Roger Burdette: First 1878-S Morgan Silver Dollars Struck

Morgan Silver Dollars by Roger W. Burdette, special to CoinWeek …..

The first standard Morgan Silver Dollars designed by George T. Morgan were struck at the San Francisco Mint on April 17, 1878. A box containing 10 pairs of dollar dies was shipped on April 8 and arrived at the Mint on the evening of April 16. The dies were apparently numbered one through 10 for both obverse and reverse.

On the morning of April 17, Superintendent Henry L. Dodge notified San Francisco newspapers that Morgan silver dollar dies had arrived and that the first coins would be struck at 3:30 PM at the Mint. Nearly all daily newspapers sent reporters, and several other people were either invited or learned of the event.

Coiner Frank X. Cicott acted as master of ceremonies and likely explained what was going to happen for those in attendance. Superintendent Dodge placed the first planchet in the collar surrounding the lower, reverse die of the large Ajax press. The power drive belt had been disconnected, so Mint employee Thomas C. Maher turned the large flywheel manually. The large toggle joint clicked, driving the upper, or obverse, die into the planchet and producing the first San Francisco silver dollar of the new design.

Our two primary newspaper sources diverge a little at this point. The Alta California states:

Superintendent Dodge placed the first piece of silver in the press, and, when the imprint was taken, presented it to Mr. Cicott. The second was given to [former] Governor Low, the third, fourth and fifth to three ladies present, and others to different gentlemen present.

The Chronicle’s more detailed version says:

This initial coin having been passed around, the vertical “hopper” of the Ajax press was filled with a column of planchettes, the belt was attached to the press by the Coiner, the mighty machine, as delicately accurate as it is ponderous, placed planchette after planchette between the upper and lower die almost as fast as the lad that tended the hopper could keep it filled…

The version with coins being struck individually and given to Cicott, Gov. Low, the three ladies, and others, seems the most authentic. There would be little purpose in inviting the press and others if there were not some sort of token or souvenir of the occasion to be carried away. Coins, possibly 10, could have been manually struck while the planchet hopper was being adjusted, filled, and the power belt attached.

From here forward there is agreement that 1,000 or slightly fewer pieces were struck on April 17. Nearly 1,000 were struck off when a die cracked, and the press was stopped.

Nothing tells us which die cracked, although Dodge’s statement of “eight reverse dies condemned” could be a suggestion that it was the reverse that failed. If correct, we should not have any more coins from that die pair than the ±1,000 mentioned. There is no evidence that any dies except the initial pair were used on the 17th.

Superintendent Dodge sent a telegram to United States Mint Director Henry Linderman announcing the first standard silver dollar had been stamped and asking what to do with the coins.

Roger Burdette: First 1878-S Morgan Silver Dollars Struck. Telegram notifying Mint Director of first Morgan dollar struck at San Francisco Mint.
Telegram dated April 17, 1878, notifying Mint Director Henry Linderman that the dies had arrived and the first Morgan dollar had been struck at San Francisco Mint.

The brief text opens by contradicting the date that the dies arrived, but this is of little importance. Thereafter, the telegram uses the word “coin” to say that the first was struck and to ask what to do with the “coin”. To modern readers, this clearly refers to a single piece of money – that is, one coin. But at the U.S. Mint of the late 1870s, the word “coin” could be singular or plural depending on context. Phrases such as “The coin are ready,” “What coin do you want,” or “How much coin can your Mint produce,” were common usage. This is a more generic or categorization use of “coin” than the specific use to which we are accustomed.

If we look at Dodge’s telegram from a contemporary view, he is saying, “The first coins were struck today… What shall I do with them?” This makes sense if we remember that much was made at the Philadelphia Mint and in Linderman’s Washington, D.C. office about the first silver dollars made in March. With Dodge’s Mint being the next to strike dollars, and also being on the other side of the continent, the Superintendent might readily hope there would be similar interest, and that Linderman had a special use for the first batch from San Francisco.

But after receiving Dodge’s telegram, it was not until April 29 that Director Linderman requested five new silver dollars from the San Francisco and Carson City mints. Dodge’s letter accompanying the coins was sent on April 30 and received at Mint Headquarters on May 9. Linderman was pleased with the coins, “…these coins in execution and finish are creditable to your Mint and to the skill of the employees…”

Linderman’s immediate reaction after receiving the telegram was to write Dodge that he need not be in a hurry to coin dollars.

Until we shall have made arrangements for the necessary supply of silver bullion on your coast, you need not be in a hurry as to the silver dollar coinage. I have called the attention of the Secretary of the Treasury to the necessity of forwarding, as early as practicable, to the Assistant Treasurer of the U. S. in your city, some silver certificates or coin notes.

You have heretofore been authorized to exchange standard silver dollars at par for gold coins of legal weight, and also to pay the same in silver purchases. This will be confirmed, and you will receive from time to time from the Treasurer of the U.S. transfer orders payable in silver dollars.

A receipt for April 1878 deliveries of Morgan dollars from the San Francisco Mint.
A receipt for April 1878 deliveries of Morgan dollars from the San Francisco Mint.

For April 1878, the coinage journal shows the following Morgan silver dollar deliveries at San Francisco. These are very sparse totals for a mint that had three presses available for silver dollars. They also had a lot of experience with making dollar-size planchets and working with dollar dies from the Trade dollar program. Only 176,000 coins were made during none work days. This average of 19,556 silver dollars per day was not as good as the rate for May, which was 60,500, but limited bullion availability and inferior die life kept dollar production at modest levels through most of the year.

First Pair of Silver Dollar Dies

We can establish which die pair was used on April 17 by examining a unique coin.

This is an 1878-S dollar engraved with the words, “one of the first ten coined april [sic] 17th from j. gus. burt” in neat capital letters. Examination by Morgan Silver dollar specialists at VAMWorld has established that this coin is a variety known as “VAM 60”. The reverse has a long center arrow shaft. The S mintmark is punched high and left in relation to the wreath bow. The identical obverse die was used to make VAMs 26 and 57, but no other coins are known from this reverse die.

1878-S Morgan dollar, one of the first examples struck.

This coin is a tangible bridge between the first coins produced and any other coin claiming to be part of the batch prepared the first day and is thus legitimately “special”. A closer look at the engraving reveals slight variations in the shape of letters, spacing, and in the order of cutting strokes.

A telegram sent by Dodge at 5 pm on April 20 stated that “eight reverse and three obverse dies for the new dollar have been condemned.” This means that no more than 48,000 coins had been struck from eight reverse and three obverse dies.

Fifteen pairs of silver dollar dies were shipped to San Francisco on April 17. An additional 15 pairs were shipped on April 24; another 15 dies were shipped on May 3. Express shipping time from Philadelphia to San Francisco was approximately seven days. This batch was shipped on the 17th and received on April 26. This means that after accounting for eight reverse and three obverse dies that were condemned, Dodge had only two usable reverse dies and seven obverse dies available to work with through at least April 25. Therefore, between April 22 and 25 merely 94,000 coins were delivered using not more than the remaining two reverse dies.

The Morgan dollar delivery table extract (above) shows that no coin deliveries were made on Friday or Saturday (April 26 and 27), and only 10,000 coins on Monday the 29th. This gap is seen on other coin delivery tables at all of the mints. It usually signifies an absence of dies, bullion, or a documented disruption to work. This is especially notable when it occurs for coins that are a high priority as were the new silver dollars.


The clear deduction from our physical and historical evidence is that the first 1,000 standard silver dollars were produced at the San Francisco Mint during the afternoon of April 17, 1878. All of these coins were struck on the large Ajax press from a single pair of dies. After somewhat less than 1,000 pieces were made, the reverse die cracked and was condemned. No further coins were made from this pair of dies. This die combination is known as VAM 60. All initial production coins were made from this pair of dies, and this pair only.


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