Guide to Collecting and Investing
MORGAN SILVER DOLLARS 1878-1921
by Q. David Bowers
Numismatic and Historical Notes
Inception of the Morgan Dollar
As R.W. Julian has related, the Morgan silver dollar was a child of politics and the silver interests of the 1870s. George T. Morgan's design was rushed into production in early 1878 before it was thoroughly tested. As a result, the first few months saw several revisions. The relief contour of the eagle's breast was altered, the number of feathers in the eagle's tail was changed from eight to seven (with several dies having eight feathers over seven feathers), and other minor adjustments were made. As late as 1880, overdates and mixtures of new and obsolete reverses recurred. These operations produced a plethora of varieties for a later generation of collectors.
The image on the obverse was that of Philadelphia kindergarten teacher Anna Willess Williams. Walter H. Breen commented as follows;'
The portrait on the Morgan dollar bears a superficial resemblance to the Eugene Andre Oudine head of Marianne (the personified Republic) on dollar-size French silver 5 francs, 1870-1878. This is likely to have been interpreted in Europe at the time as a gesture of respect to France, an ally of the United States nearly continuously since the Revolutionary War.
Coinage at the Mints
Coinage of Morgan dollars was effected at Philadelphia, Carson City, and San Francisco in 1878. The New Orleans Mint reopened for dollar production in 1879. Morgan dollars were struck at the Denver Mint decades later in 1921.
The Carson City Mint was continually beset with problems, including a lack of appreciation from the director's office in Washington, jealousy on the part of San Francisco Mint officials (who competed for the silver and gold bullion from the Comstock Lode, located about 15 miles from Carson City), allegations of poor refining practices, and a relatively high cost of doing business. Despite all of this, the Carson City Mint turned out Morgan dollars of excellent sharpness and overall quality from 1878 to 1885 and again from 1889 to 1893. These coins are collectors' favorites today.
As millions of Morgan dollars were struck each month at the various mints, and as there was virtually no demand for them in the channels of commerce, the government resorted to storing them. At first the mints were employed for this purpose, but soon these facilities were not enough, and, for example, the Philadelphia Post Office provided space. The annual reports of the director of the Mint continually addressed the problem of storing ever-increasing amounts of unwanted dollars.
Numismatic Reception of the Dollars
Despite their popularity today, silver dollars of the Morgan design were not particularly desired by numismatists at the time they were issued. Before the early 1890s, collecting by mintmark varieties was not a widespread discipline, and the presence or absence of a distinguishing CC, O, or S mint letter made a difference to only a few collectors. There were a few exceptions, prominent among them being Augustus G. Heaton, whose treatise on the desirability of collecting branch mint coins, Mint Marks, achieved a wide circulation after its publication in 1893. Most numismatists were content to acquire an example representing each date, and this could be easily done by ordering Proofs each year from Philadelphia. Heaton had this to say about Morgan dollars:
The O Mint Silver Dollar Coinage:
When in 1879 O Mint dollars were again coined [after the Liberty Seated 1860-O]-a year later than the standard dollar resumption at the San Francisco and Carson City mints-the large ornate head had replaced the seated figure of Liberty and, on the reverse, a different design is also seen. The mint mark changes to a small O which is dose to the center of the wreath and over the space between the D and O of DOLLAR. In the dates from 1879 to '93, the only variations from this description, which we have noted, are that the same small O sometimes touches the wreath, as in examples of 1886, 1888, and 1889, and sometimes is free. The date is also a little more or less removed from, the star to the right. Such trifling differences would, we think, tempt no one to gather varieties of so inconvenient a piece, and we leave them undetailed. (Q.D.B. note: What would Heaton say ifhe were alive today to see the thousands of numismatists who enjoy collecting Morgan dollars by Van Allen-Mallis varieties! )
The S Mint Standard Dollars:
In. 1878, the last year of the coinage of trade dollars at San Francisco, the mint of that-city resumed the issue of the more legitimate dollar with an over-large and over-ornate female head on the obverse. The mint mark on the reverse is a very small s over the space between the D and 9 of DOLLAR. In 1879 the s is small and similarly placed. 1880 has a small and crooked s. 1881 has a very small s once more, and 1882 continues it: From 1883 on, a small s is seen in: the same place until 1892, when a very small s returns. But the differences are, as in the Q series, too slight for consideration in regard to this heavy piece of such immense annual coinage. 1893 has a small s. The only dates in which somewhat less than a million were struck are 1886, 1888, and 1889, but condition alone can give value to any dollar of the S mint from 1878 to '93.
The CC Mint Standard Dollars:
The new design of a large ornate head adopted for all the mints was used at Carson City in 1878 for a very large coinage of dollars with an individual value approximating those struck before 1873. The piece of 1878 has a small cc over the space between the D and 0 of DOLLAR. In 1879 the same mint mark is more over the D. 1880 has a very small cc over the D and the space to the right. It is not very common. 1881 is becoming rather scarce. 1885 is quite scarce and 1889 moderately so. 1893 has a medium CC over the space between D and O. The first C is higher than the second. However, in the Carson City dollars from 1878 to '93 the differences are so trivial that, for reasons before given, we will leave further study of the millions of pieces annually coined to individual pleasure, assured that very few will burden their drawers with more than a specimen of each mint mark date.
Condition, we repeat, is an especially important factor in dollars of the branch mints, and Uncirculated pieces of the many abundant dates will command good premiums. Any prominent dealer could soon fill an order far 100 strictly Uncirculated Philadelphia coins of any silver denomination and date (except very few) between 1840 and 1890, but would find an equal number of any branch mint piece very difficult to gather in the same condition.
Much additional information concerning reactions to the new Morgan dollars may be found under Additional Information, following the 18788 Tail Feathers coins, below.