The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 14, Number 30, July 24, 2011, Article 10


David F. Fanning and Eric P. Newman have been discussing Chauncey Lee's The American Accomptant, which was mentioned in the June 26 issue. David submitted the following write-up of their discussions. Thanks! -Editor

1797 American Accomptant

I noted with interest the commentary on Chauncey Lee's 1797 "The American Accomptant" and the claim that it includes the first printed dollar sign.

I should point out that the book is important for another reason: it includes, as a frontispiece, an engraving depicting a 1795 U.S. eagle, which Eric P. Newman has called "the earliest known illustration of a United States coin." Also included on the engraving are the Spanish pistole, French "guinea," British guinea, and Portuguese Johannes and half moidore. This illustration alone makes the book of considerable importance.

Returning to the question of whether it includes the first printed dollar sign, I have some thoughts on the matter. Lee's volume has been generally accepted for some time as including the first appearance in print of the dollar sign ($), though not without some dissent. The claim is accepted by bibliographers Charles Evans and Wright Howes, for instance. It is not accepted by Mr. Newman, who discusses the issue at length in his 1993 COAC presentation (published 1995), pages 24–25.

Mr. Newman argues that: 1) Lee's symbol seems to have had no relation to the handwritten symbol then in use; 2) that his dollar symbol was original with him and "that he was not familiar with the existing conventional $ sign"; 3) that as his dime symbol more closely resembled the existing handwritten dollar sign, his printed dollar sign could not have been a modification of the handwritten version; and 4) that it therefore "seems proper to exclude" the claim that the printed dollar sign first appears in Lee's work.

It is my opinion that the dollar sign, which appears on page 56 of Lee's work for the first time and then throughout the volume, is in fact a typographical approximation of the handwritten dollar sign used by some during the period. It resembles the handwritten symbol of the day, but also differs from it. Much as a typographical ampersand is much more stylized than most of our handwritten ampersands, this initial attempt at a dollar sign in type is less a strict representation of the handwritten sign than an attempt to establish a similar sign for more formal treatment in type. It much too closely resembles the handwritten dollar sign of the day to have been created ex nihilo, and the idea that Lee was unfamiliar with the handwritten symbol seems implausible. The resemblance between Lee's dollar and dimes symbols seems to me to be more a failure in his proposed system (which did not catch on) than evidence that he was unfamiliar with a monetary symbol which had been used for some time over a considerable geographical area.

I discussed the matter with Mr. Newman, whose opinion, as I mentioned above, differs. "In view of your suggestion that I comment on the Lee publication I am glad to have the opportunity to do so," writes Mr. Newman. "I certainly agree that the book has the first printed image of a United States of America coin (this includes the FUGIO copper coinage prior to the establishment of the US Mint). I also agree that it has the first printed symbol of a United States of America coin (none existed on the Continental Currency Dollar size coin nor on prior American paper money). Those facts alone make the book very important."

Newman continues, "Where we have a possible difference of opinion, I and perhaps others think that Lee's symbol has no relationship to or development from any of the then existent written forms of the dollar $ign. Lee's thinking and book includes the preparation of a set of symbols for the dollar and each of its major fractional divisions. Each of the signals for each denomination is different but is composed of the same design elements. In other words he was not primarily creating a symbol for the dollar but for a set of distinguishing symbols for the dollar and each of its major fractional parts. He did not mention or indicate in any way that he was influenced by any prior written symbol of the dollar. He created something entirely new for the public. His symbols were almost impossible to be written by penmanship and only possible for specially prepared type for use in printing. To have a dollar symbol which in my opinion does not resemble the then written dollar sign and to have different symbols for each major fractional part of a dollar with no relationship to the then written dollar sign or any part of a dollar does not seem reasonable to me. He developed an independent arrangement of symbols based upon the existing monetary system."

"After the publication of Lee's book in 1797 there was never a use or suggested use by anyone of the printed denominational symbols developed by Lee. In fact, I know of no mention of Lee's system during the 18th or early 19th century. The accepted and presently printed Dollar $ign in type was cast in Philadelphia in 1799 and used in print that year in the anonymous pamphlet ‘Facts Respecting the Bank of North America.'"

[Fanning again] I believe this is a matter of interpretation more than anything else, and a matter on which reasonable people can disagree. I feel that Lee's dollar sign resembles the handwritten dollar signs of the period enough to infer that his typographical symbol was an attempt to mimic the handwritten symbol while providing for a symbol complex enough to be integrated into a symbolic system capable of including all of the denominations. I also find it difficult to accept that the author of an early American accounting manual would have been ignorant of a symbol in use among merchants, etc., throughout a geographic span of the country.

Regardless of interpretations, Lee's book remains a fascinating publication, and the claim regarding its frontispiece including the first illustration of a U.S. federal coin remains to my knowledge unchallenged.

To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see: THE AMERICAN ACCOMPTANT: 1797 BOOK USING DOLLAR SIGN (

Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

The Numismatic Bibliomania Society is a non-profit organization promoting numismatic literature. See our web site at

To submit items for publication in The E-Sylum, write to the Editor at this address:

To subscribe go to:



Copyright © 1998 - 2020 The Numismatic Bibliomania Society (NBS)
All Rights Reserved.

NBS Home Page
Contact the NBS webmaster