Have you ever looked closely at a dollar bill, or a quarter for that matter? Most of us have handled cash thousands of times, and yet we rarely take a close look at the money we so often exchange.
There are interesting symbols and marks on American currency — both on coins and paper currency. But what is the meaning of symbols on dollar bills and US coinage?
Why are symbols used in American currency?
The designers of the original dollar bill (and other currency) sought to make the note visually represent the new nation of the United States.
The founding fathers, most notably Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, designed elements of the symbology used on US currency, but they didn’t design the actual bills.
Many believe that the designs used were meant to inspire national unity, while reminding citizens of the foundational principles of this new nation.
And yet, the dollar bill symbols were rarely explained, leading to various interpretations and even some conspiracy theories.
Some symbols — the eagle clutching an olive branch — are widely recognized globally (the olive branch represents peace). Other symbols, such as the Eye of Providence or “floating eye,” are more mysterious, without a clearly defined meaning.
Dollar bill symbols
The US dollar bill is perhaps the most iconic American paper note. It features many symbols, some of which are also used on other US notes and coins—because of this, examining the dollar bill is a good way to learn more about the symbols commonly used in US currency designs.
Let’s explore some of the symbols on the dollar bill and what they mean — or at least what experts think they mean.
Perhaps the most striking graphic on a dollar bill is the pyramid with a “floating” eye on top.
The pyramid is thought to represent strength and duration. It was likely included to inspire a sense of strength and national unity.
The western side of the pyramid is in shadow. Some interpret it as a reminder that the nation still hadn’t explored the west.
Likewise, the missing top is sometimes interpreted as a reminder that the nation was not yet complete.
Eye of Providence, or “floating eye”
On top of the pyramid hovers a floating eye in a triangle. The eye is sometimes referred to as the Eye of Providence.
The symbol’s mysterious nature has led to many conspiracy theories, including the popular theory that the symbol represents the Illuminati. This secretive group supposedly controls global affairs behind the scenes.
To be fair, the symbol is a little on the creepy side. It certainly suggests some sort of surveillance, with the watchful, all-seeing eye symbology.
However, the more likely explanation for this symbol is that the founding fathers wished to include a symbol of divine providence.
The Eye of Providence is rooted in Christian symbolism, representing God’s compassionate watchfulness over humanity. The symbol has a long and fascinating history.
MDCCLXXVI on pyramid’s base
Here’s an easy one: On the base of the pyramid are the symbols MDCCLXXVI.
These are the Roman numerals for “1776,” representing the year that America declared its independence.
The large eagle design features prominently on the dollar bill. There’s a lot of symbology to unpack within this design.
The eagle has long been associated with America itself. In 1782, it was chosen to feature prominently in The Great Seal, the official seal of the United States of America. But what about some of the other elements of this design?
Eagle’s shield: The shield in front of the eagle is thought to indicate that Americans should rely on their virtue. The horizontal bars on top of the shield represent the Federal government, while the vertical bars represent the 13 individual states.
Eagle’s talons: The eagle clutches an olive branch (representing peace) in one talon and arrows (representing war) in the other.
Stars above eagle: The 13 stars above the head of the eagle represent the 13 states that were established when the original design was produced.
The number 13
One of the hidden symbols on the one dollar bill is the repeated use of the number 13. There were 13 states at the time when the design was produced.
If you look closely, there are reminders of the number 13 throughout the entire design of the note including the number of:
Stars above the eagle’s head
Arrows in the eagle’s talon
Olive branch leaves
Steps on the pyramid
Bars on the eagle’s shield
Even the Latin phrases displayed — “annuit cœptis” and “e pluribus unum” have 13 letters, although this is likely a coincidence.
There are phrases in Latin throughout the bill’s design, representing founding principles of the United States:
Annuit cœptis: God has favored our undertaking
Novus ordo seclorum: a new order of the ages
E pluribus unum:out of many, one
Random numbers and letters
Scattered throughout the dollar bill (and all paper currency), you’ll find seemingly random numbers and letters.
These are mostly mint marks that indicate which Federal Reserve mint produced the note or even the position that the printing press plates were in when the bill was printed.
These symbols allow the mints to correct issues if something is misprinted.
Finally, there is a serial number — a unique combination of 11 numbers and letters — printed on every bill. Each US bill has a unique serial number, which is used to prevent counterfeiting.
Learn more about money
It’s fun to learn about these ancient dollar bill symbols and what they mean. But it could be more useful to learn about how money actually works in the modern world.
Check out the Tally Blog to learn more about personal finance. We cover everything from debt payoff to investing and much more.
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