(Photo: Thomas E. Jacks/Find-a-Grave)
The cause of the American Revolution was frequently short of men, commonly short of arms and other military supplies, and almost always deprived of cash. Wars--especially wars against great powers such as the United Kingdom--are expensive. Oliver Pollock, an Irish merchant based in Spanish-controlled New Orleans, helped the nascent American government fund its war efforts. During his struggle to back the Americans, he accidentally invented the dollar sign ($).
Dan Hess of Atlas Obscura traces the life of Pollock and his extraordinary efforts on behalf of the American cause. Not only did Pollock help fund the revolutionaries at his own expense, his diplomatic efforts were essential to getting Spain active in the war and ensuring the success of expeditions to capture the Trans-Appalachian West.
After the war ended, Pollock wanted his money back and asked Congress to make good on its debts to him. His notes include the first use of the dollar sign:
“Pollock...entered the abbreviation ‘ps’ by the figures for ‘peso.’ Because Pollock recorded these Spanish “dollars” or “pesos” as ‘ps” and because he tended to run both letters together, the resulting symbol resembled a ‘$,’” says Jim Woodrick, the Historic Preservation Division Director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
That’s it. Historians have analyzed the source of the $ symbol and have yet to find it written down prior to Pollock’s use in his ledgers. His unintentional creation is supported by the fact that Robert Morris chose to adopt the symbol and by 1797 had it cast in type in Philadelphia as the official symbol for new nation’s own currency.