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).
Morgan dollar coinage: From 1879 through 1883 inclusive, the San Francisco Mint struck only dollars in the silver series. At the time there was an oversupply of lower-denomination silver coins available through the Treasury, and additional dimes, quarters, and half dollars were not needed. During this era the San Francisco Mint produced many very well struck, very high-quality dollars.
Two reverse varieties: Among 1879 Morgan dollars from the various mints, only 1879-S comes with two naked-eye differences in reverse hubs. In recent years these have attracted increased interest. The devotion of a separate chapter to the Second Reverse variety in the 1992 book by John Highfill, The Comprehensive U.S. Silver Dollar Encyclopedia, may focus additional attention on it.
Hoard coins: It is believed that as of June 30, 1913, most of the original mintage of 1879-S was stored at the San Francisco Mint, to be paid out over a period of decades thereafter. Vast quantities were released by the San Francisco Mint in the twentieth century, particularly in 1942 (when many dozens, possibly hundreds, of bags were distributed) and the 1950s. The Treasury Department released many additional bags in the 1962-1964 era. In The Forecaster, September 15, 1971, John Kamin ventured the suggestion that about 10% of the original mintage of 1879-S was released circa 1962-1964, a figure equal to about a million pieces.
Year in and year out, over a long period of time, the 1879-S has been readily available in quantity.
Nearly all of these bags contained coins of the Third Reverse type.
Most often seen among 1879-S dollars are those with the Third Reverse [Reverse of 1879], to continue the nomenclature of 1878',with slanting top arrow feather (SAF) and convex breast on the eagle. Many bags of Uncirculated 1879-S dollars of the Third Reverse type were distributed from the Redfield estate hoard by Paramount International Coin Corporation (then located in Englewood-Ohio), Dollars of this variety were said to have been the third most plentiful holding in the Redfield group. Later, numerous bags of 1879-S Third Reverse dollars in Mint State were in the Continental Illinois Bank hoard and were put on the market.
Circulated grades. Worn coins are slightly scarce, but as Mint State pieces are so common, little attention is paid to circulated grades.
Mint State grades. This variety is very common and, in fact, is one of the most common of all Morgan dollars. Probably, at least 750,000 to 1,250,000 MS-60 to 62 coins exist. At the MS-63 level, the population is believed to be 225,000 to 325,000, followed by 150,000 to 250,000 MS-64s, and 100,000 to 150,000 MS-65 or finer pieces.
Many bags were released by the Treasury in 1942, the 1950s and, especially, 1962-1964. Most extant coins are well struck and have fairly light bagmarks, however there are exceptions, and weak coins are sometimes Seen, as are' heavily scarred pieces.
Prooflike coins. Plentiful in prooflike condition with nice contrast. Probably 50,000 to 100,000 exist. DMPL coins are among the most available in the Morgan series but are six or seven times scarcer than regular' prooflikes. The "Proof' in Mehl's sale of the C.W. Cowell Collection (11/11/11), and those advertised by B.M. Douglas and William & L. Pukall (The Numismatist, 12/51 and 10/53) were probably DMPLs.
1. Third Reverse. Slanting arrow feather. Tall S. BreenÂ•5531. All other VAM numbers 1 through 41, except those listed above for the Second Reverse. The 7 tail feathers SAF constitutes the overwhelming majority of this date. Extremely common in Mint State.
2. Third Reverse. Tall S over small s: Not in Van Allen-Mallis or Breen's Encyclopedia. Short sharp extra upper serif at right of serif of tall S, of different shape; base of extra S below. Reported by Walter Breen. One seen, to date, owned by ABC Coins. Others probably survive.
Dies prepared: Obverse: Unknown; Reverse: Un-known.
Estimated quantity melted: Unknown
Availability of prooflike coins: Very common. DMPL coins are six to seven times less plentiful than PL.
Characteristics of striking: Mint State coins are usually well struck and have few bagmarks; however, there are numerous exceptions.
Known hoards of Mint State coins, Third Reverse:
Many bags were released by the Treasury in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The 1879-S exists with two major reverse varieties, the Second Reverse and the Third Reverse. The Second Reverse is much rarer, unknown to A.G. Heaton, first mentioned in print by George W. Rice (The Numismatist, 6/1898).
Report on the San Francisco Mint
The Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, 1879, told of events at San Francisco during the fiscal year ended June 30th:
''Mint at San Francisco.-This institution is provided with every facility for executing a large amount of work, and is in a thoroughly efficient condition. Under the able and economical management of the present superintendent, the interests of both the government and depositors have been carefully protected .... "
At the time the San Francisco Mint was the darling of the United States mint system. Opened in 1874 (cornerstone laid in 1870), the facility was well laid out and organized. The officers’ quarters were lavishly appointed and served as an ideal place to host visiting government officials from the East, including an occasional Mint director. The "Granite Lady," as the building was called, survived the 1906 earthquake and fire; today it is a museum.
By contrast, the Carson City Mint was off the beaten path in a section of the United States that was considered little better than the wilderness. If anything, the mint there was more of a nuisance to the Mint director, who operated from offices in Washington, D.C.