What did the D stand for in old money?

The letter “D” has a long history of being used in currency and finance. In old British and American money, the D was shorthand for pence or pennies. It comes from the Roman denarius, which was an ancient coin. Understanding the origins and usage of D in currency can give insight into economic history.

Pence and Pennies

In the old British monetary system, pence were denoted with a D. This abbreviation comes from the Latin “denarius” meaning containing ten. The denarius was a Roman silver coin that made up the backbone of their currency.

When the British adopted and adapted the Roman currency system, they kept the denarius as a unit of account. In the Middle Ages the denarius was minted as a silver penny. The D was used as an abbreviation for denarius and later just for penny.

Similarly, in the early American colonial monetary system and the subsequent United States decimal system, the cent was also known as a penny. The penny inherited the D abbreviation from the British system.

So the D used in old money stood for the base unit of currency – pence in the UK and pennies in the US.

Decimal Pence

In the UK decimalization occurred in 1971, replacing the old pounds, shillings, and pence system. The new basic unit of currency was called “new pence” and was equal to 1/100th of a pound.

These decimal pence were sometimes represented with the p abbreviation to differentiate them from the old pence (d). But over time the p was dropped and the decimal pence became just “pence” denoted with a lowercase d.

So in modern British money d is still used as the symbol for the base unit – now decimal pence instead of the old pence sterling.

Dollar Sign $ Origin

The origins of the dollar sign $ are debated, but one theory points to it being derived from the Spanish “peso” abbreviation ps. The ps was written with a long s that looked like an f. When handwritten quickly, the long s and o would blend together creating a symbol similar to $.

So while the D came from denarius for pence and pennies, the $ sign emerged from the shorthand for another currency – the Spanish dollar or peso.

Denarius in the Roman Monetary System

The denarius was a key silver coin in the Roman currency system that was minted from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. Here is some background on the denarius in Roman money:

  • The denarius contained approximately 4.5 grams of pure silver.
  • It was equal to 10 asses (bronze coins) or 4 sestertii (smaller silver coins).
  • The abbreviation for denarius was D.
  • It got its name from being worth 10 asses.
  • The plural form was denarii.
  • It became the backbone of the Roman monetary system.
  • As inflation occurred its silver content decreased over time.
  • It was minted in large quantities for over 400 years.

When the Romans invaded and occupied Britain, they brought their coinage system with them. The denarius circulated widely and became engrained in the British monetary system even after the Romans left.

Silver Content

In its initial minting under the Roman Republic, the denarius contained nearly 4.5 grams of pure silver. This gave it a significant intrinsic value as a silver coin. However, as inflation occurred its silver content gradually declined.

By the time of Nero in the 1st century AD, the denarius was down to 3.8 grams of silver. By the 3rd century AD silver purity had dropped to just 2% to 3% silver content. The coin had become heavily debased.

Purchasing Power

To understand the purchasing power of the denarius, consider these examples:

  • A legionnaire earned approximately 225 denarii per year in the early Roman Empire.
  • A loaf of bread cost roughly half a denarius.
  • A sextarius (0.5 liter) of wine ranged from half to one denarius.
  • One pound of pork cost two denarii.

This shows how common goods and services could be valued in terms of denarii. As with any currency, its purchasing power declined over time as more coins were minted and inflation occurred.

Origins of the Penny and its D Symbol

The denarius gave rise to the penny which inherited its D symbol. Here is how the penny emerged from the Roman denarius:

Spread of the Denarius in Britain

The Roman Empire occupied Britain from 43 AD to 410 AD. This brought British trade and commerce under the sphere of Rome’s currency. The silver denarius circulated widely.

Even after the Roman withdrawal, communities in Britain still used the denarius into the 6th century. It had become an ingrained monetary unit.

Emergence of the Penny

In the early Middle Ages, Anglo Saxon kingdoms emerged across Britain. They began minting their own silver coins influenced by the denarius. One of these became known as the penny.

The penny went through changes in silver purity and weight over the centuries. But it remained a small silver coin and the cornerstone of the British monetary system through the Medieval era.

Penny Abbreviation

The penny inherited an abbreviated Latin name from the denarius – denarius became denar and eventually just the letter d. The Romans had originally abbreviated denarius with a D ligature.

So the denarius gave us both the penny and its abbreviation. The D came to signify the penny in Britain and later carried over to America’s one cent coins.

The Penny in British Currency

For centuries until decimalization, the penny was the foundational unit of British money with 240 pence equaling one pound sterling. Here is more on the role of the penny:

Penny’s Value

The penny went through various changes in silver content and value. In the early 1300s it contained nearly 1.7 grams of silver. By the 1700s this had been reduced to just 0.4 grams of silver.

Still it roughly equated to a day’s wages for common labor in Medieval times through the Renaissance. The penny had significant buying power for average citizens.

Minting and Circulation

Pennies were widely minted during the Middle Ages and into modern times. Penny minting took place at various mints around Britain including London, Canterbury, Durham, and York.

Heavy minting occurred under King Henry II in 1180 A.D. and King Edward I around 1280 A.D. Numerous pennies circulated in everyday commerce.

Farthing, Halfpenny Value

Lower denominations like the farthing (quarter penny) and halfpenny (half penny) were also minted. Prices could be specified in pence, fractions of a penny, or multiples of a penny.

So the humble penny constituted the backbone of Britain’s money as pence sterling right up through the 20th century.

Decimalization in 1971

The UK monetary system went through decimalization in 1971, replacing the pounds, shillings, and pence system. Here are some key points:

  • The pound sterling remained the currency unit.
  • There were now 100 new pence in a pound instead of 240 old pence.
  • The new decimal penny equaled about 2.4 old pence.
  • The abbreviation “p” was initially used for new pence.
  • The original penny symbol d was reused for decimal penny over time.

This major reform simplified British currency. Having 100 pence to the pound finally brought a decimal element to British money.

Motivations for Decimalization

Decimalization was driven by several factors:

  • The complex old system using pounds, shillings, pence was cumbersome.
  • The rise of decimal currencies in Europe and elsewhere put pressure on Britain.
  • Decimal money was easier for commerce, accounting, and banking.
  • Decimalization made currency more user friendly and intuitive.

So modernizing and streamlining British money provided a major impetus towards decimalization in 1971.

The New Penny

Under the new system, the penny was redefined in decimal terms:

  • The new penny equaled about 2.4 old pence.
  • Its symbol was “p” distinguishing it from the old “d” penny.
  • It was minted in bronze instead of silver.
  • 100 new pence equaled one pound.

This recasting of the penny allowed it to fit into a new decimal monetary framework while maintaining continuity with its heritage.

The Penny in the United States

The one cent coin in U.S. currency also inherited the penny name and D symbol from British usage. Here is its history:

Continuity from Colonial Times

Many early American colonies adopted the British monetary system. Spanish dollars were also used. But British penny denominated money circulated in commerce.

So the U.S. inherited the concept of the penny and its financial significance from widespread use in the colonies.

Establishing the Cent

With U.S. decimalization under the Coinage Act of 1792, the cent was set as the base unit of currency. Cents were widely referred to as pennies due to the British influence.

The cent equated to about half the value of the British penny at the time. But it took on the penny’s identity and abbreviation.

Penny Dominated Small Change

Through the 19th century the one cent penny was minted in large numbers and heavily circulated. It dominated small change transactions along with the half cent, which was phased out in 1857.

Pennies were widely recognized as the cent coins. The D symbol became standard shorthand for the one cent penny.

Lincoln Penny and Zinc Composition

Significant changes came to the U.S. penny in the 20th century:

  • The Lincoln wheat penny replaced the Indian head cent in 1909.
  • Lincoln’s likeness brought new symbolism to the coin.
  • It was composed of 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc through 1942.
  • WWII copper shortages led to steel penny minting in 1943.
  • In 1944 the penny was made of zinc plated steel.
  • From 1962 it was minted in 95% zinc and 5% copper composition.

Despite alterations in its metal content and design over the decades, the penny has retained its core place and identity in U.S. currency.

The longevity of the penny and its D symbol are testament to the longevity of denominations and representations in both British and American financial systems. Money has great cultural inertia.


The D we see today on the one cent coin traces its origins back 2000 years to the denarius of ancient Rome. That silver coin became the backbone of Roman currency.

When Rome invaded Britain, the denarius was widely adopted. It spawned the English penny which inherited its D abbreviation.

This penny went on to become the fundamental monetary unit of Britain for centuries. And it passed its name, value, and D symbol on to the American one cent piece or penny.

So the humble D represents an incredible span of numismatic history going back to antiquity. That single letter has been printed on tiny coins for over two millennia, representing the smallest denomination of currency across empires and eras.

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