Q. David Bowers:
The following narrative, with minor editing, is from my "Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia" (Wolfeboro, NH: Bowers and Merena Galleries, Inc., 1993)
Another record: The mintage record in the Morgan series set in 1886 by Philadelphia didn't last long, and the 20,290,000 production figure for 1887 eclipsed it, if only by a narrow margin. The new record would stand until 1921.
Common issue: The record high mintage of 1887 Morgan dollars translates neatly today into the issue being the most plentiful of all Morgan issues of the early period from 1878 to 1904. Specimens are easily available in just about every circulation strike grade imaginable, from well-worn through MS-65. Those who like higher numbers, buyers mainly from the investment (rather than the numismatic) sector, will have no trouble loading themselves down with MS-66, MS-67, etc., coins.
The 1887 dollar was plentiful years ago, and additional Treasury releases, from coins stored at the Philadelphia Mint, took place in 1938, the 1940s, the 1950s (particularly in December 1954), and the early 1960s. The number of Mint State coins surviving today is believed to run into seven figures.
One lot of 100 bags existed as late as 1978. The Continental-Illinois Bank hoard, which was estimated to contain as many as 1,000 original bags of brilliant Uncirculated dollars plus an estimated 500 bags of circulated coins (1.5 million coins totally), included quantities of Mint State 1887 Morgans. The 1887 may, as Wayne Miller has written, be the most plentiful Morgan dollar in terms of 1,000-coin bags still in existence.
Circulated grades: Worn 1887 dollars are plentiful, and because Mint State coins are so common, circulated pieces are not of much interest to numismatists. However, they make interesting presents to children.
Mint State grades: It is probably redundant at this point to state that the 1887 is very common in Mint State. Most coins are average strikes, but individual specimens may vary either way, from quite flat to quite sharp. Cherrypicking for quality is advised and is not hard to accomplish. The lustre is apt to be a bit satiny or "greasy," on the dull side, rather than deeply lustrous and frosty. Perhaps some now unemployed coiner from the Carson City Mint, which produced superb quality coins, should have visited Philadelphia to show them how to do things right. In actuality, few if any people at the Philadelphia Mint cared about the quality of silver dollars. They were being produced to conform with a piece of legislation promoted by distant western interests, the 1878 Bland-Allison Act, and most pieces were destined to be sewn into mint bags and dumped into dark storage.
Prooflike coins: There are many prooflike 1887 dollars in existence, but nearly all have little contrast between the fields and the devices. Many are one-sided. A hoard of cameo DMPL coins came to light in California in 1977, Wayne Miller related, and today this group is recognized as the mother lode for extant pieces of this calibre. Probably, several thousand coins remain in MS-64 DMPL or finer grade.
Die rotation: VAM-1 exists with the reverse die rotated from 700 to 1420 clockwise from the normal orientation, and also with rotation from 800 to 1400counterclockwise. Van Allen and Mallis report that these have been seen only in circulated grades.
1. Normal date: Breen-5592. This huge mintage probably took all 55 obverses and 54 reverses. All dies must have been used until they wore out. Even so, the 368,909 coins per obverse is extremely high. Perhaps there is an error in Mint records.
2. Doubled Date: Breen-5594, VAM-5. Scarce. The most desirable of the many repunched dates of this year.
3. Other variations: Four doubled dies are known, three on the obverse (VAM-12, 13, 15) and one on the reverse (VAM-16).
Dies prepared: Obverse: 55; Reverse: 54
Circulation strike mintage: 20,290,000; Delivery figures by month: January: 2,020,000; February: 1,950,000; March: 2,020,000; April: 2,000,000; May: 1,900,000; June: 1,500,000; July: none; August: 1,500,000; September: 1,700,000; October: 2,000,000; November: 2,000,000; December: 1,700,000.
Estimated quantity melted: Probably millions under the 1918 Pittman Act and other legislation. Certainly many others during the rise in silver bullion prices in the late 1970s.
Availability of prooflike coins: Common, but usually without much contrast between the devices and the fields. Cameo DMPL coins remain to the extent of several thousand pieces.
Characteristics of striking: Varies from flat to strong, with most being average.
Known hoards of Mint State coins: Many were re-leased by the Treasury circa 1938-1961; additional quantities released 1962-1964. Millions of Mint State coins probably exist.
In Mint State grades the 1887 is the commonest silver dollar dated prior to 1921. Millions survive.
Proof and Other Coins
The Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, 1887, noted that the Mint produced more Proof coins than the demand required. At the time there was a popular penchant for investing in certain Proof coins, especially $1 and $3 gold pieces. However, this excess coinage apparently affected other denominations as well, possibly including Proof Morgan dollars:
"There was also executed the usual complemental coinage, consisting of all other coins of the series, in number sufficient to meet the public demand for Proof sets and other cabinet purposes, and as many besides as were deemed enough to prevent overvaluation from immediate rarity."
The same report gave an overview of regular coinage for the fiscal year:
"The silver coinage consists of 44,231,288 pieces, of the coinage value of $34,366,483.75, of which $33,266,831.00 was in silver dollars, executed principally at the mints in Philadelphia and New Orleans, and $1,095,279.50 in dimes. The remainder, being half dollars and quarter dollars, constituted the usual complemental coinage for Proof pieces, etc.
"Average price of silver was $0.883965 per standard ounce or $0.981072 per fine ounce during the year. "There were manufactured during the year, by three mints, 33,266,831 silver dollars. The amount of silver used in this coinage was 28,588,682.89 standard ounces, the cost of which was $25,343,272.39. In addition to this employment there was wasted by the operative officers 15,337.87 standard ounces, costing $13,473.13, and sold in sweeps 35,548.50 standard ounces, costing $31,994.86, making the total amount of silver used in the silver dollar coinage 28,639,569.26 standard ounces, costing $25,388,740.51. The seignorage on silver dollars coined during the year was $7,923,558.61."
This same Annual Report, by James Putnam Kimball (of, appropriately, Salem, Mass.) announced a witch-hunt for patterns, experimental, and off-metal strikings, redefining "pattern" contrary to all prior usage, and retroactively outlawing all such pieces, including those publicly sold by his predecessors.
Silver Dollar Storage Still a Problem
In Philadelphia the storage of dollars continued to be an aggravation, as noted in the Annual Report of the Director of the Mint 1887:
"Resort is still had to temporary and inefficient expedients for want of vault facilities, to which attention was called in my last two fiscal reports. There are still at the Post Office building 21.75 million silver dollars in charge of the superintendent of the mint, and for which this officer is held responsible.
"Compartment vaults in which the coin could be sealed up are very much needed at this mint, as well as at the other mints of the United States. Such a provision would avoid the constant re-weighing of the immense amount of coin now stored at these institutions. It would especially do away with the important loss which necessarily results from handling the precious metals in such large quantities on occasions like the annual settlements or changes in fiduciary officers.
"Coin once weighed and sealed up in compartments would not be disturbed except when needed by some other institution, or by some other branch of the Treasury Department. Experiment has shown that the loss by abrasion in handling $1 million in gold coin is $5 for every handling, even when the utmost care is exercised, and that the loss is absolute. It is estimated that at the annual settlement and other counts the weighing of the bullion and coin requires no less than eight handlings." (A significant comment from a numismatic viewpoint in that it is stated that annually each silver dollar in storage is handled eight times, probably mostly by mechanical counting devices. In addition, the bags of coins themselves were handled before and after each such counting. No wonder the vast majority of Morgan dollars acquired many marks!)
More About Silver Dollar Storage
Storage Facilities for Silver Dollars, Report of the Director of the Mint 1887, page 122:
"In the course of remarks under a previous heading it was incidentally pointed out that the minting facilities afforded by the mint at San Francisco are regarded by this Bureau sufficient to meet all requirements. The most modern of the four coinage mints, including the mint at Carson, it is of such magnitude as to admit of considerable expansion beyond any present necessities.
"Not so, however, with the mints at Philadelphia and New Orleans, under the circumstance that both of these institutions are called upon to execute the bulk of the mandatory coinage of silver dollars, besides, at Philadelphia, a large portion of the subsidiary coinage, and the whole minor coinage. Public requirements for the two latter coinages, from time to time, are less pressing than the coinage of silver dollars only so far as this coinage is not mandatory. This, at least, has been the case during the last fifteen months.
"The recent limitation of the bulk of the silver dollar coinage to the mints at Philadelphia and New Orleans has grown out of the expediency of providing for the storage of silver dollars in the immediate custody of the United States Treasury.
"Provision having been made by Congress for the ultimate storage of silver dollars in the vaults now in the course of construction at the mentioned mints is determined by the measure of facilities for transport from the coinage mint to Washington, and the relative cost of the same as compared with the cost from different mints. On such grounds of expediency both of the eastern institutions have been called upon to the full extent of their present capacity for the execution of the whole mandatory coinage of silver dollars, except what small proportion of that coinage has from time to time been assigned to the mint at San Francisco when the other mints have been unable to fulfill the whole satisfactory requirement, as during the last year, when operations were contracted at the Mint at Philadelphia for the renewal of its steam plant."
New York Assay Office
The U.S. Assay Office at New York was very active during the late nineteenth century, and information concerning its operations was carried in each issue of the Annual Report of the Director of the Mint. No coins were struck at this and related assay offices, but they did serve as a depot for the evaluation, collection, and distribution of gold and silver bullion. An example of such a report is this, given in 1887:
"The melter and refiner operated upon 2,904,738 ounces of gold bullion during the year, and delivered in settlement an excess of 914,061 ounces. He operated upon 4,828,925 ounces of silver bullion during the year, and delivered to the superintendent in settlement an excess of 1,311.18. He also melted and cast into bars trade-dollars to the amount of 2,787,165 gross ounces. This large volume of business was at an expense of about one-half cent an ounce, or about one-tenth of 1 % of the value of the bullion."
Distribution of Silver Dollars
The Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, 1887, told of the distribution of silver dollars at the Philadelphia Mint: On hand June 30,1886,27,974,020 [silver dollars]; coinage of fiscal year 1887 21,290,831; transferred to United States Treasury 10,500,000; available for distribution $68,764,851; in mint June 30, 1887 35,386,110; distributed from mint: 3,378,741.