Silver dollars divide themselves into several neatly defined groups. The first, early dollars minted from 1794 through 1803, is comprised of issues which appeal to two collecting disciplines: specialists and type collectors.
The collector of design types has three motifs to choose from. The first, the Flowing Hair motif minted in 1794 and 1795, is a stylistic carbon copy of the contemporary half dime and half dollar. The second, the Draped Bust obverse in combination with the Small Eagle reverse, minted from 1795 through 1798, likewise mirrors the design used in smaller silver denominations. The third, the Draped Bust obverse with Heraldic Eagle reverse, produced from 1798 through 1803, completes the early date range. In addition there is the 1804 silver dollar, which is in a class by itself.
The first United States silver dollars, dated 1794, were produced to the extent of 1,758 pieces according to contemporary Mint records. Today the 1794 dollar is a rarity. Approximately 130 different specimens are known, most of which are in grades from Fine to Very Fine. Extremely Fine pieces are very rare, AU coins are major rarities, and in the Uncirculated category the number of surviving specimens can be counted on the fingers of one's hands. The ownership of a 1794 silver dollar in any grade has always been regarded as a source of pride and a mark of distinction.
All 1794 silver dollars are lightly struck at the lower left side of the obverse and on the corresponding part of the reverse, due to the faces of the coining dies not being aligned parallel with each other.
The type collector desiring an example of the Flowing Hair style can be satisfied with a 1795-dated piece, of which at least several thousand exist in numismatic circles. Most of these are in worn grades, although an occasional Uncirculated piece is encountered in the marketplace.
Draped Bust dollars with Small Eagle reverse, first minted in 1795, are readily available today as a type. Within the span of coinage, several rare varieties occur, the most famous of which is the 1797 with nine stars to the left of the obverse and seven on the right, and with small letters on the reverse.
The most often seen early dollars are those of the Draped Bust obverse, Heraldic Eagle reverse style, minted 1798-1803, particularly dollars bearing the dates 1798 and 1799. Several hundred dollars will buy an attractive example in one of the lower circulated grades.
The 1804 silver dollar is arguably the most famous United States coin rarity, although some might say that the 1913 Liberty Head nickel edges it out. Unquestionably, a couple generations ago, when Texas dealer B. Max Mehl focused many advertising campaigns around the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, it was king, but in recent times more publicity has been given to the 1804 dollar. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many columns of print were devoted to this coin in the pages of The Numismatist, the American Journal of Numismatics, and other publications of the day. In 1962 a book was written about it, The Fantastic 1804 Dollar, by Eric P. Newman and Kenneth E. Bressett. Some 15 dollars dated 1804 are known, divided into three styles, sometimes designated as classes I, II, and III.
Business strike silver dollars of the 1794-1803 years were studied by M.H. Bolender, and die varieties were described in his book titled The United States Early Silver Dollars from 1794 to 1803. Today the specialty has faded somewhat. An updated and revised listing of die varieties appears in the book, Silver Dollars and Trade Dollars of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia.
After the pieces dated 1803, no dollars were struck for circulation until 1836, in which year Christian Gobrecht's Liberty Seated design was produced, possibly as a pattern, for all were made with Proof finish, hardly the format to use for business strikes. However, nearly all of the 1,000 pieces struck in 1836, and 600 additional 1836-dated pieces struck on March 31, 1837, were deliberately placed into circulation by the government. Therefore, these are de facto business strikes, no argument. Certain varieties of Liberty Seated patterns were also made dated 1836, and additional pieces were produced in 1838 and 1839. In the latter year some 300 pieces were produced for circulation, again with Proof finish. The last word has not been written on this subject, although the author's book, Silver Dollars and Trade Dollars of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia, gives much information.
Beginning in 1840, silver dollars were again struck in large quantities for circulation, during which year 61,005 were minted. The obverse featured the Liberty Seated design with stars, while the reverse depicted a perched eagle similar to that found on quarters and half dollars of the era. Liberty Seated dollars were produced continuously through 1873, with a design modification in 1866 when the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse.
Several prime rarities were produced during that span, including the 1851, of which 1,300 originals were made, and the 1852, struck to the extent of 1,100 pieces. Another famous dollar is the 1858, struck only with Proof finish, quite possibly to the extent of only about 300 coins, equal to the number of silver Proof sets believed to have been sold by the Mint that year. No 1858 dollars were made for general circulation.
In 1870 the Carson City Mint opened for general business, and in that year some 12,462 Liberty Seated dollars were struck in addition to coins of other denominations. During the following year 1,376 1871-CC dollars were made, followed by 3,150 1872-CC pieces and, finally, by 2,300 dollars of the 1873-CC issue. Although 1873-CC does not have the lowest mintage, it is the rarest Carson City Liberty Seated dollar. Examples are elusive in any grade, and Mint State coins are fantastic rarities.
In general, Mint State Liberty Seated dollars are rare, exceptions being 1859-O and 1860-O, many hundreds of which came to light during the Treasury release of silver dollars in 1962. At the same time many thousands of circulated Liberty Seated coins were released.
Today the building of a set of Liberty Seated dollars affords an interesting challenge. The 1870-S is a great rarity and typically comes on the market only when great collections are sold, and the aforementioned 1851, 1852 and 1858 are seldom seen, but if these four varieties are excluded, the building of a set from 1840 through 1873 is within the grasp of just about everyone. A nice condition to aim for is Extremely Fine to AU. There is something basically nifty about handling a large, heavy Liberty Seated silver dollar from the 1840s and wondering where it has been and what it has seen in the meantime.
Following an extensive coinage of patterns in 1872, trade dollars, at first called commercial dollars, were struck in large quantities in 1873. These silver coins, 420 grains in weight and heavier than a standard United States silver dollar, were intended for use in the Orient to compete with Mexican silver dollars. Merchants in China preferred Mexican coins, which contained more silver than American dollars, and American commerce suffered. The trade dollar would remedy the situation, it was hoped, and the effort ultimately succeeded.
Most business strike trade dollars were produced in the West at the San Francisco and Carson City mints; for two reasons: proximity to China and nearness to sources of silver for coinage. At first, trade dollars were legal tender in the United States, but Congress repealed this provision in the enabling act, and the coins became worth only bullion or melt-down value. For years afterward coin dealers offered common trade dollars for sale retail for less than $1 each!
The formation of a complete set of business strike trade dollars 1873-1878 is a distinct possibility for just about anyone, for there are no major rarities (although the 1878-CC is quite scarce).
Proofs were minted of all dates from 1873 through 1883. Toward the end of the series, the trade dollars from 1878 onward were Proof-only issues, as no related Philadelphia Mint coins of these dates were struck for circulation. A few Proofs were struck in 1884 and 1885, and today these pieces, of which just 10 and five are known respectively, are great rarities.
During the early period of Proof trade dollar issuance, from 1873 to 1877, the coins were not desired by many collectors. As the pieces were sold as part of silver Proof sets (containing silver issues from the half dime to the standard dollar in 1873; and from 1874 to 1877, from the dime to the half dollar), numismatists were forced to buy them. As soon as the sets were unwrapped, many collectors simply spent the Proof trade dollars, with the result that today Proofs of the early dates, especially Proofs in high levels of preservation, are considerably rarer than the mintage figures indicate. On the other hand, the later Proof-only issues (1878-1883) were recognized at the time as having a special value, and most of these were carefully preserved.
Trade dollars are fascinating to collect, but have been largely overlooked. This oversight can translate into the opportunity to acquire scarce and rare coins for truly reasonable prices.
Now we come to Morgan silver dollars, the most active series among older coins in American numismatics. As noted earlier in the present guide text, Morgan dollars were first minted in 1878, although no one particularly wanted or needed them. By that time silver had fallen to a low point on the world markets, and in silver-mining areas, unemployment was rife and the economic outlook was grim. There simply was no market for the vast quantities of silver being brought up from the Comstock Lode in Nevada and from the hills west of Denver. True to time honored American tradition, politicians stepped into the situation and suggested that Uncle Sam purchase millions of ounces of silver in order to buoy the market.
What to do with this unneeded, unwanted silver? Coining it into dollars was the most expedient plan. George T. Morgan, who had come to the Mint from England in 1876, and who in 1877 had posed Philadelphia schoolteacher Anna Willess Williams and had copied her portrait for use on a pattern half dollar, was commissioned to create a new silver dollar design. Early in the year 1878 his 1877 half dollar die ideas were dusted off, expanded into silver dollar form, and what was called the Bland Dollar (after the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, which caused the government to buy silver), became a reality. Later, collectors were to know the coins as Morgan dollars.
The engraver's initial M appears at the truncation of the neck of Miss Liberty on the obverse and at the wreath ribbon on the reverse. In the numismatic field complaints were rife about the Morgan dollar. The eagle resembled a turkey or, worse, a buzzard, and in any event the whole motif was exceedingly inartistic, according to comments printed in the American Journal of Numismatics and elsewhere. Morgan dollars were without honor in their own time, and during the early years of their coinage, 1878 through 1904, very few numismatists bothered to collect them. Those who were interested were apt to buy Proofs of the Philadelphia Mint issues.
The various mints continued to produce silver dollars in staggering quantities, bagging them and storing them in vaults. Problems arose, and at one time the huge storage vault in the Philadelphia Mint became damp, the cloth bags which contained 1,000 dollars each rotted, and chaos ensued. Other facilities were pressed into use for storage, including the San Francisco and New Orleans mints and the Treasury Building in Washington, D.C. No one knew what to do with all of these round discs.
To be sure, silver dollars were used in circulation, particularly in the American West, where they were ideal to pass across a bar or use in a poker game. However, in the major cities and centers of civilization, few people cared to jangle a pocket full of heavy dollar-size coins. Most stayed in banks, where they could be obtained on special request.
The Pittman Act of 1918 provided for the wholesale melting of silver dollars, and 270,232,722 dollars were reduced to silver bullion. Unfortunately, or, depending on how you look at it, fortunately, no record was kept of the specific dates and mintmarks melted. Still, silver dollars amounting to the hundreds of millions remained in Treasury and bank vaults. In 1921 it was decided to coin additional silver dollars, and the Morgan design, unused since 1904, was resurrected for further use.
In December 1921 a new design, the Peace dollar, appeared. Peace silver dollars were produced through 1935. Peace dollars suffered their own melting situation; tens of millions were reduced to silver bullion in order to obtain metal for use in the Manhattan Project, which saw the production of the first atomic bomb. Again, no records were kept of the dates and mintmarks destroyed.
Throughout the 1940s there was a relatively minor collecting interest in dollars. In the 1950s the interest grew somewhat, and such dealers as Norman Shultz and Bebee's made a specialty of Morgan and Peace dollars, offering many different varieties for scarcely over face value. Toward the end of the 1950s, Harry Forman, the Philadelphia dealer, developed a lively trade in selling Carson City and other dollars in roll and bag quantities, as did several others. Investment interest was piqued, and by the early 1960s many issues had shown an attractive rise in price from the levels of a decade earlier.
In particular there was one great rarity in the Morgan silver dollar series, the 1903-O, which catalogued for $1,500 in the standard arbiter of values, A Guide Book of United States Coins. Although mintage figures revealed that 4,450,000 1903-O dollars had been struck, it was generally assumed that nearly all were melted in 1918 under the provisions of the Pittman Act. Well worn specimens came on the market occasionally, but Uncirculated pieces appeared in auctions less often than examples of that great American rarity, the 1804 silver dollar!
The Treasury hoard: In the autumn of 1962 a few Uncirculated 1903-O dollars found their way into the market. A few days later more came on the market, and before long it was realized that the Treasury had distributed several thousand of these erstwhile great rarities. The price dropped precipitously, and general panic ensued among dealers. Would the government be destroying the very structure of the coin market by releasing rarities in quantity?
While some dealers were worried, other people were happy - especially collectors and members of the public who had the good fortune to buy bags of 1903-O, 1898-O (another prime rarity of the time) and 1904-O dollars (still another rarity), and other issues for face value. The idea of acquiring a $1,500 1903-O dollar for just one dollar was like finding gold in the streets. Television, newspapers, and other media picked up the situation, and a treasure hunt was on! People with wheelbarrows stood in line to buy bags of silver dollars from banks.
At first the Treasury was delighted to get rid of the coins, as the government's storage and inventory problem was ended. The public continued to have a good time, and a new market arose - as thousands of people desired to acquire as many different Morgan dollar date and mintmark varieties as possible. Within a year the Treasury vaults were nearly empty, except for three million pieces, primarily Carson City coins, which the government held back and decided to sell at premium prices (this was later done through a series of sales conducted by the General Services Administration, a government agency). In the meantime, millions of other Carson City, New Orleans, and San Francisco early dollars reached the hands of eager collectors and investors.
While market levels fell sharply for certain issues, particularly the 1898-O, 1903-O, and 1904-O, in most instances the price drops were short-lived, and within a few years most issues of Morgan dollars were priced substantially higher than they had been before the great Treasury release. Although Morgan dollars were now much more common, the number of collectors and investors interested in them had expanded even more than the supply of coins available, and Morgan dollars became the most desired American coin series.
Earlier, veteran dealer Abe Kosoff conducted a survey among his clients and sought to determine the most popular United States numismatic specialties. Morgan dollars did not finish even in the top 10! The most sought-after series, as I recall, was Buffalo nickels. Beginning after the Treasury release of 1962, Morgan dollars went right into the top 10, right up to number one, and have remained near or at the top of the list ever since. So popular have silver dollars been that a special group, the National Silver Dollar Roundtable, exists to conduct an annual convention specifically treating the field.
In 1976 a book, The Comprehensive Catalogue and Encyclopedia of U.S. Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars, by Leroy C. Van Allen and A. George Mallis, was released and sold to the extent of thousands of copies. The authors described in detail minute die varieties of Morgan dollars, and a new generation of specialists was created. Later the book went out of print, and at the same time prices continued to rise. A new revised edition of this fine book appeared in 1992.
Peace silver dollars have also been popular in recent years, not as popular as Morgan dollars, but still very much in the center of activity. Unlike Morgan dollars, all Peace dollars are readily available in Uncirculated grade, and the building of a set of 24 different varieties minted from 1921 through 1935 is a definite possibility for just about everyone, although the 1934-S is apt to be expensive.
In 1971 a new type of dollar appeared, no longer a silver dollar, except for certain issues made for collectors, but a clad metal dollar made of copper-nickel alloy. Bearing the visage of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, these dollars were produced from 1971 through 1978, with the exception of 1975. Surviving business strikes are apt to be rather unattractive in appearance, for like Franklin half dollars, Eisenhower dollars tend to nick and scar easily. However, there is no doubt that selected Uncirculated pieces can be attractive, and that Proofs can be gorgeous, that is if you find the basic design to be appealing (which not everyone does).
Susan B. Anthony dollars minted from 1979 through 1981 were also produced in clad metal. When the government decided that a small dollar-size coin would be produced in order to save money (it was felt that a metal dollar would remain in circulation much longer than a paper dollar), Frank Gasparro, then chief engraver at the Mint, hoped that he would be allowed to create a classic design. He prepared sketches and models for Miss Liberty with a pole and cap behind her head, reminiscent of the Liberty Cap cent of 1793. However, politics intervened, and he was directed to prepare a design with the portrait of Miss Susan B. Anthony, which he subsequently did.
With great optimism, Anthony dollars were produced to the extent of hundreds of millions in the year 1979. It soon developed that these were a flop in circulation, as the public mistook them for quarters. Frank Gasparro could have told the Treasury Department about the mistaken identity problem, for he related in a conversation with me that he took one of the earliest pieces minted and endeavored to spend it in the employees' cafeteria at the Philadelphia Mint, where the cashier immediately mistook it for a quarter!
The government tried to spur the circulation of Anthony dollars, and put up signs in post offices stating that they would be paid out and received there. Although it was realized that the public did not want the coins, the Treasury gamely produced millions more in 1980, followed by a few million more in 1981. Inexplicably, the design was resurrected in 1999, then disappeared.