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).
Production low: For reasons that are not clear, production of silver dollars remained low at the San Francisco Mint during this era. The greatest mintages occurred in Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Hoard coins: The market and hoard history of the 1888-S bears a close resemblance to its cousin, the 1887-S. On the numismatic market the 1888-S was considered to be quite scarce in Mint State, until bags were released in 1942 from storage in the San Francisco Mint. From then until the mid-1950s, quantities could be obtained for face value from that source. In 1956, bags were released in Montana. However, dealer and collector interest was limited, and investor interest was nil. Most that were paid out went to Nevada casinos or to banks, where they were put into circulation and quickly descended the grading ladder in AU or lower levels.
After the mid-1950s, the supply seems to have dried up, and the price of singles and rolls inched upward. So far as I know, the massive Treasury releases of 1962-1964 added few if any quantities to the supply of Mint State coins in numismatic and investment circles, although this is contrary to conventional wisdom that many bags came out at that time.
The Redfield hoard, auctioned in 1976, is said to have had five to 10 bags, including thousands of prooflike coins. Today, the 1888-S is moderately scarce in quantity, although singles are easy enough to find.
Circulated grades: 1888-S dollars are somewhat scarce in worn grades. As is the case with so many different Morgan dollar varieties, the ready availability of Mint State coins has diminished the interest in circulated pieces. Probably, many were melted in the run-up of silver bullion prices in the 1970s.
Mint State grades: Mint State 1888-S dollars are scarce in comparison to certain earlier San Francisco Mint dollars of the decade, but on an absolute basis they are often encountered. Most specimens are in lower Mint State levels from MS-60 through 62, at which plateau an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 remain, above which are 10,000 to 18,000 MS-63 coins. MS-64 1888-S dollars are scarce, with an estimated population of 3,000 to 5,000. In the context of the series, it is not stretching things to call an MS- 65 rare, with perhaps 400 to 700 believed to survive.
The striking quality of 1888-S dollars is often unsatisfactory. Specimens are usually weakly struck at the centers. However, sharply struck coins also exist in large numbers. The lustre varies from satiny to frosty but is often the latter.
Dies prepared: Obverse: Unknown; Reverse: Unknown.
Circulation strike mintage: 657,000; Delivery figures by month: January: none; February: none; March: none; April: 160,000; May: 150,000; June: 239,000;July: 28,000; August: 10,000; September: 70,000; October-December: none.
Estimated quantity melted: Unknown, but probably some under the 1918 Pittman Act.
Availability of prooflike coins: Very plentiful, with DMPL coins existing to the extent of 3,000-6,000 (URS-13). However, most are below MS-65 in grade and have low aesthetic appeal.
Characteristics of striking: Varies from flatly struck to sharp, depending upon the coin.
Known hoards of Mint State coins: Quantities were released by the Treasury Department from the early 1940s through the mid-1950s.
The 1888-S is one of the scarcer Morgan dollars of its era.
Five Million Silver Dollars Moved to Mint
The Report of the Director of the Mint, 1888, included the following:
"Owing to the crowded condition of the vaults at the Sub-Treasury at San Francisco, five million silver dollars were transferred to the mint in that city. A transfer of four million silver dollars was made from the mint at Philadelphia to the Treasury of the United States."
Newcomb's Rare 1888-S
Years ago the 1888-S was considered to be a prime rarity in Mint State, even rarer than the 1893-S. The October 1913 issue of the The Numismatist printed a description of Howard R. Newcomb's exhibit at the ANA Convention the preceding summer:
"The Carson City Mint is complete in Uncirculated condition. Of a branch mint, a piece that is considered by Mr. Newcomb
to be of a great deal more rarity than the Carson
City is a standard dollar of 1888 of the San Francisco Mint. The collection is complete with all the mints up through 1904."
Why the S.F. Mint Coined Dimes and Quarters The Report of the Director of the Mint, 1888, told why the San Francisco Mint struck dimes and quarters during the period indicated:
"Precedence having been given at the mint at Philadelphia to the mandatory coinage of silver dollars, that institution was unable to meet the demand for dimes. The mint at San Francisco was therefore called upon to execute a coinage in dimes, of which $395,284.80 was coined.
"It was also found that the stock of quarter dollars held by the sub-treasury at San Francisco was likely to be soon absorbed. The same mint therefore coined during the fiscal year from trade-dollar bullion on hand $192,000 in this denomination of subsidiary coin. This coinage was increased to $250,000 in August 1888."