution of the Dollar Mark

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search








THERE are few mathematical symbols the origin of which has given rise to more unrestrained speculation and less real scientific study than has our dollar mark, $. About a dozen different theories have been advanced by men of imaginative minds, but not one of these would-be historians permitted himself to be hampered by the underlying facts. These speculators have dwelt with special fondness upon monogrammatic forms, some of which, it must be admitted, maintain considerable antecedent probability. Breathes there an American with soul so dead that he has not been thrilled with patriotic fervor over the "U. S. theory" which ascribes the origin of the $ mark to the superposition of the letters U and S? This view of its origin is the more pleasing because it makes the symbol a strictly American product, without foreign parentage, apparently as much the result of a conscious effort or an act of invention as is the sewing machine or the cotton gin. If such were the case, surely some traces of the time and place of invention should be traceable; there ought to be the usual rival claimants. As a matter of fact no one has ever advanced real evidence in the form of old manuscripts, or connected the symbol with a particular place or individual. Nor have our own somewhat extensive researches yielded evidence in support of the "US theory." The theory that the $ is an entwined U and S, where U S may mean "United States" or one "Uncle Sam," was quoted in 1876 from an old newspaper clipping in the Notes and Queries (London):[1] it is given in cyclopedic references. In the absence of even a trace of evidence from old manuscripts, this explanation must give way to others which, as we shall find, rest upon a strong basis of fact. Possibly these 522 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

statements suffice for some minds. However, knowing that traditional theories are dear to the heart of man, an additional coup de grace will not be superfluous. The earliest high official of the United States government to use the dollar mark was Robert Morris, the great finan- cier of the Revolution. Letters in his own handwriting, as well as those penned by his secretary, which we have seen, 2 give the dollar mark with only one downward stroke, thus $. To assume that the symbol is made up of the letters U and S is to assert that Robert Morris and his secretary did not know what the real dollar symbol was; the letter U would demand two downward strokes, connected below. As a matter of fact the "US theory " has seldom been entertained seriously. Perhaps in derision of this fanciful view, another writer declares " surely the stars and stripes is the obvious explanation." 3

Minds influenced less by patriotic motives than by ecclesiastical and antiquarian predilections have contributed other explanations of our puzzle. Thus the monogrammatic form of I H S (often erroneously interpreted as Jesus, Hominum Salvator) has been suggested. 4 The combination of H S or of I I S, which were abbreviations used by the Romans for a coin called sestertius, have been advocated. 5 We should expect the supporters of these hypotheses to endeavor to establish an unbroken line of descent from symbols used at the time of Nero to the symbols used in the time of Washington. But sober genealogical inquiries of this sort were never made or, if made, they brought dis- aster to the hypotheses.

An interesting hypothesis is advanced by the noted historian, T. F. Medina, of Santiago de Chile. He suggests that perhaps the dollar mark was derived from the stamp of the mint of Potosi in Bolivia. This stamp was the monogrammatic p and s. Against the validity of this explanation goes the fact that forms of p and s were used as abbre- viations of the " peso " before the time of the establishment of the mint at Potosi.

All the flights of fancy were eclipsed by those who carried the $ back to the " Pillars of Hercules." These pillars were strikingly impressed upon the " pillar dollar," the Spanish silver coin widely used in the Spanish-American colonies of the seventeenth and eight- eenth centuries. 6 The " Pillars of Hercules " was the ancient name of the opposite promontories at the Straits of Gibraltar. The Mexican

2 Letter of 1 792 in Harper Memorial Library, University of Chicago ; Robt. Morris's Private Letter Book in MSS. Div. of Library of Congress.

3 Notes and Queries, 5th S., Vol. 6, p. 434.

4 "Standard Dictionary," Art. "Dollar."

5 M. Tbwnsend, "United States, an Index, etc.," Boston, 1890, p. 420. "Notes and Queries (London), 5th S., Vol. 7, 1877, February 24; "New American Cyclopaedia," Vol. VI., 1859, Art. "Dollar."

�� � "globe dollar" of Charles III. exhibited between the pillars two globes representing the old and new worlds as subject to Spain. A Spanish banner or a scroll around the pillars of Hercules was claimed to be the origin of the dollar mark.[2] The theory supposes that the mark stamped on the coins was copied into commercial documents. No embarrassments were experienced from the fact that no manuscripts


PSM V81 D529 Pillar dollar of 1661.png

Fig. 1. "Pillar Dollar" of 1661, showing the "Pillars of Hercules."
(From "Century Dictionary," under "Pillar.")


are known which show in writing the imitation of the pillars and scroll. On the contrary, the imaginative historian mounted his Pegasus and pranced into antiquity for revelations still more startling. "The device of the two pillars was stamped upon the coins" of the people who "built Tyre and Carthage"; the Hebrews had "traditions of the pillars of Jachin and Boaz in Solomon's Temple" "still further back in the remote ages we find the earliest known origin of the symbol in connection with the Deity. It was a type of reverence with the first people of the human race who worshipped the sun and the plains of central Asia." The author of this romance facetiously remarks, "from thence the descent of the symbol to our own time is obvious."[3] Strange to say, the ingenious author forgot to state that this connection of the dollar mark with ancient deities accounts for the modern phrase, "the almighty dollar."

Most sober-minded thinkers have been inclined to connect the dollar 524 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

symbol with the figure 8. We have seen four varieties of this theory. The Spanish dollars were, as a rule, equivalent to eight smaller monetary units, universally know in Spain as " reales " or " reals." The " pillar dollar" shows an 8 between the two pillars. The Spanish dollar was often called a " piece of eight." What guess could be more natural than that the 8 between two pillars suggested the abbreviation |8|, which changed into $ ? So attractive is this explanation that those who advanced it did not consider it worth while to proceed to the prosaic task of finding out whether such symbols were actually em- ployed in financial accounts by merchants of English and Latin America. Other varieties of theorizing claimed a union of P and 8 ("piece of eight") 9 or of E and 8 ("eight reales") 10 or of |8| (the vertical lines being marks of separation) 11 or of 8/. 12 The " P8 theory " has been given, in Webster's " Unabridged Dictionary," not in its first edition, but in the editions since the fourth (1859) or fifth (1864). It is claimed that this widely accepted theory rests on manu- script evidence. 13 One writer who examined old tobacco account books in Virginia reproduces lithographically the fancifully shaped letter p used to represent the " piece of eight " in the early years. This part of his article is valuable. But where it comes to the substantiation of the theory that $ is a combination of P and 8, and that the $ had a purely local evolution in the tobacco districts of Virginia, his facts do not bear out his theory. He quotes only one instance of manuscript evidence and the reasoning in connection with that involves evident confusion of thought. 13 To us the " P 8 theory " seemed at one time the most promising working hypothesis, but we were obliged to abandon it, because all evidence pointed in a different direction. We sent in- quiries to recent advocates of this theory and to many writers of the present day on early American and Spanish-American history, but failed to get the slightest manuscript evidence in its favor. None of the custodians of manuscript records were able to point out facts in support of this view. We ourselves found some evidence from which a superficial observer might draw wrong inferences. A few manu- scripts, particularly one of the year x 1696 from Mexico (Oaxaca), now kept in the Ayer Collection of the Newberry Library in Chicago, give abbreviations for the Spanish word "pesos" (the Spanish name for Spanish dollars) which consist of the letter p with a mark over it that looks much like a horizontal figure 8. This is shown in Fig. 2. Is it an 8 ? Paleographic study goes against this conclusion : the mark signifies " os," the last two letters in " pesos." This is evident from

9 M. Townsend, op. cit., p. 420; Scribner's Magazine, Vol. 42, 1907, p. 515.

10 M. Townsencl, op. cit., p. 420.

"Notes and Queries (London), 5th S., Vol. VII., p. 317.

12 Scribner's Magazine, Vol. 42, 1907, p. 515.

13 American Historical Record, Vol. III., p. 271.

�� � several considerations. The fact that in the same manuscript exactly the same symbol occurs in "vezos," the contraction for "vezinos," or "neighbors" may suffice; an 8 is meaningless here.

We have now described the various hypotheses.[4] The reader may have been amused at the widely different conclusions reached. One author gives to the $ "a pedigree as long as chronology itself." Others allow it only about 125 years. One traces it back to the worshippers of the sun in central Asia, another attributes it to a bookkeeper in a

PSM V81 D531 Evolution of the dollar symbol.png

Fig. 2.

Virginia tobacco district. Nearly every one of the dozen theories seemed so simple to its advocate as to be self-evident. A mode of argumentation is revealed much like that of the prospective western farmer planning to solve the problem of irrigation by planting rows of potatoes between rows of onions, "to make the potato-eyes water." He was thoroughly infatuated with the brilliancy of his idea and of course never subjected it to a sober test.

In our own researches we have been driven from one working hypothesis to another, until finally we found one which tallied with the facts. Noticing that as a rule the common abbreviations for monetary units used in recent centuries consisted in the initial letter, or that letter and a second one in the word, as M for the German "mark," fr. for the French "franc," £ for the English "pound" (libra), we started with the provisional theory that $ came from the letters in the word "dollar." To test the theory we began the examination of colonial manuscripts and made galloping progress in showing that "dollar" was in colonial days actually abbreviated to "Dolls.," "Doll.," "Do.s," "Ds," "D." But in endeavoring to show the evolution of D into $ we encountered insuperable difficulties. Thousands of manuscripts were looked over and they absolutely failed to supply the necessary connecting links. We had to throw our theory overboard as a useless burden.

The history of the dollar mark is difficult to trace. The vast majority of old documents give monetary names written out in full. This is the case also in printed books. Of nine Spanish commercial arithmetics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, five gave no abbreviations whatever for the "peso" (also called "piastre," "peso de 8 reales," "piece of eight," "Spanish dollar"). In fact some did not mention the "peso" at all. The reason for the omission of "peso" is that the part of Spain called Castile had monetary units called "reales," "ducados," "maravedises," etc.; the word "peso" was used mainly in Spanish America and those towns of Spain that were in closest commercial touch with the Spanish colonies. After the conquest of Mexico and Peru, early in the sixteenth century, Spanish American mints, established in the various points in the Spanish possessions, poured forth the Spanish dollar in such profusion that it became a universal coin, reaching before the close of the century even the Philippines and China. In the seventeenth century the Spanish "piece of eight" was known in Virginia and much was done to promote the influx of Spanish money into that colony. The United States dollar, adopted in 1785, was avowedly modelled on the average weight of the Spanish dollar coins in circulation. Thomas Jefferson speaks of the dollar as "a known coin, and the most familiar of all to the minds of the people."[5] No United States dollars were actually coined before the year 1794.[6] We proceed to unfold our data and to show the evolution of the dollar mark by stages so easy and natural, that the conclusion is irresistible. There are no important "missing links" To enable the critical reader to verify our data, we give the sources of our evidence. No man's ipse dixit is a law in the world of scientific research.

We begin with information extracted from early Spanish printed books, consisting of abbreviations used for "peso" or "pesos."

Ivan Vasquez de Serna,[7] 1620, Pes., pes de 8 real.
Francisco Cassany,[8] 1763, p, also ps.
Benito Bails,[9] 1790, pe, seldom p.
Manuel Antonio Valdes,[10] 1808, ps.
Here we have the printed abbreviations Pes., ps, pe, p. More interesting and convincing are the abbreviations found in manuscripts which record commercial transactions. We can give only a small part of the number actually seen. In our selection we are not discriminating against symbols which might suggest a conclusion different from our own. As a matter of fact, such discrimination would be difficult to make, for the reason that all the abbreviations for the "peso," or "piece of eight" or "piastre" that we have examined point unmistakably to only one conclusion. We say this after having seen many hundreds of these symbols in manuscripts, antedating 1800, and written in Mexico, the Philippines, San Felipe de puerto, New Orleans

PSM V81 D533 Symbols of the spanish dollar.png

Fig. 3. Symbols foe the Spanish Dollar or Peso, traced from MS. letters, contracts and account-books. No. 1. The historian, Dr. Cayetano Coll y Toste, of Porto Rico, says that this was the written symbol "during the time of Christopher Columbus." Nos. 2, 3, 6, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 17, 20 are traced from MSS. owned by W. W. Blake, Avenida 16 de Septiembre 13, Mexico City. Nos. 15, 16, 18, 19 are from Draper Coll. in Wis. Hist. Libr., Madison; Nos. 15, 16 in Clark MSS., Vol. 48 J, pp. 37, 38; Nos. 18, 19 in Clark MSS., Vol. 1, pp. 136, 143. Nos. 4, 5, 7, 8, 12 are from the Ayer Coll. Newberry Libr., Chicago. No. 21 from letter of Robt. Morris to the Hon. Jeremiah Wadsworth, Esq., Hartford, Conn., in Harper Mem. Libr., University of Chicago. Nos. 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 are from MSS. in Chicago Hist. Soc. Libr.; No. 22 in Menard Coll., Vol. 64; Nos. 23, 24 in Menard Coll., Vol. 60, p. 187; Nos. 25, 30 in Autogr. Letters, Vol. 61; No. 26 in Menard Coll., Vol. 62; Nos. 27, 29 in Menard Coll., Vol. 63; No. 28 Autogr. Letters, Vol. 71, p. 76.


and the colonies of the United States. It was a remarkable coincidence that all three names by which the Spanish dollar was best known, namely the "peso," "piastre" and "piece of eight," began with the letter p and all three were pluralized by the use of the letter s. Hence p and ps admirably answered as abbreviations of any of these names. The symbols in Fig. 3 show that the usual abbreviation was a ps or p, the letter p taking sometimes a florescent form and the s in ps being as a rule raised above the p. The p and the s are often connected, showing that they were written in these instances by one uninterrupted motion of the pen. As seen in Fig. 3, the same manuscript sometimes shows symbols of widely different shapes. The capital P is a rare occurrence. We have seen it used at the beginning of sentences and a few times written in ledgers at the top of columns of figures. In the sixteenth century the ps had above it a mark indicating the omission of part of the word, thus ps. Sometimes the contraction of the word "pesos" was "pss." or "pos." Not infrequently two or more different abbreviations are found in one and the same manuscript. The body of the text may contain the word written out in full, or contracted to "pss" or "pos," while the margin or the head of a column of figures may exhibit ps or simply p. These were the abbreviations used by the Spanish-Americans from the sixteenth century down to about 1820 or


PSM V81 D534 The modern dollar mark in the making.png

Fig. 4. The Modern Dollar Mark in the Making. From copy of letter by Oliver Pollock at New Orleans to George Roger Clark, 1778. (Wis. Hist. Libr., Madison, Draper Coll., Vol. 38 J, p. 37.)


1830. The transition from the ps to our modern dollar mark was not made by the Spaniards; it was made by the English-speaking people who came in contact with the Spaniards. At the time when Mexico achieved its independence (1821), the $ was not yet in vogue there. EVOLUTION OF THE DOLLAR MARK 529

In a Mexican book of 1834 on statistics 20 both the ps and the $ are used. Our $ was introduced into Hawaii by American missionaries, in a translation of Warren Colburn's " Mental Arithmetic " in 1845. 21

The transition from the florescent p s to our dollar mark is seen in Fig. 4. Apparently it is a change introduced unconsciously, in the effort to simplify the complicated motion of the pen called for in the florescent p s . No manuscript on this point is so interesting and con- vincing as the two contemporaneous copies, made by the same hand, of a letter written in 1778 by Oliver Pollock, then " commercial agent of the United States at New Orleans." Pollock rendered great services to the United States, being to the west what Eobert Morris was to the east. Pollock's letter is addressed to George Eoger Clark, who was then heading an expedition for the capture of the Illinois country. Both copies of that letter show the $ in the body of the letter, while in the summary of accounts, at the close, the $ and the florescent p s are both used. These documents show indeed " the modern dollar mark in the making." In the copy from which our photograph is taken, Pig. 4, the 8613 dollars is indicated by the regular $, while in the other copy it is represented by the fancy p s . Carefully examining the two sym- bols in our photograph, we see that the p s is made by one continuous motion of the pen, in this order : Down on the left — up on the right — the loop of the p — the s above. On the other hand, the $ symbol is made by two motions : One motion down and up for the p, the other motion the curve for the s, one symbol being superimposed upon the other.

Thus the origin of the dollar mark is simplicity itself. It is an evolution from p s . When the p was made by one long stroke only, as in Fig. 3, Nos. 12, 14, 17, 20, then the $ took the form $, as used by Eobert Morris (Fig. 3, No. 21). Before 1800 the regular mark $ was seldom used. In all our researches we have encountered it in eight- eenth-century manuscripts not more than 15 or 20 times. None of these antedates the ones in Oliver Pollock's letter of 1778. But the dollar money was then very familiar. In 1778 theater prices in printed advertisements in Philadelphia ran, " Box, one dollar." An original manuscript document of 1780 gives 34 signatures of subscribers, headed by the signature of George Washington. The subscribers agree to pay the sum annexed to their respective names, " in the promotion of sup- port of a dancing assembly to be held in Morristown this present winter." The sums are given in dollars, but not one of the signers used the $ symbol ; they wrote " Dollars," or " Doll," or " D s ." 22

20 " Noticias estadisticas del Estado de Chihuahua," par J. A. Escudero, Mexico, 1834.

21 Copy in the Newberry Library, Chicago.

-"American Historical and Literary Curiosities," Philadelphia, 1861, plates 52, 22.


It is interesting to observe that Spanish-Americans placed the ps after the numerals, thus 65ps, while the English colonists, being accus- tomed to write £ before the number of pounds, wrote the $ to the left of the numerals, thus $ 65. In the Argentine Republic the $ is to this day written to the right of the numerals, like this 65$.

The earliest known occurrence of the $ in print is in an American arithmetic, Chauncey Lee's " American Accomptant," published in 1797 at Lansingburgh. This fact was pointed out in 1899. 23 A recent writer 24 again calls attention to this arithmetic and then, with sweet simplicity of mind, conveys the idea that this publication con- stitutes the true origin of the dollar mark. By this mental short cut he saved himself the drudgery of a research which, in our case, has extended over several years. After 1800 the symbol began to be used freely, both in print and in writing. On September 29, 1802, William A. Washington wrote a letter on the disposal of part of the bottom land above the Potomac, belonging to the estate of George Washington. In this letter there is mention of "$20," "$30 " and " $40 " per acre. 25

In this article it has been established that the $ is the lineal descendent of the Spanish abbreviation p s for " pesos," that the change from the florescent p s to $ was made about 1775 by English-Americans who came in business relations with Spanish-Americans, and that the earliest printed $ dates back to the year 1797.

23 "Report of the Commissioner of Education," 1897-98, p. 811.

24 Bankers' Magazine, Vol. 62, 1908, p. 857.

25 Letter in Harper Memorial Library, University of Chicago.

�� �

  1. Notes and Queries, 5th S., Vol. 6, London, 1876, p. 386; Vol. 7, p. 98.
  2. M. Townsend, op. cit., p. 420.
  3. "American Historical Record," Vol. III., Philadelphia, pp. 407-8; Baltimore American, June 3, 1874.
  4. Interesting lines of research on the origin of $ were suggested by Professor D. E. Smith in his "Rara Arithmetica," 1908, pp. 470, 471, 491, but we found them barren of results.
  5. D. K. Watson, "History of American Coinage," 1899, p. 15.
  6. Gordon, "Congressional Currency," p. 118.
  7. Ivan Vasquez de Serna, "Reducciones de oro," Cadiz, 1620, p. 263 ff. (In the Hispanic Museum, New York City.)
  8. Don Fr. Cassany, "Arithmetica deseada," Madrid, 1763. (In the Library of Congress.)
  9. Don Benito Bails, "Arismetica," Madrid, 1790. (In Library of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.)
  10. Don M. A. Valdes, "Gazetas de Mexico," 1808. (In Newberry Library, Chicago.)