The Morgan Dollar – A Federal Boondoggle of Vast Proportions
Though it might seem to be a modern phenomenon, the problem of dollar coins that don’t circulate has a long history. For the large silver dollars of America’s past, the metal value of these coins often lead to them being melted as bullion rather than being spent as money in everyday commerce.
In 1873, the United States Congress responded to this reality by suspending the production of silver dollars for domestic use while at the same time creating a new silver Trade dollar for export. This change in America’s coinage laws 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 a massive increase in raw silver production from domestic mines due to the discovery of the Comstock Lode.
With high production levels of raw ore and reduced demand, American mining interests lobbied Congress to create a market for their product by reintroducing the American silver dollar coin. The Bland-Allison Act of 1878 provided this.
The Bland-Allison Act required the U.S. Treasury Department to purchase millions of ounces of silver bullion each month so that new silver dollars could be made. For the new coin, Mint Director Henry P. Linderman selected a design by English-born assistant engraver George T. Morgan. Morgan had iterated on a portrait of Liberty based on the likeness of Philadelphia school teacher Anna Willess Williams on a number of pattern coins–most notably a half dollar pattern that closely resembles the Morgan dollar.
The first Morgans were produced in 1878. As per the law, millions of silver dollars were minted each year, even though the coin did not circulate widely due to the fact that paper dollars were more convenient. This wasn’t the case everywhere, however; in the American West, silver dollars proved more versatile. Still, the mandated quantities produced each year far outpaced demand and most Morgan dollars were struck, dumped into bags, and put into longterm storage in Treasury vaults.
The Bland-Allison Act and subsequent legislation that required bullion purchases eventually exhausted silver stockpiles by 1904. Morgan dollar production went on hiatus, and unneeded silver dollars ended up in storage. But 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 as a stopgap before the legally mandated Peace dollar design could be produced. But the storage of silver dollars was about to end.
Beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the early ’60s, rising collector coin and bullion prices resulted in a steady outflow of dollar coins from the Treasury until this was halted in 1964 by the Federal Government. The remaining silver dollars were dispersed in the early ’70s through 1980 by the General Services Administration (GSA) 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 – an interest that continues unabated today.
America’s Most Collected Classic Coin
Throughout much of its circulating history, the Morgan dollar has been collected. The size of the American numismatic market was much, much smaller, however, and many of these collectors were interested in older coins such as large cents, which disappeared from circulation starting in 1857.
Collectors of the period were not largely aware of coin mintages at the time, and certainly paid little mind to collecting coins by mintmark. The United States Mint produced Proof versions of its circulating coins for collectors – who often were satisfied with owning a Proof example instead of its corresponding circulation strike.
Collecting interest in Morgan dollars grew throughout the 20th century, but for the first half of that century, the silver one dollar coins could be purchased from the local bank at face value. As the need arose, banks would replenish their stock by ordering $1,000 bags from the Treasury Department.
Over the years, these bags yielded coins from nearly all dates and mints–save for the 12,000 coins supposedly struck for circulation by the Philadelphia Mint in 1895. For some issues, quantities of uncirculated coins did not materialize as the Treasury’s stockpile depleted.
A massive run on silver in the 1960s saw the era of face value silver dollars come to a close. The Treasury held back a few million dollar coins that were marked as having been struck at the defunct Carson City Mint and developed a plan to auction them off to the general public through the General Services Administration.
It was this dwindling of the government’s stockpile followed with the public sale of “the coins that Jesse James never got” that ignited a modern collector market for Morgan dollars.
Other than for scarce or rare issues and varieties, business strike Morgan silver dollars are represented by the thousands in census and population reports, and prices are moderate even in Gem for some plentiful dates.
Prooflike (PL) and Deep Mirror Prooflike (DMPL) examples are common, some of which are expensive in higher Mint State grades. Issues with higher prices include the 1879-CC, the 1883-S, the 1884-S, the 1886-O, the 1889-CC, the 1892-S, the 1893-S, the 1895-O, and the 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 in Gem or finer. Issues with higher prices are the 1878 7TF (Seven Tail Feathers), Reverse of 1879; the 1883-O and 1893-CC; the 1895 Proof-only pieces; and the 1921 Chapman examples. Cameo and Deep Cameo/Ultra Cameo versions generally have modest premiums over regular Proofs.
Morgan Dollar Varieties–VAMs–Are Fascinating and Plentiful
As millions of Morgan dollars were dispersed from Treasury vaults in the 1950s and ’60s, a fascinating new collecting focus developed. The ready availability of uncirculated coins allowed for close inspection of the coins and revealed all manner of variations between dies, some of them quite dramatic. Careful study also allowed collectors to track the steady deterioration of certain dies that are known to have produced coins with pronounced die cracks. Other subtle yet noteworthy characteristics were also present on a number of coins, including repunched mintmarks, repaired design elements, and various doubled and tripled dies.
Over the years, hundreds of varieties became known from 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 numismatists Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis.
The most sought-after VAM (Van Allen Mallis) varieties are divided into various groups. Two of the most popular groups are known as 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; the 1880/79-O and 1880/79-S overdates; the 1882-O/S; the 1887/6-O and 1887/6 Philadelphia overdates; the 1888-O “Hot Lips” Doubled Die Obverse; the 1899-O Micro O mintmark; the 1900-O/CC; the 1901 Doubled Die Reverse; and the 1903-S Micro S mintmark.
The Morgan 50: A Way for Everybody to Complete a Morgan Dollar Registry Set
CoinWeek editor Charles Morgan teamed up with Russ Augustin of AU Capital Management and RARCOA to assemble a list of 50 uncirculated Morgan dollars that are affordable enough so that every collector can complete the set. Called “The Morgan 50”, this set construction features coins from all five Morgan-dollar-producing mints and serves as a great entry point for collectors as they learn about the series in all its intricacies. CoinWeek has produced the first two of three planned videos that describe each of The Morgan 50 coins. Collectors can register their sets in the NGC Set Registry or at mycollect.com.
Exclusive CoinWeek Coverage of the Morgan Dollar Market
In early 2023, CoinWeek contributing writer Tyler Rossi produced this in-depth study of the market for certified 1881-CC to 1884-CC Morgan dollars. This band of dates were heavily represented in the GSA sales of the 1970s and ’80s and are the most affordable Morgan dollars from the famous Carson City Mint.
In 2018, coin dealer Jeff Garrett handled thousands of uncirculated Morgan dollars that turned up in unopened Mint bags. CoinWeek analyzes the grades of the coins found in what might be one of the last great Morgan dollar bag hoards.
Learn More About DMPL and PL Morgan Dollars
Collectors can be confused by the terms “Proof” and “Prooflike”; the following article by CoinWeek provides a good explanation of the difference between the two.
In-Depth Morgan Dollar Date Analysis by CoinWeek IQ
- 1887 – Market data updated November 20, 2023!
- 1904-O – Market data updated November 20, 2023!
- 1921-S “Zerbe Proof”
Morgan Dollars on the CoinWeek Podcast
- Episode #39: Q. David Bowers Discusses the 1964 Morgan Dollar
Hubs for 1964-dated Morgan dollars turned up during a 2016 tour of the Philadelphia Mint’s vault. Q. David Bowers joined Charles Morgan to discuss the discovery and how this development changes our understanding of the Treasury Department’s attempt to replenish its silver dollar supply in the mid-1960s.
- Episode #50: Talking Morgan Dollars with Leroy Van Allen
Leroy Van Allen wrote the book on collecting Morgan dollar varieties. In this episode of the CoinWeek Podcast, Van Allen joined Charles Morgan to talk about his research into the popular silver dollar series and what insights he gleaned from the published images of the 1964 Morgan dollar hubs.
He also wrote an article further explaining his analysis, replete with close-up images of the hub. Click on the image below to read.
Morgan Dollar Design
George 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 denticled 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 13 small six-point starts, seven on the left and six on the right. 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-pointed 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 motto 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 the DO in DOLLAR. The Philadelphia Mint produced Morgans every year of the issue, but no circulation strikes are known for 1895, all presumed melted.
The edge of the Morgan silver dollar is reeded.
|Morgan Silver Dollar
|Years Of Issue:
|High – 44,690,000 (1921); Low – 12,000 (1895 – but none are known, possibly all having been melted. Next lowest at 77,000 is the 1893-S.)
|High – 1,355 (1880); Low – 590 (1890; A small number of Proofs have been listed from New Orleans, Carson City, and San Francisco, though this is 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 (ANA) from 1908 to 1910, and Henry Chapman, a Philadelphia coin dealer in the early 1900s.)
|90% silver, 10% copper
|George T. Morgan
|George T. Morgan
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Bowers, Q. David. The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing.
–. A Buyer’s Guide to Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States. Zyrus Press.
–. A Guide Book of Morgan Silver Dollars. Whitman Publishing.
–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.
Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Doubleday.
Fey, Michael S. and Jeff Oxman. The Top 100 Morgan Dollar Varieties. RCI Publishing.
Fivaz, Bill and J.T. Stanton. CherryPickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.
Standish, Michael “Miles”. The Morgan Dollar: America’s Love Affair with a Legendary Coin, Featuring the Coins of the Coronet Collection. Whitman Publishing.
Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing.
Van Allen, Leroy and A. George Mallis. Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan & Peace Dollars. Worldwide Ventures, Inc.
Yeoman, R.S and Kenneth Bressett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.
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