Political pressure, not public demand, brought the Morgan dollar into being.
There was no real need for a new silver dollar in the late 1870s; the last
previous “cartwheel,” the Liberty Seated dollar, had been legislated out of
existence in 1873, and hardly anyone missed it.
did miss the dollar, though, and lobbied Congress forcefully for its return. The
Comstock Lode in Nevada was yielding huge quantities of silver, with ore worth
$36 million being extracted annually. After several futile attempts, the silver
forces in Congress—led by Representative Richard (“Silver Dick”) Bland of
Missouri—finally succeeded in winning authorization for a new silver dollar when
Congress passed the Bland-Allison Act on February 28, 1878. This Act required
the Treasury to purchase at market levels between two million and four million
troy ounces of silver bullion every month to be coined into dollars. This
amounted to a massive subsidy, coming at a time when the dollar’s face value
exceeded its intrinsic worth by nearly 10%.
In November 1877, nearly
four months before passage of the Bland-Allison Act, the Treasury saw the
handwriting on the wall and began making preparations for a new dollar coin.
Mint Director Henry P. Linderman ordered Chief Engraver William Barber and one
of his assistants, George T. Morgan, to prepare pattern dollars, with the best
design to be used on the new coin. Actually, Linderman fixed this “contest” in
Morgan's favor; he had been dissatisfied with the work of the two
Barbers—William and his son, Charles—and in 1876 had hired Morgan, a talented
British engraver, with plans to entrust him with new coin designs. At that time,
resumption of silver dollar coinage was not yet planned, and Morgan began work
on designs intended for the half dollar. Following Linderman’s orders that a
head of Liberty should replace the full-figure depiction then in use, Morgan
recruited Philadelphia school teacher Anna Willess Williams to pose for the new
Morgan’s obverse features a left-facing portrait of Miss
Liberty. The reverse depicts a somewhat scrawny eagle which led some to vilify
the coin as a “buzzard dollar.” The designer’s initial M appears on both sides—a
first. It’s on the truncation of Liberty’s neck and on the ribbon’s left loop on
the reverse. Mintmarks (O, S, D, and CC) are found below the wreath on the
reverse. Points to check for wear on Morgans are the hair above Liberty’s eye
and ear, the high upper fold of her cap and the crest of the eagle’s breast.
Soon after production began, someone advised the Mint that the eagle
should have seven tail feathers, instead of the eight being shown, and Linderman
ordered this change. As a result, some 1878 Morgan dollars have eight feathers,
some seven—and some show seven over eight. The seven-over-eight variety is the
scarcest, though all are fairly common.
More than half a billion Morgan
dollars were struck from 1878 through 1904, with production taking place at the
main mint in Philadelphia and the branches in New Orleans, San Francisco and
Carson City. Carson City production was generally much lower and ended
altogether after that branch was closed in 1893. The coin came back for one
final curtain call in 1921, when more than 86 million examples were produced
under the terms of the Pittman Act at Philadelphia, San Francisco and Denver—but
that was a double-edged sword: Under the 1918 legislation, more than 270 million
older silver dollars, almost all Morgans, had been melted. The law required
replacements for these, but most were of the Peace design, which replaced the
Morgan version at the end of 1921.
In all, some 657 million Morgan
dollars were produced in 96 different date-and-mint combinations. Hundreds of
millions were melted over the years—by the government under the Pittman Act and
the Silver Act of 1942, and by private refiners since the late 1960s, when
rising silver prices made this profitable. Despite all the melting, Americans
had more than enough Morgans to fill their daily needs, since the dollars
circulated regularly only in the West. As a result, huge stockpiles remained in
the Treasury’s vaults, as well as bank vaults nationwide. This explains why so
many Morgan dollars are so well preserved today despite their age; few saw
Even as the numismatic hobby underwent rapid growth
beginning in the 1930s, interest in other collecting areas far outpaced the
attention paid to the large Morgan cartwheels. Most collectors preferred the
lower face-value coins (with their lower cost) that were readily available in
circulation. Although it was possible to order silver dollars through banks or
directly from the Treasury, few noticed or cared. In the late 1930s, however,
several Washington dealers learned that the Treasury Department’s Cash Room near
the White House was paying out uncirculated Carson City dollar—coins having a
market value of $5 or more at the time! More than a few dealers quietly
exploited this discovery throughout the 1940s and ‘50s.
In the early
1960s, with silver rising in price, opportunists recognized the chance to turn
fast profits by redeeming silver certificates for dollar coins—mostly Morgans—at
the Treasury. By the time the government closed this lucrative window in 1964,
only 2.9 million cartwheels were left in its vaults, almost all of them scarce
Carson City Morgans. These were dispersed by the General Services Administration
in a series of mail-bid sales from 1972 through 1980, earning big profits for
the government and triggering great new interest in silver dollars.
Interest in Morgans was further heightened by the publicity surrounding
the 400,000+ dollars found in the basement of Nevada eccentric LaVere Redfield’s
home. After word leaked out of the amazing cache, several dealers got into the
act, each jockeying for position in a scramble that ultimately ended with a
Probate Court auction held in January of 1976. At that sale, A-Mark Coins of Los
Angeles captured the hoard with a winning bid of $7.3 million. The coins were
cooperatively marketed by a number of dealers over a period of several years.
Rather than depressing prices, the orderly dispersal of these coins only served
to bring more collectors into the Morgan dollar fold. Similarly, the early 1980s
witnessed the equally successful distribution of the 1.5 million silver dollars
in the Continental Bank hoard.
The Morgan dollar’s story is a Cinderella
tale: Until the 1960s, it was largely ignored by the public. Since then, it has
gradually become among the most widely pursued and desired of all U. S. coins.
Although many collectors find the challenge of assembling a complete date and
mintmark set in Mint State compelling, others satisfy themselves with collecting
just one coin per year. Exceptional specimens are also sought after by type
Major keys include 1895, 1893-S, 1895-O, 1892-S, 1889-CC,
1884-S and 1879-CC. Mint records show that 12,000 business-strike dollars were
made in Philadelphia in 1895, but only proofs are known; the mintage of these is
880. Proofs were made for every year in the series, but only a few brilliant
proofs—variously reported at 15 to 24—are known for 1921. Prooflike Morgans also
are highly prized and are collected in both Prooflike (PL) and Deep-Mirror
Prooflike (DPL or DMPL).
Few coins in U.S. history have been greeted
with more indifference at the time of their release than this silver dollar. And
few, if any, have then gone on to stimulate such passionate excitement among
Coin Descriptions Provided by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC)