It is only appropriate that an Irish immigrant to the United States, be the
one credited with originating the dollar sign. Oliver Pollock sailed the
high seas at the age of twenty-three, and settled in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
This young entrepreneur rapidly established himself as a wealthy and
influential West Indies trader.
Pollock moved his operation to Louisiana, where he amassed even more wealth
as a trader, and as a plantation owner. His success enabled him to provide
supplies to the Patriots' cause in the Revolutionary War, and to maintain
close contact and a degree of influence with Congress. Pollock's success
allowed him easily to purchase military supplies to support "the cause," as
the Spanish Empire had an outpost in New Orleans, Louisiana. In his dealings
with the Spaniards, Pollock used their currency, the peso.
In true Spanish tradition, Pollock used an abbreviation for pesos, yet his
penmanship made the abbreviation appear to be the transposition of the
letters "p" and "s."
Prior to 1775, the fledgling nation's monetary system was in disarray, and
needed to be revamped. By 1775, Congress decided to rectify the situation by
backing all of its legal tender with the most commonly circulated coins that
were, coincidentally, Spanish coins minted in the New World. Americans then
began trading with "Spanish milled dollars," later termed "dollars," as
Americans shed the "pounds" that were the vestiges of British rule.
Congressman Robert Morris, to whom Pollock addressed his billing records,
perpetuated the use of the dollar sign, and was the first high government
official to give his blessing to the "s" with the two lines through it.
The appearance of the dollar sign in print, in a 1797 book by Chauncey Lee,
signified the acceptance of the dollar as a purely American symbol, much as
is the bald eagle. And, no, the dollar sign formed by placing the letter "U"
over the letter "S" is not an abbreviation for Uncle Sam, as some have
"Word and Phrase Origins" are copyrighted by David Wilton.
The origin of the almighty dollar is in what is now the Czech Republic. In 1519, a silver mine near the town of Joachimstal (literally "Joachim's valley," from the German Tal, meaning valley) began minting a silver coin called, unimaginatively, the Joachimstaler. The coin, which was circulated widely, became better known by its clipped form, the taler. In Dutch and Low German, the initial consonant softened to become daler. England adopted this form, eventually changing its spelling to the modern dollar.
In the American colonies, there was no standard currency. The coin that was in widest use was the Spanish Peso, known also as "Pieces of Eight" because it could be divided into eight pie-like pieces. The English colonists informally assigned the name dollar to this coin. In 1785, when the Continental Congress established U.S. currency, they adopted dollar as name for the standard unit of currency, at the suggestion of Governor Morris and Thomas Jefferson, because the term was widely known and was not associated with any form of official English currency. (Jefferson also coined the term disme, from the French dixieme, for a tenth of a dollar. Pronounced deem, it eventually became dime.)