Home Design The Historical Context of Popular Currency Symbols

A 2018 survey suggested that a single dollar bill passes through 110 pairs of hands every year, or about every three days. Due to all that friction, that same dollar bill will likely only last 5.8 years before it needs replacing with a newly-minted sibling.

Of course, that was in the Before Times. So, what those statistics read like now is probably quite different. No matter how you pay for things, though, one thing has remained consistent—on every bill, on every transaction list, in every cash app, there’s one of the most well-known symbols on the planet accompanying all those numbers. The dollar symbol ($) is a constant that dates back, some believe, to 1770. Given its ubiquity, it’s incredibly easy to overlook, but where did it actually come from? How was it designed?

Today, we look at the dollar sign, and the symbols of a number of currencies from across the world to find out just how they came to be.

Not All Currency Symbols Are Born Equal

Variations in Currency and Symbol Design
Not every currency follows the same design pattern. Image by William Potter.

You may be forgiven for thinking that all currency symbols are the same, therefore, they all originate from the same place. After all, there’s some visible consistency from one to the next. You may have noticed that many currency symbols feature single or double strikeouts—a crossbar or set of crossbars striking the underlying symbol either vertically or horizontally. Though the origins of how they originated aren’t clear, some hypothesize that they represent an equal sign (=), thus denoting a balanced economy. Others suggest simply that they help to differentiate the underlying symbol from standard Latin letters—S and $ are clearly not the same thing, therefore, their separate meanings are obvious.

However, not all currency symbols follow this pattern. Many Arabic-speaking countries simply represent their currencies as the Latin letters that are used to describe them. For example, the Iraqi dinar, the Libyan dinar, and the Tunisian dinar are all represented as ID, LD, and TD, respectively. And, it’s not just Arabic-speaking countries. Others such as the South African rand (R), the Ugandan shilling (USh), and the Croatian lipa (lp), are also equally matter-of-fact.

Join the Club

When it comes to currency symbols that aren’t as obvious in their design, their origin stories tend to be more layered and evocative . . .

Indian Rupee

When India wanted a new symbol for its currency—the Indian rupee—Udaya Kumar Dharmalingam, an Indian graphic designer and typographer, was the winner chosen from a shortlist of just five individuals. Given India’s pre-eminence in the area, and its reliance on both domestic and international trade, he wanted to create a symbol that would hold meaning both internally and globally. The symbol was born out of the idea of combining two letters, the Roman uppercase R and the Devanagari letter Ra, used in Sanskrit, Hindi, and other Indian languages—both of which are used to spell the word “rupee” in their respective scripts. He also wanted to give it a similar feeling to other currency symbols. So, he implemented a double crossbar, made from the shirorekha, which is a crossbar used specifically in Indian languages. This unique usage of a crossbar also provides three horizontal stripes, two from the shirorekha and a third from the negative space between them, which D. Udaya Kumar says represent the tricolor of the Indian flag.

The symbol relies on clear graphical techniques, with opposite forces working on the top and bottom of the symbol, giving it perfect balance. It’s also highly legible at small and large sizes, making it eminently usable and distinguishable no matter what the application.

The Indian Rupee Symbol
The Indian rupee symbol is based on two letters—the Roman uppercase R and the Devanagari letter Ra.
The Indian Rupee Symbol
The shirorekha is reminiscent of Sanskrit and Hindi scripts, and also doubles up as a graphical representation of the Indian tricolor.

Turkish Lira

The Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey announced a nationwide contest to design the new symbol for the Turkish lira in 2012, which was won by Tülay Lale, a Turkish graphic designer. Her design was chosen for its simplicity and legibility. The symbol looks like a T, which you may think represents the word Turkey, however, it’s in fact a letter L shaped like a half anchor—L being the first letter of the word lira, Turkey’s currency. When the symbol was unveiled later that year, the then Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, disclosed that the form had been created in an anchor shape to illustrate that the lira is a safe harbor currency, while the upward-facing crossbars represent a country on the rise.

Some have suggested that perhaps the form is in fact a bisection of the letters T and E to represent the initials of the Prime Minister himself, though this has never been proven.

Graphically, the form follows clear techniques, with this symbol based on simple shapes, such as circles and lines. It’s a pure symbol, in that it follows clear geometric and mathematical principles to create a form that’s perfectly weighted.

The Turkish Lira Symbol
An L made into the form of half an anchor is the basis for the Turkish lira symbol.

Modern Copycats

Currencies don’t tend to change that often. However, in exceptional cases, entirely new currencies are born. The euro was introduced in 1992 during the Maastricht Treaty, as part of the unifying efforts of the European Union. Much like the lira, there’s a gotcha with the euro, too. The form isn’t based on an E for euro or for Europe, but rather an epsilon, which is a Greek letter. This choice was made as Greece is the cradle of democracy. And, democracy is, of course, the guiding system of government across the whole of Europe.

The Euro Symbol
The euro came much later than other currency symbols. While it takes cues from its predecessors, such as the double crossbar, its perfectly round design is unique, and a little controversial.

Graphically, there’s been much controversy over the form. Unlike other currency symbols that tend to be designed to maintain the weight, spacing, and construction of the scripts of the countries in which they will be used, the euro couldn’t do this, given its usage across multiple countries. As such, the form was, instead, designed by a committee. As a result, in trying to please everybody, it didn’t please many.

In some European countries, it looks bulky next to conventional letterforms and typography choices—and in others, too narrow. When the symbol was unveiled, due to the curvature of the symbol being almost perfectly circular, the consensus was that it was a C with two crossbars, rather than an epsilon. This had led to many countries, typographers, and designers creating new versions to better fit their local needs, resulting in many variants of the symbol. So much for unity.

Variations on the Euro Symbol
Dislike among designers of the basic euro form has led to all manner of alternatives of various shapes and sizes. Here’s a selection from some popular typefaces. Image via Wikipedia.

The Mystery of the US Dollar

US Dollar Signs
There’s no leading design for the dollar sign. Image via Yulia Yugina.

Throughout this journey, there’s no story more misunderstood, or indeed unexpected, than that of the US dollar sign. For starters, why is it an S when a D would potentially be more obvious? Why is it sometimes denoted with one crossbar, and in other places with two? Why do they strike top to bottom rather than left to right? And, what does any of this have to do with Spain, Bohemia, the Pillars of Hercules, and patriots? Well, I’m glad you asked.

The dollar sign, unlike any other currency symbol, holds so many meanings of ever-increasing importance and weight that it’s hard to list them all. Indeed, it’s emblematic of far more than American currency.

It’s been widely used for all manner of reasons. Think pop music, in the moniker of Ke$ha. It was the inspiration for Salvador Dalí’s mustache. And, Andy Warhol’s recreations of it now sell for millions of dollars—how meta. It can even be found in the world of coding, used to denote variables in many programming languages.

Lastly, it’s shorthand for the American dream itself, with its nod to optimism and opportunity on one side, and greed and raging capitalism on the other. For one small symbol, it sure does a lot of heavy lifting.

So why, when the humble cent is represented by a lowercase c, is the dollar not represented by an uppercase D?

Awash with Theories

One theory for how it was designed will please the patriots. The theory goes that it represents the United States itself, that the vertical crossbars suggest the U joined with the S equals United States.

US Dollar Sign Theories
A simple theory, but one that’s most-likely incorrect.

Another train of thought suggests that it harkens back to the Bohemian thaler (pronounced dah-ler, hence dollar), which alludes to the story of Moses who supposedly wound a snake around a pole to cure people from venomous bites.

US Dollar Symbol Theories
If you squint, you can just about see the resemblance. Maybe.

A third theory impresses that a double vertical crossbar symbolizes the Pillars of Hercules, which stood at the entrance of the Strait of Gibraltar. These pillars appeared on the Spanish dollar (before the days of the peso, then the euro). So, perhaps there’s a connection back to this European heritage.

The Pillars of Hercules
The theory ascribing to the Pillars of Hercules makes for an intriguing story, but again, it’s unlikely to be true. Image via Leonid Andronov.

Finally, and perhaps most plausibly—or at least most accepted by scholars—is the theory that Spain was, in fact, involved, but for entirely different reasons. Spain and America have always had a lively trading relationship and (back in the day) pesos, or “peso de ocho reales” (literally “pieces of eight”), was legal tender in the US up to the 19th century. The story goes that pesos in America were often denoted when written as an uppercase P next to a superscript S. Over time, perhaps due to fatigue from writing the two letters over and over again, merchants dropped the curved element of the P and placed the S over it, thus creating the modern dollar sign we all know and love. More credence is given to this theory as US currency and the Spanish peso were almost worth the same. Thus, you can see how two currencies with equivalency of value may have come to be represented by the same symbol.

If this final theory is true and, of course, we’ll never know for certain, then it really is the right symbol to signify American currency—a country created from a melting pot of cultures and traditions represents it currency, this undeniably American symbol, with a symbol that actually originated somewhere else. It’s almost too perfect a metaphor for how America was created to be believed.

US Dollar Sign Theories
Could the dollar sign simply be the result of merchant shorthand?

Form, Familiarity, and Feeling

Despite each currency symbol starting off life local to their country of origin, what’s incredible about how their designs have evolved is that the vast majority hold similarities in their construction, yet leave room for their own personal stories, representative of the countries and regions in which they’re used. There’s a plethora of crossbars, denoting balance and unity. Shaping and forms are developed to mimic letter forms, but also to denote symbols of heritages, cultures, and shared experiences. And, despite it all, the consistency and uniformity of many symbols means they now form a global family of marks that are instantly recognizable by almost anybody on the planet. A currency symbol is quite obviously a currency symbol, whether you know which currency it denotes or not.

This ability to imbibe dual meanings into a form is the basis of solid graphic design. And, currency symbols are the ultimate expression of design, not only being how something looks, but also how it works, and what it means.

Cover image via COSPV.

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