A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 99: minting the dollar

I was in St Andrews a couple of weeks ago with my wife Leigh to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. St Andrews is a picturesque, if slightly exposed town on the north coast of Fife, in Scotland, and is famous mostly for two things: the Old Course, being the oldest golf course in the world; and its university, which is the oldest in Scotland and the third oldest in the English speaking world.

Like most towns that host a centuries-old university, St Andrews boasts and/or suffers eye-watering housing costs, sticky-floored bars beloved by students and loathed by locals, and at least one quirky, ageless bookshop that looks like it has escaped from a Terry Pratchett novel. Cambridge has The Haunted Bookshop; Oxford has St Philip’s Books; Edinburgh has Armchair Books.* We came across a fantastic example in St Andrews in the form of J&G Innes on South Street, one of the town’s main shopping streets:

A picture of J&G Innes, booksellers in St Andrews, taken from South Street.

J&G Innes, booksellers in St Andrews, as taken from South Street. (Photo by the author.)

The Innes building has a long association with paper, printing and books. From 1620 until 1740 the site hosted a printing press established by one Edward Raban, before being replaced with a larger edifice that housed a barber’s shop.1 The attic of that shop, in turn, would soon house another printing press (of which more below), before the building was rented in 1892 by the prioprietors of a local newspaper, the St Andrews Citizen, and then bought outright by them in 1927. That’s when the building was renovated in a faux-medieval style, latticed windows and all.2

Oh, that that paper, the Citizen? It was established by a Mr Robert Tullis, a scion of the Tullis papermaking dynasty, whose mill at nearby Markinch closed in 2015 after more than two centuries.3

But at least as interesting as the shop’s commercial and architectural history is this sign above the door:

A picture of a painted sign that reads:
The sign above the door at J&G Innes, St Andrews. (Photo by the author.)

Here’s the wording in full:

Here stood the house of BAILIE BELL, who, before 1744, was an eager co-worker with Alexander Wilson, the father of Scottish type-founding, and JOHN BAINE in whose type-foundry in Philadelphia the first $ sign was cast in 1797.

Quite a few degrees of separation to unpick here. To wrong-foot us from the start, it turns out that “Bailie” is not a name but a title, that of “a municipal officer or magistrate, corresponding to […] alderman, next in rank to the Provost”.4 Bailie Bell’s Christian name was Andrew, and he was a well-to-do barber whose family was said to have been the first in St Andrews to serve tea in china cups.5 It was Bell who levelled Edward Raban’s modest print shop to build a rather more assertive building that served as his home and place of business.

It seems (although the records are muddy) that shortly after the construction of the new building, Bell began to collaborate with Alexander Wilson and John Baine, a lapsed surgeon and a type founder respectively, with the aim of pioneering some new method of printing.6 But Wilson and Baine’s partnership was dissolved in 1749, and Bell exited stage left some time before that.7

Wilson went on to become professor of astronomy at the University of Glasgow, but Baine kept up his typefounding business and eventually emigrated to Philadelphia to carry on his work.6,7 (He may, in fact, have been the first typefounder to arrive in the American colonies.8) Baine’s grandson inherited the family business upon Baine’s death in 1790 before selling up to in 1799 to another pair of printing Scots, Archibald Binny and James Ronaldson.7,9 And it was Binny, finally, who would cast the first ‘$’.

The Spanish coat of arms, showing a shield surmounted by a crown and flanked by the pillars of Hercules.
The Spanish coat of arms, showing a shield surmounted by a crown and flanked by the pillars of Hercules. (Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The roots of the dollar sign are disputed. The leading theory holds that ‘$’ is a stylised abbreviation for the Spanish American pesos (ps), on which the new US currency was based.10 A competing but shakier notion says that the symbol is derived from a double-barred Portuguese symbol called the cifrão, which once denominated “thousands” but now serves mostly as a currency symbol in its own right. And yet another says that ‘$’ is derived from the “pillars of Hercules” that form part of the Spanish coat of arms. These heraldic devices represent the two sides of the Strait of Gibraltar, on Spain’s southern coast, where the Mediterranean funnels out into the Atlantic.11

Whatever the dollar sign’s origins, what is certain is that the first printed dollar sign was impressed in Philadelphia around the turn of the eighteenth century — and that it came from the hand of Archibald Binny, Bailie Bell’s work colleague thrice removed. Binny was a political migrant, having agitated in Britain for universal suffrage and yearly sittings of parliament, and the ideological freedom of the United States suited him better than the stifling conservatism of his native country. Arriving at New York around 1795, and establishing a partnership with James Ronaldson, a baker, Binny allied his typefounding skills with Ronaldson’s capital so that the pair soon headed the only major typefounding firm in the USA, supplying type for the majority of likeminded émigrés in the new state of Pennsylvania.8,12

At some point, then, with America’s coinage stabilised and ‘$’ established as its (hand)written symbol, there came a need to print that same symbol. As near as anyone has been able to tell, that moment arrived in 1801. That was the year in which a pamphlet entitled “Facts Respecting the Bank of North America” was published in two editions by two different printers. John Wyeth and William Dickson were both customers of Binny & Ronaldson — understandably, really, since there were few other avenues via which to acquire movable type — and both of them used identical printed dollar signs in their respective versions of the pamphlet. The first printed dollar sign had arrived, and, by a process of elimination, it must have come from the foundry of Binny & Ronaldson. There’s no evidence on precisely when Binny carved his new ‘$’ letter punch — his firm did not issue its first type specimen until some years later, and even then the ‘$’ was absent — but J&G Innes’s hand-painted date of 1797 may not be wide of the mark.13

So there we have it: the unexpected connection between a bookshop in St Andrews and the first printed dollar sign, cast by an emigrant Scot in the post-revolutionary United States.

O’Connor, J. J., and E. F. Robertson. “St Andrews Type Foundry”. MacTutor.




“The Rise and Fall of Tullis Russell”. The Courier. May 22, 2017.


Dictionaries of the Scots Language. “Bailie”. Accessed March 4, 2023.


“Review of ‘The Life of the Rev. Andrew Bell, D.D.’”. The Athenaeum, 1844, 965-968.


Stronach, George, and Roger Hutchins. Wilson, Alexander (1714–1786), Astronomer and Type Founder. Oxford University Press, 2010.


Devroye, Luc. “John Baine”. On Snot and Fonts. Accessed March 7, 2023.


Silver, Rollo G. “Typefounding As a Permanent Industry”. In Typefounding in America, 1787-1825, 3-30. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965.


Updike, Daniel Berkeley. “Types Used in the American Colonies, and Some Early American Specimens”. In Printing Types, Their History, Forms, and Use : A Study in Survivals, 149-158. Harvard University Press, 1927.


Nussbaum, Arthur. “Revolution and Reorganisation”. In A History of the Dollar, 35-60. New York: Columbia University Press, 1957.


Cajori, Florian. “New Data on the Origin and Spread of the Dollar Mark”. The Scientific Monthly 29, no. 3 (1929): 212-216.


Durey, Michael. “Thomas Paine’s Apostles: Radical Emigrés and the Triumph of Jeffersonian Republicanism”. The William and Mary Quarterly 44, no. 4 (1987): 662-688.


Newman, Eric P. “The Dollar Sign: Its Written and Printed Origins”. In America’s Silver Dollars, 1-49. New York: American Numismatic Society, 1993.


Readers are encouraged to weigh in with examples in their own neck of the woods. 

2 comments on “Miscellany № 99: minting the dollar

  1. Comment posted by Glenn Fleishman on

    Could the new kind of printing technology mentioned involved stereotyping? By then, William Ged would already have likely done his successful experiments, having started 25 years earlier, although he was in Edinburgh and the printing would likely have been done in London.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      It could indeed! One of those sources (Updike, I think) talks briefly about what Bell, Wilson and Paine were up to, and although I didn’t dwell on that period I do remember a mention of stereotyping. Fascinating to see how the same ideas came up over and over again.

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