Symbolism of the American Currency: Meaning and History

Symbolism of the American Currency Meaning and History

A banknote is not only an instrument that allows people to exchange one resource for another, but also a kind of element of the identity of the state where it is in use. That is why designers of money in the state institutions of the countries of the world strive not only to reflect on the banknotes of the national currency their denomination but also to equip them with a lot of additional symbols, often indistinguishable to the naked eye. In most cases, symbols have a utilitarian role – to make the banknote more difficult to counterfeit – but almost always such elements carry not only an additional level of security but also a cultural and historical meaning.

Today our story will be devoted, perhaps, to the most famous and popular currency of the modern world – the American dollar. We will talk about both banknotes and coins, and we will try to answer as fully as possible the questions that everyone is interested in – what is behind the symbols depicted in American money?

History of American Currency

More than two centuries ago, when the United States was a very young nation seeking to consolidate its independence, Congress passed the National Coinage Act, which established the country’s first national mint. It was established in Philadelphia (the capital of the United States at the time) and housed in the first federal building built in strict accordance with the Constitution.

For the first time, the decision to issue U.S. dollars was made by Congress in 1786, and in 1792 they became the main settlement currency of the state. In 1796 the principle of bimetallic monetary unit was introduced, i.e. both silver and gold coins were minted. Each time, however, either one or the other coin disappeared from circulation as a result of changes in the price ratio of the two precious metals. Until 1857, foreign money (primarily Spanish pesos and later Mexican dollars) also served as legal tender in the United States.

History of American Currency

In 1900, the gold standard law was passed. By this point, 1 dollar corresponded to 1.50463 grams of pure gold. In 1933, it was devalued for the first time by 41% as a result of the Great Depression.

At the end of World War II, as a result of the Bretton Woods agreement, the dollar became the only monetary unit exchanged for gold, while the rates of other world currencies were pegged to the U.S. dollar. At the same time, in the post-war years, the United States became the main creditor of Europe. Thus, the U.S. dollar became the world’s settlement currency and took its place in the reserves of central banks.

In the early 1970s, inflation caused by rising prices of goods imported into the U.S., especially imported oil, and the costs of the Vietnam War led to an unpleasant situation for U.S. finances when the dollar became worth less than the gold it was backed by. In 1971, President Richard Nixon unilaterally ordered the abolition of the convertibility of the U.S. dollar into gold. This act went down in history as the Nixon Shock.

Design Evolution of American Currency

In 1837  began the “era of free banks” – banks were given the task to print banknotes, but did not say how many, what kind, what they should look like, and so on, so the country had a huge number of different banknotes, which was just a gift for fraudsters. This monetary system existed until the Civil War in 1861. The opposing sides “North” and “South” began to print their dollars, but eventually, the Southerners lost the war, their currency depreciated, and the dollars of the North became the national currency of the United States throughout the territory.

In 1892 a series of banknotes were issued, dedicated to the “World’s Fair”. These bills are considered the most beautiful in the history of the United States. This banknote shows Columbia pointing to the Washington Monument.

In 1913, the Federal Reserve Act was passed. From then on, portraits of the late presidents were displayed on the front, and the primary colors were black, red, and blue. The back side depicted significant events in American history.

Design Evolution of American Currency

The foundations of the modern design of regular dollar banknotes were laid by the law of 1928. They still bear portraits of prominent American political figures, including the founding fathers of the United States.

Now the U.S. Bank issues banknotes in the following denominations: 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 dollars. Until 1969, they also issued large denomination bills: 500, 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000. They are still in circulation – you can even pay with them, only to find them is not so easy.

The design of modern banknotes began to change in 1996.  The portraits of presidents have become larger, and they have slightly moved away from the center. Color-changing ink is used for printing. The banknotes used to be darker and brighter. Over time, the colors have become softer and lighter, while the images are clearer and more realistic.

Banknotes: Symbols and Meanings

On U.S. dollar bills, including the one-dollar bill, you can find various symbols and images that some people interpret as signs associated with Freemasonry. Some say that most of these interpretations are the result of conspiracy theories and have no confirmation from official sources. Others are sure they are not. But first, let’s talk about the images that are difficult to interpret in different ways.

The dollar bills feature portraits of U.S. statesmen:

  • $1 bill – the first President D. Washington (1789-1797),
  • $2 bill – the third president and one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809).
  • $5 bill – the thirteenth President Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865),
  • $10 bill – the first U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton,
  • $20 bill – the founder of the U.S. Democratic Party and the seventh President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837).
  • $50 bill – Ulysses Grant (18 President Ulysses S. Grant), general of the Northern Army in the Civil War (1869-1877),
  • $100 bill – Benjamin Franklin, scientist, diplomat, and one of the founding fathers of the United States.

It is worth mentioning the seal of the U.S. Treasury Department, located on the right side of the portrait of the president, which begins an interesting chain associated with the number 13.  On the seal, we see a key, the date of foundation of the ministry, scales (as a sign of justice), and 13 stars on the field.

When examining the back of the bill, there are immediately many questions about the pyramid and eagle images, however, both of these designs were taken from the U.S. Great Seal and are two sides of it.

The Pyramid on dollar bills is a reference to Christianity. The triangle is the Father, the Son, and the holy spirit. The eye is the eye of God. There is also the inscription “In God we trust”. The triangle with the eye rises above a pyramid of 13 steps – these are the first 13 states of the United States. The Roman number 1776 engraved at the foot of the pyramid refers to the year the country adopted the Declaration of Independence. The fact that the pyramid is not completed is considered a symbol of the constant aspiration of the USA to develop and perfect.

Pyramid on dollar bills

The pyramid has a top, but it is as if floats above the basic part and is provided with an eye, this eye in a triangle has the name – The Eye of Providence. Throughout the centuries, this symbol has been associated with God watching over people. The same role, probably, the image played on the sketches for the Great Seal – the Creator “watches over” the young American nation.

At the top, there is an inscription in Latin “Annuit Coeptis” that means “God approves our actions”. At the bottom of the pyramid, there is another slogan – “Novus Ordo Seclorum”, which translates as “The New Order of the Ages”.

On the other side of the seal, to the right, is a white-headed Eagle representing freedom and America itself. He holds in his left paw 13 arrows (a symbol of war and the First States) and in his right paw 13 olive branches, identified with the desire for peace. In heraldry, objects held in the right hand have a higher significance, which in this case means that America always prefers peace to war, but is ready to defend itself if necessary.

There are curious elements on other dollar bills as well:

  • $5 bill. On the back of this bill, you can make out the names of 26 states written on the Lincoln Memorial.
  • $10 bill. It may appear that the number 10 in the lower left corner on the front of the bill is speckled with black lines. But a closer look reveals that these lines are actually tiny microprinted rows of the word ten, placed here to make life difficult for counterfeiters.
  • $20 bill. On the reverse side of the twenty dollar bill, you can find strange concentric pentagons and an abundance of numbers 20, as if chaotically applied on top of geometric figures. This is a copy code that allows copiers to recognize that they are being attempted to be used to copy and print money.

But the Green color of dollar bills is because there were more green paint stocks than other colors, and the slang name “bucks” according to one version came from the abbreviated “nickname” of the dollar – “greenback”, and according to another – from the English word Buckskin.

Coins: Symbols and Meanings

Under the Act of 1792, all United States coins must have on one side an allegorical representation of the symbol of Liberty with the inscription “Liberty” and the year of minting, and on the reverse side of each gold and silver coin an image of an eagle and the inscription “United States of America”.

The United States currently has coins in regular circulation in the denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25, 50 cents, and 1 dollar. The last two coins are not widely circulated.

Coins of dollar

Modern U.S. coins bear portraits of former presidents: 1 cent – A. Lincoln, 5 cents – T. Jefferson, 10 cents – T. Roosevelt, 25 cents – J. Washington, 50 cents – J. Kennedy. The $1 coins at various times carried portraits of President D. Eisenhower (1971-1978), women’s rights activist C.Etoni (1979-1981; 1999), and Sacagawea Indian Girl (2000-present).

Over more than two hundred years of history, coin designs have undergone significant changes, but the basic elements have remained the same. Today, coins are minted in copper-nickel alloy, while the one-cent coin is made of copper-coated zinc.

The Dollar Symbol Origin

The dollar sign $ also has its own, no less impressive, history, and although in printed form appeared only 211 years ago, in 1797, in the book “American Accountant” by C. Lee, much earlier was already used in accounting books. There is no single opinion about the origin of the mark, but there are some rather curious ones.

  • Official Version. The first to use the modern dollar sign was a wealthy merchant and planter, an Irishman by birth, Oliver Pollock. He was a supplier to an army of American patriots during the war against the British oppressors and recorded the proceeds in the ledgers with a badge combining a P and an S.
  • Alternate version. The symbol $ is derived from the abbreviation of the United States and is a mixture of two letters U and S, with the lower part of the letter U disappearing, and two vertical “sticks” combined and superimposed on the S.
  • Second alternative version. According to another version, the letter S is from the abbreviated “silver” – silver, above which the letter U (unit – piece, unit, ingot) was often placed. Later, the U shifted downward and lost the lower part, becoming $.
  • The German version says that the $ appeared as a result of rethinking one of the designs of the Austrian thaler. On the obverse of the coin was depicted crucified Jesus, on the reverse – a snake wrapped around the cross. This snake subsequently turned into a symbol of $;
  • The British version derives the $ sign from the shilling, which was denoted as an S, sometimes “backed” by a vertical dash.
  • The Roman version says that the $ sign derives from the Roman sestertius, for which the letters HS were used. In the U.S., the H, which was superimposed on the S, lost its crossbar.


The US dollar is the official currency of the United States of America. The bank code is USD. Denoted by . 1 dollar is equal to 100 cents. The denominations of banknotes in circulation are 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 5, 2 (a relatively rare bill), and 1 dollar, as well as coins of 1 dollar, 50, 25, 10, 5, and 1 cent. In addition, there are banknotes in denominations of 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, and 100,000, which were used earlier for mutual settlements within the framework of, but since 1945 are no longer issued, and since 1969 officially withdrawn from circulation, as they were replaced by an electronic payment system. The name of the monetary unit, according to the most common version, comes from the medieval coin thaler, minted in Germany.

The U.S. dollar is not only the world’s main reserve currency, as it is very often used in international settlements, but it is also the official currency of some countries and the de facto currency in many others. In addition to the United States, the American dollar is also used as the sole currency in two British Overseas Territories: the British Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands. American currency is readily accepted in the Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe, and other countries of the world.

Join the Newsletter to get our latest content by email.