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Popular Morgans soaked up silver
By R.W. Julian
November 02, 2017

Older collectors will remember that In the 1950s it was easy to obtain silver dollars at local banks and those who wished to do so could start a date collection. Such coins were so common, however, that not all that many collectors were interested. All of this changed in the 1960s, after the great silver melts, when dollars were much less easy to obtain.

By the 1980s, Morgan silver dollar collecting became the mainstay of the numismatic hobby rivaling  Lincoln cents in popularity.

In the 21st century, Morgan dollars retain the prominence earned in the prior 50 years.

The Morgan dollar, struck from 1878 to 1921, has continued to gather interest and today there are many who specialize in just this one design. The story begins in the late 1850s, when silver was first discovered in quantity in this country.

At first, because of the Civil War, the price of silver stayed high but once the war ended the value began to drop, slowly at first but with gathering momentum after 1873. The ill-famed Trade dollar was coined in an effort to soak up the surplus silver but in due course this idea failed and the mining interests sought other venues in which to sell their silver.

One such avenue that producers hoped would help stem the price decline was an increased mintage of minor silver coins. In 1875, for example, Congress created the 20-cent piece but it proved to be the Anthony dollar of its day and within a matter of months the public simply ignored it.

While political leaders argued, silver continued its steady plunge. In July 1873 the value of a troy ounce of silver was $1.30 but the same month of 1876 saw only $1.08. In December 1876 Missouri Representative Richard Bland introduced into the House of Representatives a bill mandating the free coinage of silver dollars for anyone bringing bullion to the mints. While such an act would have solved the problem of excess silver production, it would also have disrupted the financial stability of the country due to cheap money flooding the marketplace. The House passed the Bland bill but it died in the Senate.

In the meantime government officials had not exactly been idle. In the fall of 1876 Mint Director Henry R. Linderman had brought to America a young English engraver named George T. Morgan to redesign the minor silver coinage; Morgan enthusiastically entered into his task, much to the annoyance of Chief Engraver William Barber.

During the fall of 1877 everything began to change. There was a massive influx of American silver coins into this country from abroad; they had left during the Civil War – 15 years earlier – and now unexpectedly returned. The marketplace was already saturated with minor silver coin and this additional inpouring meant that the Treasury was forced to halt minor silver coinage.

In November 1877 Representative Bland reintroduced his free coinage bill and the House again approved the legislation. The bill was then sent to the Senate where chances of passage were very dim, at least for the Bland version. Senator William Allison made several changes to the Bland bill by offering amendments, which were duly adopted by the Senate. He agreed that the silver dollar ought to be resurrected, as desired by the silver forces, but realized that unlimited coinage would be harmful to the economy.

Allison proposed that the government buy from $2 million to $4 million worth of silver each month to be coined into standard dollars of unlimited legal tender status. In this way there would be inflation, but under the control of the administration and the profits would go into the Treasury. Considering the political forces then gathering, it was a good compromise.

President Rutherford Hayes opposed the whole idea and did his best to scuttle it. This time the Administration failed and both houses of Congress passed the Bland-Allison Act, as it is now known. The President was not quite through with his opposition: on Feb. 28, 1878, he vetoed the bill. Congress, however, overrode the veto within a few hours. It was now up to the Mint to produce the required coinage.

By the middle of October 1877 it had become clear to Director Linderman that a silver dollar was in the works. On the 18th he wrote Morgan asking him to use his latest set of designs in making a pattern piece for a silver dollar. At the same time William Barber was also ordered to begin work on the same denomination. In effect, there was now a contest between Morgan and Barber.

It was only a short time before both engravers were at work. Although Barber was supposed to use one of his Liberty heads already on hand there is some doubt that this was actually done. The Barber pattern dollar of 1878 – first struck in early December 1877 – has a head of Liberty found on no earlier Barber pattern. It is of course possible that Barber had been working on a Liberty head when Linderman’s order had arrived and had simply used this for the contest.

Morgan, after receiving Linderman’s order, used the Liberty head from a half dollar pattern while the eagle came from the reverse of a recently executed $10 gold piece. After the Morgan dies were finished – about the same time as those of Barber – patterns were struck and sent to Linderman. The Morgan patterns struck up very easily in the press but those by Barber had not, a telling point in favor of Morgan.

The was also a joker in the deck. Linderman had secretly sent a former Mint official, A. Loudon Snowden, to critique Morgan’s progress and report back to the director, who then suggested changes to the artist. Morgan of course understood perfectly what was transpiring and very carefully catered to every shade of the director’s artistic ideas. The contest was thus rigged but Barber did not know it.

During the latter part of December 1877 Morgan spent a considerable amount of time refining his designs. Several dies were made, principally to illustrate the most recent “suggestions” made through A.L. Snowden. Linderman also carefully examined each of the new patterns and of course had fresh thoughts to offer the engraver. Barber, on the other hand, received almost no encouragement.

As the day of reckoning in Congress grew ever closer, Snowden spent an increasing amount of time with Morgan. In mid-January 1878, for example, Snowden carefully examined the latest artwork in an effort to find points that might be improved. Snowden did find some minor flaws, especially on the reverse. The former coiner felt that the eagle’s head was more like that of a snake and should be changed accordingly; beyond this Snowden thought that the eagle’s wings came too close together, especially near the talons, giving the whole ensemble something of a box-like appearance.

The changes suggested by Linderman’s emissary were promptly made and new dies executed to strike the necessary patterns. The new essays engendered further suggestions and Morgan was kept busy making changes to please both Linderman and Snowden. The engraver worked with all due speed and by the end of January another set of dies had been prepared. Throughout February there were fresh changes and Morgan was forced to work at a furious pace. On Feb. 25 the final Morgan patterns were sent to Linderman for examination.

On Feb. 28 Director Linderman wrote Philadelphia Mint Superintendent James Pollock that Morgan’s design had been chosen. The decision was to be kept secret from all but Morgan, who was ordered to begin work on the necessary working dies. (Feb. 28 was also the day on which both Houses of Congress overrode the presidential veto of the Bland-Allison Act.)

Even before the final legislative vote, however, Linderman began to make preparations, especially with respect to informing the mints at San Francisco and Carson City about the impending resumption of dollar coinage. On Feb. 21 the New York Assay Office was ordered to prepare one-half million ounces of fine silver bullion and ship it to Philadelphia.

The first Morgan dollar was struck on March 11 but coinage did not really get under way until the following day. Under normal conditions the beginning of coinage usually solves most questions but this was not to be the case with the Morgan dollar. There were numerous difficulties with both dies and design. At first, however, all seemed to go well.

Dies for Carson City and San Francisco were supposed to be sent out shortly after coinage commenced at Philadelphia, but this was not done as originally ordered because the director wished to see the character of the dies and their performance before sending them to the western Mints.

When the Morgan dollar was first issued there was speculation among Philadelphians about the identity of the model who had posed for the head of Liberty. It was not until late 1879 that an enterprising reporter discovered the name of Anna Williams and published it. The erstwhile model then became the center of quite a stir which took several weeks to settle down; the attention was not exactly to her liking.

As a result of a visit to the Philadelphia Mint on March 18 to see for himself how the coinage was going, Linderman ordered that new working hubs – which were to incorporate fresh suggestions – be made as soon as possible. The most important of these was the changing of the number of eagle tail feathers from eight to sevem. He claimed that all previous eagles on American coinage had borne an odd number of tail feathers. It was not long before new dies were prepared and placed into service, possibly as early as the first week of April. Some of the original reverse dies were repunched with the revised hubs, creating the well-known “7 over 8” tail feathers variety.

To liven matters up a bit, Linderman ordered in mid-April that additional changes be made on both the obverse and reverse dies. As the dies from the second set of hubs were working rather well, Linderman permitted Morgan sufficient lead time for the third set. They were in fact completed in mid-May but not used until the latter part of the year. In the meantime dies from the second hubs were sent to Carson City and San Francisco.

During 1878 and 1879 there were a number of minor problems at Philadelphia and the branch mints but in due course these were ironed out and coinage was both heavy and continuous. Collectors may easily obtain dollars from these years at nominal cost.

The first important variety after that time occurs in 1884 when minor changes to the dies were marked with dots on the obverses and reverses; this was done to help the engraver’s department keep track of the dies when in use.

During the 1880s the price of silver continued to decline although there were occasional reversals. The massive purchases of silver under the Bland-Allison Act did not stop this decline though slowing it somewhat. The bullion value of the silver in a dollar declined from 89 cents in 1878 to less than 50 cents in 1897. Since wages did not go down to match the fall in the value, mine owners were in an increasingly desperate position.

In the late 1880s there was enough public demand for increased currency that Congress looked into the whole matter of free coinage again. President Grover Cleveland, then in his first term of office (1885-1889), was opposed and even asked Congress to repeal the Bland-Allison Act. Silver supporters were unable to muster the support necessary to overcome a veto but then Cleveland did not have the political muscle to abolish Bland-Allison either. Cleveland was defeated in the election of 1888 and his replacement was Benjamin Harrison, who was a strong supporter of silver coinage. The result was the Sherman Act of 1890, which required the Treasury to increase its purchases of silver.

Foreign investors who owned American stocks and bonds became nervous after the Sherman Act was passed and began to withdraw their funds from this country, usually in the form of gold. The United States began to slide towards fiscal anarchy and there were massive layoffs of workers.

In November 1892 Grover Cleveland was re-elected to his old post but at the same time the depression got worse and the outflow of gold to Europe accelerated; the Treasury was unable to borrow enough gold to stabilize the currency. In November 1893 the President forced through Congress a repeal of the Sherman Act, the government now giving mere lip service to maintaining parity between gold and silver but pledging the continued use of silver as a coining material. The silver that had been purchased under the 1890 act was slowly coined into dollars until the supply was exhausted in 1904.

The furor over the Sherman Act led to very low mintages at San Francisco in 1892 and 1893. The 1893-S, with only 100,000 coined, is a classic rarity of the series and even coins in very good or fine bring strong prices.

Another rarity of this period is the Philadelphia 1895 dollar, which is known today in proof only. Mint records indicate that 12,000 business strikes were produced in addition to the 880 proof pieces but the regular mintage was presumably melted during World War I to provide silver bullion for the British.

Some of the dollars of the late 1890s and early 1900s, such as the 1898-O (New Orleans), were very difficult to find until the late 1950s and early 1960s when the massive Treasury hoards began to be paid out at an increasing rate. The writer well remembers when bags of 1898-O dollars were sent to local banks in the early 1960s for distribution; many collectors made it a point to purchase a roll or two of the once-rare coins.

From 1905 to 1920 there was no coinage of silver dollars because of a lack of bullion and new legislation authorizing its purchase. During World War I there was a massive melting, as noted above, of Morgan dollars for the war effort. The Pittman Act, which had permitted the wartime meltings, also directed that the coins be replaced, an operation which began in 1921.

When dollar coinage resumed in 1921 the Morgan design was continued. Coinage was extremely heavy and this date is far and away the most common of the series. In late December of that year, however, the first Peace dollars were struck.

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