Guide to Collecting and Investing
EARLY SILVER DOLLARS 1794-1803
by Q. David Bowers
Opportunities With Early Dollars
Made in three distinct design types and well over 100 die varieties, early silver dollars of the 1794-1803 years are fascinating to study and collect. (Dollars dated 1804 are treated in the following chapter.) The largest diameter of all United States coins, these "dollars of our daddies," as they have been called, offer an especially large surface on which to study die characteristics, a situation of which the collector of tiny half dimes must surely be envious!
Walter H. Breen had this to say about the opportunities awaiting collectors in the early dollar series:
Only in recent years have early silver dollars begun to attract collector attention as intense as the smaller denominations-despite the shortcomings of available reference books. Were some future researcher to produce a book on this series in a class with Sheldon on 1793-1814 cents, doubtless early dollars would eventually rival the cents' popularity.
Russell Logan, an astute observer of the market and collecting scene, commented similarly.
Bust dollars used to be king for collectors interested in early U.S. silver coins by die variety. I can remember thinking during the mid-1950s how wonderful it would be if half dollars were as organized as dollars were by Bolender. But the bottom line was a Bust dollar cost five times what a comparable Bust half dollar would demand. The world was full of Bust dollar variety collectors .... Today it is a totally different story. There seem to be only a few collectors pursuing the early dollars seriously .... With only half a dozen variety collectors pursuing these lovable cartwheels, there is an opportunity to initiate a collection not only challenging to complete but also financially rewarding.
As early as 1927, B. Max Mehl noted in the first reprint of the Haseltine Type-Table catalogue: "While practically every series of the American coinage has been covered by works of various kinds, the series of our early silver coinage have remained more or less unexplored."
While the followers of Morgan silver dollars are legion, and while Liberty Seated issues also have a large coterie of enthusiasts, only a few have signed up to follow the early Flowing Hair and Draped Bust coins. I attribute this to several causes:
1. First, unlike large cents and Capped Bust half dollars of the late 1790s and early 1800s, silver dollars of that era are apt to cost several hundred dollars just for a specimen in Very Good or Fine grade. In higher grades such as EF and AU, the values of large cents and early dollars draw closer together, except that prices of rare varieties of cents far outdistance those of dollars in any and all grades. As low-grade cents and half dollars are inexpensive, the price of entry to those series is low; it costs little to break the ice, to get acquainted. In contrast, it would cost several thousand dollars to make a beginning with an early dollar set.
2. There is a great camaraderie and fellowship among enthusiasts in the cent series, who belong to the Early American Coppers (EAC) club and read its interesting, authoritative, and informative newsletter, Penny-Wise. At intervals, including at the annual convention of the American Numismatic Association, EAC members gather and swap ideas and coins, and share their enthusiasm. Ditto with collectors of early Flowing Hair, Draped Bust, and Capped Bust half dollars 1794-1836; many belong to the Bust Half Nut Club (BHNC). The John Reich Collectors Society (JRCS) embraces all collectors of early silver, of the general era pre-1837, but articles about early silver dollars in the John Reich Journal have been relatively few over the years. Needed: more camaraderie and inter-relationships among collectors, plus lively, interesting, and thought-provoking articles.
3. The classifying of early dollars by die varieties is easy and quite enjoyable for the years 1794 through early 1798, but dollars of 1798-1803, in particular those of 1798, 1799, and 1800, can be tedious. A solution to this is to collect the Flowing Hair and Draped Bust/Small Eagle dollars from 1794 through early 1798 by specialized die varieties, and to collect the Draped Bust/Heraldic Eagle dollars of 1798-1803 by dates only.
4. Few dealers have made a specialty of stocking early dollars by varieties. Part of the reason is that early dollars are very rare in comparison to early cents and halves. A new collector in the dollar series, who wants to buy quickly, has to be patient, as quality offerings are few and far between, and are mainly in auctions.
Today, in the early 1990s, early dollars are akin to the old "acres of diamonds" speech given to high school graduation classes; potentially valuable rarities exist, are often not identified, and await only an alert observer to find them. Curiously, the two leading certification companies-Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation of America (NCC)-do not identify the die varieties of the coins they encapsulate. Therein lies an opportunity-one of many in the silver dollar field.
Early dollars-representing as they do the largest silver denomination of the fledgling Philadelphia Mint-America's contribution to the crown-sized or dollar-sized coins of the world-are historical in their context, numismatically interesting in their diverse die varieties, aesthetically appealing in their design, and, if another reason to collect them is needed, they are relatively inexpensive in relation to their rarity.
It seems apparent that here, indeed, is a fertile field for the alert, astute numismatist-san area of collector endeavor that has been largely overlooked in recent times. Market recognition has yet to come.