|History of money||Money in fiction||Financial scandals|
From Thalers to Dollars
The history of the dollar is a story involving many countries in different continents. The word dollar is much older than the American unit of currency. It is an Anglicised form of "thaler", (pronounced taler, with a long "a"), the name given to coins first minted in 1519 from locally mined silver in Joachimsthal in Bohemia. (Today the town of Joachimsthal lies within the borders of the Czech republic and its Czech name is Jáchymov). Thaler is a shortened form of the term by which the coin was originally known - Joachimsthaler.
Later on, the English version of the name (dollar) was also applied to similar coins, not only ones minted in central Europe but also the Spanish peso and the Portuguese eight-real piece. Both these large silver coins were practically identical in weight and fineness. Today we are familiar with the phrase pieces of eight from tales of pirates in the Caribbean.
Those coins, particularly the Spanish peso or dollar circulated widely in Britain's North American colonies because of a shortage of official British coins. That is why, after the United States gained its independence the new nation chose "dollar" as the name of its currency instead of keeping the pound.
Probably the most famous thaler coins were those minted during the reign of Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and queen of Hungary and Bohemia (1740-80). Maria Theresa thalers were in common use in Aden and some other parts of the Middle East as recently as the 1960s.
The thaler was the unit of currency in Prussia and some of the other German
states until the second half of the 19th century. The unification of Germany in
1871 and the adoption of the mark as the common currency put an end to the old
units, just as the adoption of the Euro and the introduction of new notes and
coins in 2002 put an end to the French franc, the German Deutschemark, Italian
lire, Spanish peseta, and other European currencies.
A History of money from ancient times to the present day, by Glyn Davies, 3rd ed, University of Wales Press, 2002. 720p.
Much of the information in this page comes from the above-mentioned book.
See the website for additional information about the history of money.
Other printed sources were used, particularly in connection
with dollar sign, and are mentioned below. There are also links to the most
important web sources used.
While on the subject of currency unions, before the formation of the Scandinavian Currency Union in 1873 and the adoption of the krone or krona, (the first being the Danish and Norwegian word for "Crown" and the second, the Swedish word) each of the Scandinavian countries had their own version of the "daler" as their currency. Like "dollar" the name "daler" came from "thaler" and provides a clue as to how the word evolved. (The term "daler" was also used in Low German and Dutch). In Sweden dalers were minted from 1534 onwards, and in Denmark from 1544. As Denmark and Norway formed a united kingdom until the Napoleonic Wars, when Norway passed into Swedish rule, the two countries shared a common currency.
The Scandinavian Currency Union was modelled on the much larger Latin Currency Union
which was inspired by France. World War I effectively put an end to the Latin Currency
Union. Although Denmark, Norway and Sweden were neutral, World War I put a considerable
strain on their economies too, and consequently the Scandinavian Currency Union was
officially dissolved not long after, in 1924.
Interesting examples of the use of the word "dollar" in Britain long before the creation of the United States - in fact the English colonisation of North America had scarcely begun - can be found in two of Shakespeare's plays.
Macbeth Act I, Scene 2
Sweno, the Norway's King, craves composition;
Nor would we deign him burial of his men
Till he disbursed at Saint Colme's Inch
Ten thousand dollars to our general use."
The Tempest, Act II, Scene 1
Gonzalo:"When every grief is entertain'd that's offer'd, Comes to th' entertainer -Sebastian:"A dollar."Gonzalo:"Dolour comes to him, indeed: you have spoken truer than you purpos'd."
The last remark by Gonzalo was, of course, a pun since "dolour" is an old-fashioned word for pain or grief, like the modern Spanish word dolor, which also means pain.
Shakespeare's use of the word "dollar" in Macbeth was anachronistic since the real
Macbeth probably died in the middle of the 11th century, nearly 500 years before the
first thalers were minted. Nevertheless the use of the word in Macbeth and the Tempest,
both of which were first performed in about 1611, is a clear indication that the
term dollar was already in use in English before the the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for
America in 1620.
In addition to the treasures they melted down, the Spanish conquerors soon began to
produce large quantities of silver from mines in Mexico and Peru. Most important of all
were the enormous reserves they discovered at Potosi in what is now Bolivia. Ships
laden with silver regularly crossed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Those crossing the
Atlantic were naturally bound for Spain. Others sailed west across the Pacific to China
to trade silver for Chinese goods. As the Spaniards controlled the sources of most of
the world's silver their coins were widely accepted, especially in places like
Britain's American colonies where silver was in short supply.
As Spanish pesos or dollars had long been in wide circulation in North America, some of the paper money issued in some of the colonies before the war had been denominated in dollars. Other notes used British monetary units. During the war too, some Continentals were denominated in British units, others in dollars. In 1792 the newly independent United States chose the dollar, subdivided into 100 cents, as the unit of American currency in preference to the British pound.
Foreign coins were supposed to lose their status as legal tender within 3 years of
the US coins coming into circulation. A new mint was established in Philadelphia and
started its operations in 1794. The mint was the first purpose-built structure
authorized by the United States government. However, because of a shortage of both gold
and silver, in 1797 the government extended legal tender status to Spanish dollars for
an indefinite period. The discoveries in California, which sparked off the Gold Rush in
1848, led to a massive increase in the production of gold coins by the mint, and in
1857 the United States finally removed legal tender status from all foreign coins. By
then, although as necessary to the retail trade as ever, developments in banking meant
that coins were just the small change of commerce.
In 1797, owing to a desperate shortage of silver coins, the Bank of England issues altered foreign coins from its reserves. Half a million pounds worth of Spanish dollars issued by King Charles IV were over-stamped with a small engraving of George III. The re-issued coins, with a value of 4 shillings and 9 pence, attracted ridicule. "Two Kings' heads and not worth a crown" was one witticism. (A 'crown' in this context meant 5 shillings, "half-a-crown", sometimes colloquially known as "half-a-dollar", being a common coin before decimalisation in 1971). A cruder, description was "the head of a fool stamped on the neck of an ass". The issue failed because over-stamping was also applied unofficially to the plentiful supplies of light or base Spanish dollars.
A few years later a more successful issue of dollars was made by the Bank of
England. In 1804 Matthew Boulton, the business partner of the steam engine pioneer
James Watt, was employed to erase completely the existing design on full-weight Spanish
coins and stamp them as Bank of England Five Shilling Dollars.
A great deal of the trade of Canada was with the United States and as a result pressure grew for a switch of currency from the pound sterling to a decimal system similar to the American one. The British government agreed and the Province of Canada gradually changed over to the dollar between 1853 and 1857. Canadian dollars and cents were minted in Britain until the establishment of the Ottawa Mint in 1908.
New Zealand followed Australia's lead and replaced their own pound with the New Zealand dollar in 1967. Fiji and the Solomon Islands both adopted the dollar as their national currencies. Some of the smaller island states such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru continue to use the Australian Dollar.
One of the very few former colonies in Africa to use the dollar is Zimbabwe. Some years after unilaterally declaring independence from Britain, Rhodesia replaced the Rodesian pound by the Rhodesian dollar. After majority rule was introduced the country changed its name to Zimbabwe and changed the name of its currency accordingly. South Africa still uses the rand. Most other former British colonies have adopted African names for their currencies. Kenya and Uganda use the shilling.
In 1935 the British government introduced a new currency, the British West Indies Dollar, in many of the British colonies in the Caribbean. Previously, in some of those colonies the US dollar had circulated in addition to the pound sterling. Later, after gaining independence, the former colonies adopted their own versions of the dollar as their national currency. Of the remaining British colonies in the Caribbean, the Turks and Caicos Islands and the British Virgin Islands use the US dollar as their currency but the Cayman Islands have chosen to issue their own dollar.
In the British colonies of Malaya and Singapore the official currency was the Indian rupee but the general public kept their accounts and made most of their payments, including taxes, in dollars and cents. Therefore in 1867 the public's preferences were recognised when legal tender status is given to various foreign coins such as dollars from Hong Kong, Mexico, Bolivia and Peru. Subsequently, in 1874, the British authorities in Singapore also made the Japanese yen and US dollar legal tender.
Competition was provided for these foreign coins twenty years later in 1894 when British dollars were first minted for the colonies in the Far East. Most of these "British" dollars were actually minted in Bombay in India. A much bigger step towards the replacement of the foreign dollars was taken in 1902 when the Straits Settlement (Singapore) dollar was introduced, and two years later legal tender status was withdrawn from the foreign coins.
Of course a currency does not have to be official for it to be acceptable to
traders. In his reminiscences about World War II an American sailor who had served on the battleship USS Washington, described how a
shipmate once bought a basket containing a live cobra at Candy on the island of Ceylon
(modern Sri Lanka), then still a British colony, because he laughingly offered two
"dollars Mex" (i.e. two Mexican dollars) to the young street peddler. See playing the game for his account of
Not long after that, Spanish galleons laden with silver began to sail regularly from Acapulco in Mexico to Manila in the Philippines where the silver was used to buy Chinese goods such as porcelain and silk. Supplies of silver from the Americas started to dry up towards the end of the Ming dynasty and were probably a significant factor in the economic crisis China experienced at that time. Subsequently supplies picked up again as new mines were developed. After the Opium War China was forced by Britain and other countries, including France, Germany, America and Japan to open up major harbours as treaty ports and to cede land to those countries as foreign concessions. As a result a large variety of foreign silver coins, particularly Mexican dollars, circulated widely in China.
Prior to 1890 the Chinese had rarely minted precious metal coins but in that year they started to produce their own silver coins. In the early decades of the 20th century output of silver coins from Chinese mints increased but political stability prevented the complete replacement of foreign coins.
The fate of Gareth Jones, the Welsh journalist, illustrates how Mexican dollars continued to be important in China even in the 1930s. Jones had been the first person to report the terrible Soviet famine in 1933, caused by Stalin's policies. A couple of years later, in the spring of 1935, Jones travelled to Manchuria, or Manchukuo as the Japanese called the conquered province, but was captured by bandits and held for a ransom of 100,000 Mexican dollars. After 16 days in captivity he was murdered. The bandits had been coerced by the Japanese military which was holding their families hostage as it did not want Jones to expose the army's actions in Manchuria.
The successful Communist Revolution finally brought an end to the chaos of
currencies that had long afflicted China.
Perhaps this is less surprising when there has been controversy over the origin of the sign for the European euro, €, a currency that did not come into existence until 1999. (It has been claimed that the euro sign was invented by Arthur Eisenmenger more than a quarter of a century before the currency was introduced). Nevertheless a number of theories about the origin of the dollar symbol have been proposed.
One version of this theory is that the standard abbreviation of "peso" was simply "P", but the plural form was a large "P" with a small "s" above it and to its right. This was simplified by retaining only the upward stroke of the "P" and superimposing the "S" upon it. Hence the symbol of the dollar.
Dreyfuss, Henry Symbol source book : an authoritative guide to international graphic symbols. New York : McGraw-Hill, 1972.
If the peso abbreviation theory is the correct one why is the US dollar sign sometimes written with two vertical strokes? A possible explanation is that the best known Spanish Peso coin had two pillars engraved on the reverse side to symbolise the "Pillars of Hercules" at Gibraltar and the words "Plus Ultra" indicating that beyond the Pillars of Hercules there were other lands. That coin was called the Pillar Dollar in the British colonies in North America and the two pillars may have become the two strokes in the Dollar sign.
For brief information on the "Pillar Dollar" see:
Nussbaum, Arthur A history of the dollar. New York : Columbia U.P., 1957.
There is another version of the theory linking the sign to the Spanish peso. As mentioned earlier the peso was subdivided into eight reals, hence the name piece of eight. This was represented as P8 or /8/. Eventually it became customary to write the oblique strokes across the figure 8. In the past precious metal coins were sometimes split into pieces to provide small change. The use in America of the expression two bits for 25 cents is a legacy of this since if a Spanish dollar or peso or piece of eight was split into quarters each part would consist of two of the original eight pieces or reals.
The 8 with two strokes became a letter S with two strokes since S looks like an 8 that has been split, as when a peso was broken to provide change in reals. Eventually a further simplification was introduced by dropping one of the strokes.
Until 1971 when Britain divided the pound into 100 (new) pennies and abandoned the old sub-units, two different methods of representing the shilling were used; one was simply the letter s and the other was the oblique slash / which is also known as a solidus, the name of the Roman coin from which the shilling is derived. Actually the slash or solidus was used to separate shillings from pence when sums of money were written down, e.g. 4/6 for four shillings and sixpence. (For an amount consisting of an integral number of shillings a dash indicated zero pence, e.g. 3/- for three shillings).
If you make the slash or solidus vertical and combine it with the S you end up with $ - the dollar sign.
It may seem strange that having thrown off British rule and rejected the British pound in favour of the Spanish dollar, the Americans should adopt a symbol based on the abbreviation for the British shilling but during colonial times they had used British units for financial calculations even when they used substitutes, such as the Spanish dollar, as currency. Even today Americans still often refer to cents as pennies.
Furthermore, shillings had been produced in the colonies without authorisation from the British authorities. In 1652 John Hall set up a private mint in Massachusetts and produced coins known as pine tree shillings because of the picture of a pine tree stamped on them. His mint was forced to close in 1684, but because of it the word shilling would still have carried patriotic connotations a century later.
Slaves constituted a store of wealth and as a result the abbreviation for slaves that slave-owners used in their account books came to represent money.
This seems like the kind of explanation that would be popular with conspiracy
theorists. It does not seem to be very popular in printed sources, at least not in
English language ones, but I (Roy Davies) have seen it on the
and was also told it by someone who said he had heard it from a Latin-American
economist and an American history professor.