Chapter 16: Peace Dollars, Historical Background Table of Contents

CHAPTER 16

Historical Background

PEACE SILVER DOLLARS 1921-1964

by. R.W. Julian

The Pittman Act

The Peace dollar of 1921-1935 is the first and only silver dollar coin struck by the United States in which numismatists played a key role in its creation. In April 1918 the Pittman Act had authorized the Treasury to melt up to 350 million silver dollars for the war effort. Some 270 million were actually melted, part of which were used for U.S. domestic coinage. The remaining bullion went to the British for use in the mints of India. In 1919 the mints of Bombay and Calcutta together struck 438 million silver rupees.

In agreeing to the melting of silver dollars, Congress stipulated that the dollars had to be replaced, using newly-mined metal from American mines. Furthermore, the Treasury had to buy this silver at one dollar per troy ounce, regardless of the current international market. There was a sudden rise in price after the end of the war in 1918, and the Treasury did not at once implement the purchases because market silver was then above $1 per ounce. (In 1920 Britain reduced the fineness of its silver coinage from 925/1000 to 500/1000 because of the high price.)

With the passing of time the price of silver fell to more reasonable levels. In May 1920 the purchases began at $1 per ounce. This inflated price proved a bonanza for the U.S. silver mines because the average market price was under 70 cents much of the time for the next few years. In March 1921 the market hit a post-war low of 53 cents per ounce. To qualify for the Pittman Act bonus, however, the seller had to prove that it was freshly-mined U.S. silver.

The New Design

Silver dollar coinage resumed in May 1921. The Treasury ordered that the old (1878-1904) Morgan design be used and it was. Millions of Morgan dollars dated 1921 were minted.

At the annual ANA convention, held at the Art Institute of Chicago in late August 1920, Farran Zerbe gave an impassioned plea for a new silver dollar, one whose design would commemorate the signing of the peace treaties ending World War I.(Zerbe was not the first to come up with the "peace coin" idea, but he is traditionally credited with promoting it the most. Zerbe had a penchant for claiming as his work the accomplishments of others.)(There was more than one treaty, but the Versailles Treaty of 1919 is the one that most historians think of in terms of definitive agreements.)

Zerbe's speech struck a receptive chord among many numismatists. By early in 1921 two influential congressmen, William A. Ashbrook of Ohio (Ashbrook, a numismatist, was a member of the American Numismatic Association. He was primarily responsible for the granting of a federal charter to the ANA in 1912, a very unusual distinction for a hobby organization.)and Albert Vestal of Indiana, had joined the ranks looking for a peace dollar. They attempted to obtain a unanimous resolution in Congress, but this failed and other methods were pursued.

On July 28, 1921, President Warren G. Harding issued an Executive Order assigning to the Commission of Fine Arts the right to pass on all coinage designs. It was not to have a veto power, but still the influence would be very great on the final design.

The chairman of the Commission, Charles Moore, was soon in close consultation with Mint Director Raymond T. Baker. Together they tackled the problem of obtaining a peace dollar. The Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, was soon converted, and the process toward the new coin was off and running. Eight prominent artists (Victor D. Brenner, Hermon MacNeil, Chester Beach, Henry Hering, Robert Aitken, Robert Tait McKenzie, John Flanagan, and Anthony de Francisci) were asked to participate in a design contest by means of a special circular dated November 23, 1921.

The contest stipulated that the drawings had to be submitted within a very short time. In fact the winning set (for obverse and reverse) was announced on December 19. De Francisci was judged a clear winner (President Harding had personally approved the drawings) and was asked to submit plaster models as soon as possible. The artist did so, but in the meantime a political storm blew up over the reverse.

Representatives of World War veterans' groups had obtained a copy of the drawing for the reverse and did not like what they saw. It featured an eagle breaking a sword (or bending it into "a plowshare," depending upon one's viewpoint). Veterans saw this as an admission of defeat by the United States, but that was certainly not the intent of the artist. Within a day the White House was deluged with telegrams demanding that the offensive artwork be withdrawn. There was a hasty conference between President Harding and Treasury Secretary Mellon, and the president ordered that the matter be rectified at once.

The Mint Bureau was directed to solve the problem and quickly dumped it in the lap of Chief Engraver George T. Morgan. It is not clear precisely what happened at this point, but it appears that Morgan executed a plaster model based on an alternate design by de Francisci showing an eagle gazing out to sea at the rising sun with the word "PEACE" below. The eagle was clearly looking to the east (and Europe) where the peace treaties had been signed. It also appears that, due to the shortness of time, de Francisci had little real input into the new reverse.

Despite the hurried execution, the Morgan/de Francisci reverse is a work of genuine quality and well reflects the mood of the American people with respect to the end of the war. The eagle is serenely glancing toward the scene of victory and peace, something that could be understood by all. The bird is perched atop a mountain, thus symbolizing strength and determination to watch out for those who would destroy that hard-won peace.

De Francisci's obverse, also hurriedly done, is loosely based on the Saint-Gaudens' head for the gold eagle of 1907 and certain other works by the same artist. The direct inspiration was de Francisci's wife, the former Teresa Cafarelli, who served as a model. Both obverse and reverse were artistic masterpieces and well worthy of the country.

Problems With the Design

Unlike the way most dies were made before 1908, in 1921 the entire design, lettering and all, was put into a new reducing machine, the Janvier, to produce a steel hub containing all but the date. (Those collectors who wish to see the difference between the two types of die work may easily do so by comparing the lettering on the Peace and Morgan dollars; the Peace dollar lettering is slightly fuzzy, while lettering on the Morgan is very sharp and clear.)

The hurried execution of the dies gave little time to test the work for problems endemic to all new coinages. The Peace dollars of 1921, all struck in the last week of the year, proved this point very well. Those who controlled such matters should have re-membered the fiasco with the high-relief Saint-Gaudens MCMVII double eagles of 1907. The cen-ters, especially on the obverse, struck up badly. A well-made 1921 Peace dollar is something of a rarity. The 1,006,473 struck in 1921 were distributed early in 1922 to generally favorable remarks except for the quality of striking.

 

Chapter 16: Peace Dollars, Historical Background Table of Contents