History of the Silver Morgan Dollar
By Atlantic Provinces Numismatic Association | Tuesday, 8 November 2011
Perhaps no coin being collected today conjures up visions of the old west like the Morgan Dollar. Minted from 1878 to 1904 and then for one more year in 1921, the changes that took place in America during the span of the Morgan Dollar are startling. And although collecting Morgan Dollars is a favorite of most collectors, the silver Morgan Dollar was not that popular of a coin and ignored by collectors for decades after its demise. It was not until the early 1960's that collecting Morgan Dollars became popular. During this time silver was near $1.29 per ounce. At that price, the silver metal value of a silver dollar was worth a dollar. During this time many banks still had bags and rolls of silver dollars and all one needed to do was go down to the bank and ask for them.
The Mint Act of April 2, 1792 provided for decimal coinage. The largest being the dollar, or 100 cents. From the first few thousand dollar coins weakly stuck in 1794 and the many more through 1873, the dollar enjoyed moderate success. Dollars were coined on and off until the Coinage Act of 1873 eliminated the dollar and put in its place a slightly larger dollar called the Trade Dollar. The Trade Dollar was produced with the intent to export it for trade with China. As such, very few made it into general circulation in the US. Meanwhile, the silver mining industry in the west had fallen on hard times. As is the case even today, industries in trouble look to the US government for help and the silver industry was no exception. An idea was put forward that the US government buy silver bullion for its own account to help support the market. Embracing this cause in the mid-1870's was Representative Richard P. ("Silver Dick") Bland of Missouri. Other politicians jumped on the bandwagon with the thought that a strong silver market would benefit everyone west of the Mississippi. After much discussion and debate, the Bland-Allison Act was passed on February 28th, 1878. The legislation was initially vetoed by President Rutherford B. Hayes but congress overrode the veto putting a new law in the books. The legislation dictated that the US government purchase $2,000,000 to $4,000,000 a month in silver bullion with the specific purpose to convert the silver into standard silver dollars (90% silver and 10% copper). At the time, silver was around $1.00 per ounce. At that price, the government was purchasing millions of ounces of silver each month.
Back in 1876, Mint Director Henry Richard Linderman anticipated that legislation would someday be passed to create another circulating silver dollar and had Chief Engraver William Barber fiddle with a new designs. The legal tender status of the Trade Dollar had been revoked and the country was without a dollar coin. Like today though, but for different reasons, there was not a demand for a silver dollar. In 1877, it seemed like a sure thing that legislation for a new silver dollar would soon become a reality. A new design was needed and Barber, assistant engraver George T. Morgan and outside artist Anthony Paquet went into high gear producing several different designs. On February 21st, 1878, Linderman selected the design. Although he thought Barber and Morgan had high artistic taste, he selected the design with the lowest relief requiring the lowest power to strike. This of course was the design created by Morgan. The portrait was modeled after 19 year old Miss Anna Willess Williams. Morgan had previously used Miss Williams on several pattern half dollars in 1877. Several years later Charles Barber, son of William Barber, would basically copy this design for his own coin designs which later became known as the Barber Dime, Barber Quarter, and Barber Half. He also "designed" the Liberty Nickel.
Just a week after the passing of the Bland-Allison Act, the first Morgan dollars were coined on March 7th, 1878. After several adjustments of the dies, the Philadelphia mint cranked out the first dollar coin. After close examination of the coin, it was rejected and sent to the melting room. The press was then adjusted and 11 more coins were produced. The last was rejected and this coin was also sent to the melting room. These first coins were struck on polished planchets, removed by hand and put in numbered envelopes with the intent to deliver the first coin to the President and the 2nd coin went to Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman and the 3rd to Linderman. After that, the press began churning out 80 dollar coins a minute. Within a few days, several other presses would come online and dies would be delivered to San Francisco, New Orleans and Carson City.
As mentioned before, the purchasing power of a dollar back in the 1880's was huge. Most transactions were completed in smaller denominations as large purchases were under a dollar. Additionally, many people were still bartering for goods (trading pigs for chickens, etc). As such, the supply of silver dollars far exceeded demand. Incredibility, with this supply, The Bland-Allison act was modified by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act which mandated the US Government purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver per month. The hitch was that these purchases were to be paid with Treasury bonds redeemable in either gold or silver. Since gold was seen as the more valued metal, most bond holders redeemed them for gold which depleted the Treasury's gold supply which then caused a financial panic through the whole country in 1893. This led to the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. The result was a massive slowdown in silver dollar production for the years of 1893, 1894 and 1895. Not coincidently, these years also contain some of the most elusive key dates. Production picked back up in 1896 but it would be a few years before production went back above the 10,000,000 mark for any individual mint. In 1904, the supply of silver was exhausted and the Morgan Dollar ceased production, or so it seemed.
In 1918, Congress passed the Pittman Act and recalled over 270 million silver dollars for melting. Total mintage of the entire series totaled nearly 657 million. If you subtract out the high mintage 1921 dates of 86.7 million, (these were made from the melted older dollars), around 47% of Morgans dated prior to 1921 were destroyed. These silver dollars had been sitting in Treasury vaults for years just collecting dust. The provision of the act, called for the recall of these dollars for the purpose of making new ones. So, in 1921, the Morgan dollar was revived for one more year. Barber had died four years before (February 18, 1917) and now George T Morgan was Chief Engraver who you recall designed the dollar. The Philadelphia mint made over 44 million, the highest number it had ever made, while the San Francisco mint made over 20 million, which was more dollars in one year that it had ever made. Also, this marked the only year that the Denver mint made Morgan Dollars. The New Orleans and Carson City Mints had long ago ceased operations. Later that year, the Peace Dollar would permanently replace the Morgan Dollar.
With the paper dollar becoming more popular for commerce, dollar coins vanished from circulation and piled up in bank vaults. More meltings occurred due to the War Time Silver Act of 1942 and then in 1979-1980 when silver shot up to near $50 per ounce. No doubt millions of Morgans and Peace dollars were melted. Today, it is estimated that only 15-17% of all Morgan dollars produced still exist. Taking this into consideration, low mintage dates are even scarcer than their mintage would indicate making this a very desirable coin to collect.
This article is part of the Collection of short articles for beginners from the Atlantic Provinces Numismatic Association.
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