Dollars – Morgan Dollar, 1878-1921

Though it might seem to be a modern phenomenon, the problem of uncirculating dollar coins has a long history. The metal value of these large silver coins often lead to them being melted as bullion rather than being spent for everyday commerce. In 1873 Congress responded to this recurring issue by suspending production of silver dollars for domestic use, at the same time creating a new Trade dollar for export. That coinage change reduced the government’s need for silver, but unfortunately coincided with the release of vast numbers of European silver coins into the international market and increased raw silver production from domestic mines. With high production levels and reduced demand, American mining interests needed a market for their product, which was provided by the 1878 Bland-Allison Act. This Act required the Treasury to purchase millions of ounces of silver bullion each month so that a new silver dollar could be made; the dollar chosen because that denomination used more silver than coins of lesser face value. Mint Director Henry P. Linderman selected a pattern half dollar produced by assistant engraver George T. Morgan as the motif for the new coin. Morgan’s model for Liberty’s portrait was Anna Williams, a Philadelphia school teacher, who reportedly lost her job when news of her posing for the coin image became known. After modifications to adapt the pattern designs to the larger dollar, the first Morgans were produced in 1878.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

Millions of silver dollars were minted but the coins still did not extensively circulate, except in the West where “hard money” was favored over paper currency. Bland-Allison and subsequent legislation that required bullion purchases eventually exhausted silver stockpiles in 1904. Production of Morgans went on hiatus, and unneeded silver dollars ended up in storage in government vaults. However, because of a subsequent increase in silver prices, nearly three hundred million of the stored dollars were melted in 1918 under the provisions of the Pittman Act. In 1921, even though millions of the coins could still be found in government vaults, nearly 87 million new Morgan dollars were minted. But the storage of silver dollars was about to end. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the early 1960s, rising collector coin and bullion prices resulted in a steady outflow of dollar coins from the Treasury, until halted in 1964 by the government. Remaining silver dollars were dispersed in the early 1970s through 1980 by the General Services Administration via mail-bid sales. The GSA sales, combined with the discovery and distribution of other privately-held Morgan dollar hoards heightened collector interest in the series, which continues unabated today.

Morgan’s somewhat austere Liberty faces left, dominating the obverse. Liberty’s curled hair, over the forehead and down the back, is topped by a liberty cap with a LIBERTY banner at the front, above which are small branches of wheat, cotton, and maple. Forming a concentric circle inside the dentilled rim are E PLURIBUS UNUM at the top, each word separated by a centered dot, and the date at the bottom. Separating the two legends are thirteen small six-point starts, seven on the left and six on the right, a solid style reminiscent the Star of David rather than the edged-ray style of previously depicted stars. Morgan’s initial M is along the truncation of the neck.

The reverse shows an eagle with outstretched wings, tips reaching nearly to the dentils encircling the rim. The eagle’s left claw clutches three arrows, the right a solitary olive branch. Inside the rim is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA around the top two-thirds, and ONE DOLLAR at the bottom. A six-point star separates ONE and UNITED to the left, and DOLLAR and AMERICA to the right. Above the eagle, in a more stylized font than used elsewhere on the coin, is the phrase In God We trust (upper and lower case as reproduced here). Surrounding the eagle, inside the legends, is a nearly concentric partial wreath of grain sheaves, tied at the bottom with a double-looped ribbon. The letter M is on the left loop, the first time a designer’s initial was displayed on both sides of a coin. New Orleans (O, 1879-1904), Carson City (CC, 1878-1885, 1889-1893), San Francisco (S, 1878-1904, 1921), and Denver (D, 1921) mintmarks are located below the ribbon loops, above DO in DOLLAR. The Philadelphia Mint produced Morgans every year of the issue, but no circulation strikes are known for 1895, all presumed melted.

Other than for scarce or rare issues and varieties, business strike Morgan silver dollars are represented by the thousands in census/ population reports, and prices are moderate even as Gem for some plentiful dates. Prooflike and deep mirror prooflike examples are common, some of which are expensive in higher Mint State grades. Coins with higher prices are the 1879-CC, 1883-S, 1884-S, 1886-O, 1889-CC, 1892-S, 1893-S, 1895-O, and 1895-S, often very expensive as Gem or finer. Deep mirror prooflike examples and several die varieties are much more expensive than standard issues for a given date. Proof coins were minted at Philadelphia every year that Morgans were produced, and for two (possibly three) years at New Orleans, and one year each at Carson City and San Francisco. Prices are moderate to Select Uncirculated, increasing above that to expensive and very expensive as Gem or finer. Issues with higher prices are the 1878 seven tail feathers, reverse of 1879; 1883-O and 1893-CC; the 1895 proof-only pieces; and the 1921 Chapman examples. Cameo and deep cameo versions generally have modest premiums over regular proofs.


Designer: George T. Morgan
Circulation Mintage: high 44,690,000 (1921), low 12,000 (1895, but none are known, possibly all having been melted. Next lowest at 77,000 pieces is the 1893-S).
Proof Mintage: high 1,355 (1880), low 590 (1890. A small number of proofs have been listed from the New Orleans, Carson City, and San Francisco mints, though unconfirmed by official records and considered by some to be exceptional business strikes. The San Francisco pieces were apparently made at the request of Farran Zerbe, President of the American Numismatic Association from 1908 to 1910, and Henry Chapman, a Philadelphia coin dealer in the early 1900s).
Denomintion: $1.00 One Dollar
Diameter: ±38.1 mm, reeded edge
Metal content: 90% silver, 10% copper
Weight: ±26.73 grams
Varieties:Hundreds of varieties are known for this extensively studied series of U.S. coinage. A reference on Morgan varieties was published in 1964, at the end of the earlier period of Treasury Department silver dollar distribution, but interest expanded greatly following the 1971 publication of a comprehensive variety book by Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis. The most sought-after VAM varieties (after Van Allen and Mallis) are divided into two groups, the Top-100 and the Hot-50. Of more general interest to the non-specialist are the 1878 seven/eight tail feathers versions; the 1878/1879/1880 reverse varieties; the 1879-CC/CC; 1880/79-O and S overdates; 1882-O/S; 1887/6 O and Philadelphia overdates; 1888-O double die obverse; 1899-O Micro mintmark; 1900 O/CC; 1901 double die reverse; and the 1903-S Micro S mintmark.

Additional Resources :

Coin Encyclopedia:
A Buyer’s Guide to Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States. Q. David Bowers (author), John Dannreuther (editor). Zyrus Press.
A Guide Book of Morgan Silver Dollars. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan & Peace Dollars. Leroy Van Allen, A. George Mallis. Worldwide Ventures, Inc.
The Top 100 Morgan Dollar Varieties: The VAM Keys. Michael S. Fey, Jeff Oxman. RCI Publishing.
CherryPickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties of United States Coins. Bill Fivaz, J.T. Stanton. Whitman Publishing.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.

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  1. i have a 1921 morgan silver dollar mint mark s that looks to have a mint flaw on the eagles wing right top, it appears to be a dot of base coin metal with want looks like a odd heart depression in it have you heard of such a thing and is it from the mint? Any info would be greatly appreciated i am going thru some coins i inherited the coin is in pretty good condition and is prety clear. thank you for your time. mark


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