The dollar in your pocket has a hidden history.
Behind President Washington’s steady gaze lies an inheritance of struggle, exploration, and wealth — touching on four continents and five centuries.
It all began in the 1500s in the Bohemia, a powerful kingdom that ruled much of the present-day Czech Republic.
Central Europe was in the middle of a silver boon. Thanks to silver discovered in Germany, Austria, and Czech, the region was making a big switch in currency: Instead of using tiny gold coins to do business, merchants started using larger silver coins of an equivalent value.
The best of these coins came from the Bohemian town of St Joachimsthal, situated on today’s Czech-German border.
“St Joachimsthal was hugely productive,” reports the British Museum, “and gave this type of coin a new name: the thaler,” short for Joachimsthaler.
This coin was a big deal, io9 reports. The ‘thaler’ started to be used a byword for coins of a similar quality, kind of like how a ‘Frankfurter’ is a byword for a class of delicious sausages.
The Bohemian coin was was so popular that other kingdoms and states started making their own ‘thaler’ equivalent. You can see it in some of more recent currencies: the Dutch daalder, Slovenian tolar, the Eritrean tallero, and put into English, the dollar.
Around that same time, Spain was colonizing the New World. They found an insane amount of silver, so much that the Spanish-controlled lands of Boliva, Peru, and Mexico would create an estimated 85% of the world’s silver between 1500 and 1800.
From those mines, Spain started minting a new coin, the “peso de ocho,” or piece of eight, which would be used in foreign trade around the world. After the Spanish established a foothold in the Philippine city of Manila, the coin started circulating through Asia — the Japanese Yen and Chinese Yuan mean ’round object’ in their respective languages, and it’s a nod to the massively produced Spanish currency.
In fact, British colonists in North America had a terrible time tracking down official English currency, so much of colonial commerce was done with those same pesos, or as they came to be known for their equivalence to the Bohemian coin, Spanish dollars.
Then, in 1776, the Colonies declared their independence.
They had to decide on a new currency. They could keep the British pound, or take the name of the currency so many citizens were already using — the dollar.
So the young country exchanged the British Pound Sterling in favour of the new American Dollar.
It was formalized in the Coinage Act of 1792:
DOLLARS OR UNITS — each to be of the value of a Spanish milled dollar as the same is now current, and to contain three hundred and seventy-one grains and four sixteenth parts of a grain of pure, or four hundred and sixteen grains of standard silver.
… the money of account of the United States … shall be expressed in dollars, or units … and that all accounts in the public offices and all proceedings in the courts of the United States shall be kept and had in conformity to this regulation.
The story of the dollar, then, goes from Bohemia, to Spain, to Mexico, the American Colonies, to your pocket.