Q. David Bowers
If Morgan dollars, minted from 1878 to 1921, didn't exist, and a committee of coin collectors was put together to create a "dream series," they could do no better than envision what collectors now have in front them in actuality -- a fascinating series containing approximately 100 major varieties, most of which are over a century old, and the majority of which are available in Mint State for less than $100 each!
The availability of many millions of Mint State Morgan dollars dated from 1878 through 1921 has made possible an entire collecting field which could not otherwise be. As a result, a survey taken by Coin World in 1993 showed that the field of Morgan dollars was the most popular of the older United States coin series.
Today, collectors recognize approximately 100 major varieties in the series. As noted, slightly more than half of these can be purchased for less than $100 each in grades from MS-60 through MS-63. Another 25 or so pieces cost in the range of several hundred dollars upward, with a remaining dozen or two being in the rarity class, and costing over $1,000. The key issue today is the 1893-S, which is joined by others such as 1889-CC and 1895 Philadelphia coins.
Few numismatists aspire to collect a full set of Morgan dollars in Uncirculated grade, unless their checkbooks are well endowed. However, the majority of the set can be collected in Mint State, with the balance in worn grade. For example, the very rare 1893-S can be obtained in nice VF grade for about $1500, as compared to several tens of thousands of dollars in Mint State.
These large, handsome, impressive, lustrous coins will undoubtedly continue to occupy the limelight for many years to come.
Why They Were Made
This veritable numismatic playground is due to the Bland-Allison Act, passed by Congress on February 28, 1878. For a number of years in the 1870s, there had been a glut of silver on international markets. This came about in several ways, including the availability of untold millions of dollars' worth of previously-struck silver coins in Europe, which were thrown on the market as bullion. Here in the United States, the tremendous production of the metal in the Comstock Lode in Nevada in particular, but also in Colorado, Montana, and elsewhere, added to the supply. There simply was not a sufficient market to keep the price as high as producers would like, and hard times were felt in the industry.
Enter the vested political interests from the American West, and the Bland-Allison Act was a result. Under this legislation, the Treasury Department was mandated to buy millions of ounces of silver each month, although such quantities were in no way needed for coinage. The decision was made to strike the silver in the most convenient form -- the silver dollar -- as it took less effort to coin a given amount of metal as a dollar than, for example, two half dollars, four quarters, or 10 dimes. Beginning in 1878, millions of unneeded, unwanted silver dollars began accumulating in vaults of the various mints and the Treasury Department.
The Morgan Design
The design was new, known today as the Morgan dollar, and was created by George T. Morgan, who came to America from England in 1876, and who in 1877 had Philadelphia kindergarten teacher Anna Willess Williams pose for him. Her portrait was used on several varieties of 1877 pattern half dollars. Following the passage of the Bland-Allison Act in early 1878, the Mint rushed to put a new silver dollar design into production. Chief Engraver William Barber prepared motifs, as did freshman engraver Morgan. Morgan's design, based on one used on a pattern half dollar of the year before, was selected. Morgan dollars were first struck for circulation in March 1878.
As it turned out, the new design was rushed into production before all of the bugs were ironed out. Accordingly, in 1878 and 1879 some modifications were made for artistic and coining purposes, rearrangement of the tail feathers on the eagle, the top feather of the top most arrow on the reverse, the relief of the eagle's breast, and several other details.
In the first year, 1878, coins were minted in Philadelphia, Carson City, and San Francisco. Interesting varieties include Philadelphia issues with eight tail feathers (the type first made), with seven tail feathers, and specimens from dies showing several tail feathers over an indeterminate number of other, earlier tail feathers, commonly called "seven over eight tail feathers," but more appropriately "Doubled Tailfeathers."
In the year 1878 alone, over 20 million Morgan dollars were minted, a figure which exceeded by a large margin the combined coinage of all other silver dollars from 1794 up to that point, including the Flowing Hair, Draped Bust, Gobrecht, and Liberty Seated series!
As time went on, millions of additional Morgan dollars were struck, bagged, and put into storage, although some did see circulation, particularly in the West where "hard money" was favored instead of paper currency. When silver supplies were exhausted under the Bland-Allison Act, trade dollars were melted down and converted to standard silver dollars, and in 1890 the Sherman Silver Purchase Act mandated additional Treasury purchases of silver bullion. Finally, at long last, in 1904, there was no more silver to be coined, and the Morgan dollar came to a temporary end.
In 1918 under the Pittman Act, 270,232,722 silver dollars of earlier dates went to the melting pot. In what must be one of the biggest boondoggles of all time, in 1921, much of this silver was again converted into Morgan dollars; over 85 million new Morgan dollars were struck! This marked the end of the design.
From time to time during the 1920s and 1930s, the Treasury Department would release cloth bags containing 1,000 coins of a particular early date or mintmark Morgan dollar variety. No numismatic attention was paid to the distribution -- cloth bags were taken from the vaults at random. In particular, during the December holiday season each year there was a demand for silver dollars for use as gifts. In the 1930s, collectors were delighted to find that Carson City dollars, which by that time had been considered scarce, were released and could be bought for as low as $2 each.
In autumn 1962, in response to a world-wide rise in the price of silver and a popular speculation in the metal, demand for silver dollars became very intense. Collectors, dealers, and investors sought to buy as many as they could, and many early bags of Morgan dollars came on the market, including some previously scarce varieties such as 1903-O (which in 1962 listed for $1,500 in Uncirculated grade in the Guide Book).
By March 1964, the Treasury vaults were exhausted, except for about three million coins, primarily Carson City issues dated 1882, 1883, and 1884, which had been held back. These retained pieces were sold by the General Services Administration in a series of sales beginning in the 1970s.
Writing in The Numismatist in 1925, E.S. Thresher reported that despite searching since 1919, he had not been able to find an example of an 1893-S in circulation; one of just eight coins absent from his Morgan dollar collection (the others were 1884-CC, 1885-CC, 1889-S, 1892, 1894, 1897, and 1899). These latter coins are particularly interesting to contemplate today, as the distribution of Treasury hoards since Thresher's day have made each of these varieties available, and the 1884-CC is actually common. Curiously, in that time, the rarest of all Morgan dollars was considered to be the 1889-S, a variety which is scarcely ever noticed as being rare today.
More so than any other American series, the order of rarity and desirability among Morgan dollars has changed dramatically over the years. As such, it is fascinating to study.
The 1878 'Doubled Tailfeathers' is one of the more interesting Morgan Dollar varieties