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).
Distribution: For the first time since the late 1840s, quantities of a Philadelphia Mint dollar remained within the borders of the United States. However, many 1870 silver dollars were also exported to China. All coins were paid out to depositors at the time of coining. Any 1870 dollars found in Treasury vaults in later years were coins returned to the government, possibly in the mid-1870s.
Dollars of the 1870s, particularly Philadelphia issues, appear to have circulated extensively domestically, judging from the availability of Very Fine and Extremely Fine coins today, many of which came to light in bags of circulated coins released through the Federal Reserve System in the early 1960s.
Circulated grades: Liberty Seated dollars of 1870 are relatively easy to acquire in circulated grades. Numerous worn specimens came to light in the Treasury release of 1962-1964, and before that they were also easy to find.
Availability of Mint State grades: Although the 1870 dollar is relatively plentiful in circulated grades, true Mint State coins are elusive. Few were saved at the time of release by those who owned them, which probably began domestically after 1873 when silver dollars were no longer worth more in bullion value than face value.
1-2. Normal Date: Breen-5482. Obverse: Normal date. At least two varieties of obverses exist, differentiated by slight positional differences in the date.
3-5. Normal Date: Breen-5483. Obverse: Normal date. Reverse: At least three varieties show doubling on the reverse, plainest either on feathers at the left or on the lowest edges of leaves, claws, and arrows.
Dies prepared: Obverse: Unknown; Reverse: Unknown
Circulation strike mintage: 415,000; Delivery figures by day: January 20: 12,400; January 27: 9,300; February 2: 9,000; February 3: 12,000; March 3: 17,000; March 5: 10,000; March 7: 9,000; March 10: 16,000; March 11: 8,200; March 28: 4,600; April 7: 4,500; April 12: 21,000; April 13: 1,000; April 18: 16,000; April 20: 15,000; April 27: 13,000; April 30: 8,000;June 15: 15,600;Junee 22: 5,000; June 30: 6,700; July 7: 10,300; July 2: 13,000; September 7: 6,000; September 17: 10,300; October 29: 11,000; November 6: 20,000; November 9: 5,000; November 15: 19,000; November 17: 11,400; November 23: 8,000; November 26: 8,000; November 29: 5,000; December 2: 12,000; December 7: 13,000; December 15: 12,700; December 19: 15,000; December 28: 8,000.
Estimated quantity melted: Unknown
Characteristics of striking: Varies; some have a curious pattern of weakness, with stars 10 through 13 weak, but 8, 9 and other stars more sharply defined.
Known hoards of Mint State coins: None
This is the first Liberty Seated dollar dated since the 1840s which is reasonably easy to find in circulated grades.
Director Pollock's Commentary
In the Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, 1870, James Pollock commented as follows:
"The mint work is necessarily hindered and restricted by the continued suspension of specie payments. We are doing less than was done many years ago, when there was a much smaller population and far less wealth. Certainly there is no need of creating any more coining establishments. (In general, mint directors of the era favored the Philadelphia Mint and, to an extent, San Francisco, and were critical of other mints, either actual (that at New Orleans and the newly opened Carson City facility) or proposed new mints.)
"Emerging from a tremendous Civil War which shook every social interest to the very foundation, it is no wonder that our currency continues in an abnormal condition. Most of our people rarely get the sight of a gold or silver coin. (Most small transactions were accomplished by using paper Fractional Currency notes, often dirty and tattered, disdainfully called "stamps" by the public. This name was derived from the original Postage Currency issue of 1862, which depicted postage stamps and occasionally came with perforated edges like those of actual stamps. These in turn had replaced postage stamps of 1861 as small change.) They know, by the state of the money market, the relation between the precious metals and current paper notes, and they must be kept advised of this to understand what is the real value of those notes; but the gold by which the measure is made, is almost as much out of sight as the sacred pound troy, or kilo-gram, carefully guarded as the final resort. (This is a reference to the standard weight, obtained from England, used to calibrate scales and other units of measure at the Mint. The standard weight is now (1992) at the National Bureau of Standards, Bethesda, Maryland. Also see item from Evans, quoted below.)
"But the people at large will never give up the idea that the real money is made of gold and silver; made of definite weight and fineness, and certified by government stamp. They will use paper, and its use will increase; its imponderable property makes it a very great convenience. Still it is only paper; a little fire or water destroys it; and if it does not bear a market relation to gold, it may be kept safe, and yet will buy nothing. A cabinet minister of England has intimated that we might do without gold and silver money, were it not that we must bend to popular prejudices. But in this matter the common sense of the masses is superior to the subtle arguments of statesmen and financiers. Paper, guaranteed by Government, answers some of the ends of money, at least within the bounds of its Government; but gold primarily, and silver as a subsidiary, perfectly answer all the requirements of currency."
At the Mint, experiments continued with silver coins labeled STANDARD SILVER but of lower weights than those authorized by the Act of 1853. As was the case with 1869 STANDARD SILVER patterns, many unnecessary varieties were made. The 1870 coinage included pieces denominated STANDARD 1 DOLLAR.
Proposals in 1870
The following proposals appeared in 1870. These and various alternatives and discussions ultimately led to the Act of February 21, 1873. The quotations below are from a retrospective commentary published in the Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, 1896:
"SILVER DOLLAR-ITS DISCONTINUANCE AS A STANDARD. The coinage of the silver dollar piece, the history of which is here given, is discontinued in the proposed bill. It is by law the dollar unit, and assuming the value of gold to be fifteen and one-half times that of silver, being about the mean ratio for the past six years, is worth in gold a premium of about 3% (its value being $1.0312) and intrinsically more than 7% premium in our other silver coins, its value thus being $1.0742. The present laws consequently authorize both a gold dollar unit and a silver dollar unit, differing from each other in intrinsic value. The present gold dollar is made the dollar unit in the proposed bill, and the silver dollar piece is discontinued. If, however, such a coin is authorized, it should be issued only as a commercial dollar, not as a standard unit of account, and of the exact value of the Mexican dollar, which is the favorite for circulation in China and Japan and other Oriental countries."
The preceding echoed the proposal of John Jay Knox, Deputy Comptroller of the Currency, on April 25, 1870.
Commenting on the proposed changes of the coinage laws, Hon. Henry R. Linderman, erstwhile director of the Mint, wrote to Knox on January 25, 1870 about many things, including silver dollars:
"Section 11 reduces the weight of the silver dollar from 412-1/2 to 384 grains. I can see no good reason for the proposed reduction in the weight of this coin. It would be better, in my opinion, to discontinue its issue altogether. The gold dollar is really the legal unit and measure of value. Having a higher value as bullion than its nominal value, the silver dollar long ago ceased to be a coin of circulation; and, being of no practical use whatsoever, its issue should be discontinued."
James Ross Snowden, another former director of the Mint, wrote to Knox with his views on March 11, 1870, including these on the silver dollar:
"I see that it is proposed to demonetize the silver dollar. This I think inadvisable. Silver coins below the dollar are now not money in a proper sense, but only tokens. I do not like the idea of reducing the silver dollar to that level. It is quite true that the silver dollar, being more valuable than two half-dollars or four quarter-dollars, will not be used as a circulating medium, but only for cabinets, and perhaps to supply some occasional or local demand; yet I think there is no necessity for so considerable a piece as the dollar to be struck from metal which is only worth ninety-four cents. When we speak of dollars let it be known that we speak of dollars not demonetized and reduced below their intrinsic value, and thus avoid the introduction of the contradictory and loose ideas of the standards of value."
E.B. Elliott, of the Treasury Department, wrote to Knox about the proposed bill on June 10, 1870, and had the following to say about silver dollars:
"THE SILVER DOLLAR - ITS DISCONTINUANCE AS A STANDARD.
"The bill proposes the discontinuance of the silver dollar, and the report which accompanies the bill suggests the substitution, for the existing standard silver dollar, of a trade-coin of intrinsic value equivalent to the Mexican silver piaster or dollar.
"If the existing standard silver dollar is to be discontinued, and a trade-coin of different weight substituted, I would suggest the desirableness of conforming to the Spanish-Mexican silver pillared piaster of 1704, in preference to that authorized by the Spanish law of 29th [May] 1772, or by the Mexican law of 27th November 1867.
"The first-mentioned of these coins, that of 1704, contained, as nearly as may be, according to English assays, a weight of pure silver equivalent to 25 grams. The last-mentioned, that of 1867, and which is intended to be equivalent to that of 1772, contains of pure silver 24.441 grams. The existing silver dollar of the United States contains 24.056 grams (i.e., 371-1/4 troy grains) of pure silver.
"In the year 1704, by proclamation of Queen Anne, based on assays at the English mint, the Spanish and Mexican pieces of eight (or dollars) were declared to be each of the value of four shillings and sixpence sterling. At this time, and until the year 1816, sixty-two shillings could be coined from a troy pound of standard silver, 111/120 fine; consequently, the dollar of 4s. 6d. sterling was equivalent in value to 386.71 troy grains, or 25.059 grams, of pure silver. Of these dollars, there would, of course, be, four and four-ninths, in a pound sterling, (silver standard). The sterling par of exchange from that time to the present day has been one pound sterling, equal to four dollars and four-ninths of a dollar although silver has ceased to be a standard in Great Britain, and has practically ceased to be a standard in the United States, gold taking its place. This dollar, divided into six shillings, became thence-forth the standard of lawful money in the American colonies of Great Britain.
"By Act of the Congress of the Confederation, passed 8th August 1786, and by the ordinance of 16th October 1786, a silver dollar was established as a unit of account, although not coined, containing of pure silver 375.64 troy grains (or 24.388 grams). This unit differed-as has been clearly pointed out by John Quincy Adams, in his able report as Secretary of State in 1821, on 'weights and measures'-from the true dollar of 1704 as defined by the proclamation of Queen Anne, by a deduction of 2% for estimated wastage of coining, and by assuming the fineness of the metal to be 11/12, whereas the fineness of standard British silver was then, as now, 111/120.
"The law of 2d April 1792, of the new Congress, which established the Mint of the United States, also fixed the contents of pure silver in the standard silver dollar at 371-1/4 grains (or 24.056 grams), a reduction of 4% from the standard established by proclamation in 1704 and of 1-1/7% from the dollar prescribed in 1786 by the Congress of the Confederation.
"This dollar (unlike the preceding) is not based on the Spanish-Mexican dollar of 1704, but on the Spanish-Mexican dollar of 1772, from Which it was derived by weighing of a large number of such coins as found in actual circulation, and consequently considerably reduced by abrasion, nearly 1.6%, below the standard at which they were issued by the Mexican mint.
"The weight of pure silver in the dollar has continued unchanged from that time to the present, although the standard weight of the coin itself, reduced by a withdrawal of 3-1/2 grains of alloy, has been somewhat diminished.
"It appears, therefore, that the existing silver dollar, although professedly based on the Spanish or Mexican silver dollar, does not fairly represent any coin ever issued from those mints; that it is merely a representative of the average of abraded Spanish-Mexican coins.
"The coins most in demand for Oriental commerce were for many years the pillared Spanish-American piasters; and such was their popularity that they continued to be preferred long after their intrinsic value had been considerably reduced by wear in use. The restoration, as a trade coin, of a silver dollar, approximating to the old standard, to wit: one containing 25 grams of pure silver, is a subject which would seem to demand favorable consideration.
"It may be well here to. call attention to the fact that the French silver coin of five francs, contains, of standard silver, 9/10 fine, just 25 grams, which also is the weight proposed for two half dollars of the token or subsidiary coinage of the United States, in case that a metric coinage is adopted. The intrinsic value of the proposed subsidiary coinage would therefore be less by just one-tenth than that of the commercial silver coin here proposed.
"Very respectfully, "E.B. ELLIOTT.
"[To] JOHN JAY KNOX, Esq.,
"Deputy Comptroller of the Currency,
"United States Treasury Department. "
The Standard Pound
The following is from Illustrated 'History of the United States Mint, by George G. Evans, 1885:
"The unit of weight in the United States is a troy pound weight obtained from England, a duplicate of the original standard fixed by the commission of 1758, and reasserted by the commission of 1838. It is a bronze weight of 5,760 grains troy. It is kept in a strong safe at the United States Mint in Philadelphia, The president appoints an Assay Commission, whose members meet at Philadelphia annually, upon the second Wednesday in February, to open the safe and compare the copies, or the working weights, with the original upon the most delicately poised balances. Working standards of weights and measures are supplied by the Secretary of State to the state governments, which in turn supply them to the sealers of weights and measures of the various counties, who must compare with the state standard once a year."