Morgan Dollars (1878-1921)

Coins / United States of America / 1 Dollar


Morgan Silver Dollar Obverse 1882-P

Morgan Silver Dollar Reverse 1882-P


Overview / History

The Morgan Silver Dollar came about as a direct result of political pressure put on Congress by the silver-mining industry after the previous silver dollar - the Liberty Seated dollar - had been retired through legislation in 1873. The silver-mining lobby efforts resulted in the Bland-Allison Act, passed on February 28th, 1878, which required the Treasury to purchase between two to four million troy ounces of silver bullion each month to be minted into dollar coins. Coin design began in November 1877, in anticipation of the legislation, and Mint Director Henry P. Linderman ordered a contest between Chief Engraver William Barber and George T. Morgan, a British engraver working as an assistant to Linderman. Morgan's design won the competition, and the production of the Morgan Silver Dollar began on March 11th, 1878.

Despite Linderman's initial desire to use the San Francisco and Carson City mints to boost production to meet the high quotas established by the Bland-Allison Act, the initial short lifespan of the dies delayed their use as the western mints lacked the needed equipment to prepare the dies. After the Philadelphia mint was forced to halt production of all other coins and work overtime to meet quota requirements, the dies were sent to the western mints - arriving in both San Francisco and Carson City in 1878. Between all three mints, approximately 22,494,000 Morgan Silver Dollars were produced in 1878.

More than half a billion Morgan Silver Dollars were minted between 1878-1904. Nearly half of these coins - over 270,000,000 - were melted down as a result of the Pittman Act of 1918. Millions of silver coins, including the Morgan Silver Dollar, were melted as a result of the Wartime Silver Act of 1942, while millions more were likely melted down in 1979-1980 when the price of silver soared to over $50/ounce. It is unclear how many Morgan Silver Dollars - possibly as few as 1.4 million. Though this makes it a fairly common coin by numismatic standards, staggeringly few coins remain today compared to the total number struck.

Details

  • Size & Makeup: In accordance with the Coinage Act of 1837, the Morgan Silver Dollar contained 90% silver and 10% copper. It measures 38.1 millimeters (1.50 inches) in diameter and weighed 412.5 grains (26.73 grams).
  • Obverse: The Morgan Silver Dollar features a left-facing head portrait of Lady Liberty, wearing a Liberty Cap, along with a ribbon just below the cap across the hair inscribed with the word "Liberty". Two cotton blossoms and two heads of wheat are tucked between the ribbon and Liberty Cap as a symbol of the U.S.'s agricultural heritage. The coin is rimmed with the words "E Pluribus Unum" and the year of minting, separated on both sides by 13 stars, representing the 13 original colonies.
  • Reverse: The reverse is dominated by an American eagle with outstretched wings, clutching an olive branch of peace and arrows of war in its talons. The coin is rimmed by the words "In God We Trust" in a Gothic script above the eagle, and a laurel wreath with a ribbon tied in the center on the lower half. A mint mark may be visible below the bows of the wreath - CC for Carson City and S for San Francisco. Morgan Silver Dollars with no mint mark were minted in Philadelphia.
  • All Morgan Silver Dollars contained the initial of the designer - the letter 'M' - on both sides - a first for any U.S. silver coin. The initial is located at the truncation of Lady Liberty's neck on the obverse, and on the left loop of the ribbon on the reverse.
  • All Morgan Silver Dollars minted in the first several weeks of production show an eagle with eight tail feathers. In the second week of production, it was noted that all previous depictions of the American eagle on U.S. coins had included an odd number of tail feathers. Combined with the high rate of dies breaking early in production due to the high relief of the coin, the decision was made to reduce the number of tail feathers to seven.

Interesting Facts

  • Since the design of the Morgan Silver Dollar took place before the formal passing of the Bland-Allison Act, the design was originally intended to be used for the half-dollar.
  • Mint Director Linderman is rumored to have become dissatisfied with the work of Chief Engraver Barber over his past work, and allegedly rigged the contest for the anticipated silver dollar's design in favor of his assistant, George T. Morgan.
  • Due in part to the high relief of the coin requiring multiple adjustments to the press, the first acceptable strike of the coin did not occur until 3:17 pm on March 11th, 1878. This first coin was given to President Rutherford B. Hayes, while the second and third coins were given to Secretary of Treasury John Sherman and the Director of the Philadephia Mint - Henry Lindman.
  • The coin was referred to as the "Buzzard Dollar" by some, due to the unusually scrawny American eagle depicted on the reverse.
  • As a result of the design change early in production, there are three primary variations in the 1878 Morgan Silver Dollar. Some depict the American eagle as having eight feathers, while others depict the eagle with seven feathers. Due to errors in the dies, while these changes were being made, some 1878 Morgan Silver Dollars show the eagle with two layers of feathers - seven over eight. This latter variation are considered the rarest.
  • A Philadelphia school teacher - Anna Willess Williams - was used as the model for Lady Liberty in the design.

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