The Morgan Silver Dollar, From Rags to Riches
Americans have had a love-hate relationship with the Morgan Silver Dollar ever since it was placed into circulation back in 1878. Much to the chagrin of many people in the United States, the Morgan Dollar was produced in massive quantities for over a quarter of a century. Then in 1905 the coin went on a 16 year hiatus, over which time no high circulation silver dollar coins were minted. The Morgan 1921 Silver Dollar was the last minting of the coin; it was replaced the following year by the Peace Dollar.
Prior to its arrival, the considerable supply of silver from the mining interests of the West created a supply/demand imbalance, threatening to drive down the price of silver. Through political pressure from the mining industry, the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 (“Bland Allison”) was passed, despite President Rutherford B. Hayes’ veto, creating a Government mandated program to increase the supply of silver dollars in circulation in the United States. Bland Allison had the desired effect of creating demand for silver, thus ensuring a home for the massive quantity of the ore being mined from the now legendary Comstock Lode and other neighboring mines – in effect providing an artificial price support for the precious metal.
For the years 1878 to 1904, the Morgan Silver Dollar was minted at four facilities, Carson City, San Francisco, New Orleans and the Mint’s head facility Philadelphia. A fifth, Denver, was added to produce the 1921 Morgan. Of the five, the most famous Morgan production facility was the legendary Carson City mint. With the rare two letter ”CC” mint mark, Carson City Morgans are well respected today due to their high strike quality, and as importantly the GSA Hoard described below.
The Morgan Dollar has numerous variations
In his book, The Top 100 Morgan Dollar Varieties – The VAM Keys, Michael S. Fey Ph.D. Illustrates to the reader some of the subtle (and not so subtle) differences in design of the obverse and reverse of the Morgan Silver Dollar. In total Fey highlights the Top 100 Morgan Varieties and how to identify them. While some Morgan Dollars are “as common as the cold,” several are extremely rate and worth a significant amount of money (1893-S and 1901 in particular).
In addition to the standard business strikes described above, the Morgan silver dollar proof is a coin that is regularly sought after given the limited numbers produced (discussed in Mint Statistics below) during that lifespan of the Morgan production.
By today’s standards, it seems quite odd that there are so many varieties of the Morgan Silver Dollar – until one thinks about the branches of the US Mint back in the day. Through lax production standards, the Philadelphia mint created some “interesting” die variations. These dies were subsequently modified to accommodate “on the fly changes” such as a change in mint mark, date, and design. One of the most famous changes in design was the transformation of eight eagle tail feathers into seven.
The obverse was designed by George T. Morgan and was crafted after the likeness of Anna Willess Williams. Thirteen stars surround the lower level of the coin, and E PLURIBUS UNUM spans the top. The date is on the bottom.
The reverse displays an eagle in flight carrying three arrows in its right talon and a branch in its left. There is a wreath that surrounds two thirds of the bottom of the eagle. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is displayed across the top, O N E D O L L A R, is displayed across the bottom, and In God We Trust is displayed between the eagle’s wings.
Morgan Silver Dollar, The “Riches” Years
Through the first half of the 20th Century, Morgan Silver Dollars were considered just another coin from the past, barely on the radar screen of most collectors. They took back seat to the other popular collector’s coins of the day such as the Buffalo Nickel, the Indian Head Penny, and the Mercury Dime. However, in the 1950s a few dealers started specializing in Morgans. Word eventually traveled and the Morgan Dollar joined the ranks of the other well known “classic” coins of the day, no better or worse, until . . .
the GSA Hoard was discovered.
The GSA Hoard
The Bland-Allison Act was created in large part to support the price of silver. The reasoning was sound enough at the time: if the Federal Government was required to buy silver to manufacture the Morgan Silver Dollar, “Government demand” would push the price of silver up. Higher silver prices would keep the mining lobby happy and in theory would create additional demand. There was just one problem, the Morgan Dollar wasn’t popular with the general public, and as a consequence there was not significant follow on demand. The Mint kept making coins, but the public was reluctant to use them. This process continued until the 1890s at which time the Comstock Lode was depleted. Shortly after the mint stopped producing the coin (the Morgan had a brief return in 1921, but was then replaced by the “Peace Dollar”).
From 1883 to 1964, 333 million Morgan silver dollar coins were melted down. This action dramatically reduced the population of Morgan dollars. Still, there were 180 million coins in the Government’s vaults in 1960. Over time, the Treasury Department’s “Cash Room” in Washington DC paid out these silver dollars to those interested; with Silver at $5.00 an ounce, those in the know were making a fortune. The Window was closed in 1964 and the remaining coins, about 3 million of them, were auctioned off between 1972 and 1980. These coins were all from the Carson City Mint and proudly displayed the “CC” mark. Although these coins were almost 100 years old, they displayed the same luster and brilliance of a newly minted coin. These coins, now known as the GSA Hoard, created great awareness and demand for the Morgan Dollar, elevating it to the status “one of the most widely collected coins in the United States.”
There are many variations of the Morgan Silver Dollar. This is due in part to changes required post production, and others due to poor manufacturing control. Below is a small sampling of some of the variations that can be found on the Morgan Dollar:
7 over 8 Tail Feathers– After the eight tail-feathered Morgan dollar was placed into circulation in 1878, the Mint decided that it would be aesthetically better if the Eagle had only seven tail feathers. The die was subsequently modified to incorporate the lesser number; however, one could see remnants of the eight tail feathers on the first modification. The coins that were manufactured with the discernable change are called the 7 over 8 Tail Feathers variety.
Longer Center Shaft Arrow – On the obverse of this variation, the center arrow shaft is longer than the other arrows.
Small cc to large CC – similar to the 7 over 8 tail feather design, the Carson City Mint changed the size of the letters on the back of the coin. When this occurred, traces of the smaller “cc” could still be seen on the coin. This is called the “Small cc to large CC” variety.
Overdate – back in the 1800’s, the Directors at the Mint had a propensity to cut corners, the “Overdate” coins are an example of such short cuts. Like the 7 over 8 tail feathers and small cc to large cc varieties, the overdate represented a change to a die where the old date was coarsely removed and replaced. During the process, the old date was not completely taken off before the new was added. The coins that display two dates are called “Overdate” coins.
Key Date Coins are those that are so rare that a collector would find it difficult to acquire the coin without significant cost, effort and patience. Although many Morgan dollar dates display the criteria above, there are at least three that stand out further. The most-rare Morgan silver dollar (s) are the following:
Date Produced Red Book Value (MS65)
1889-CC 350,000 $325,000
1893-S 100,000 $575,000
1901 6,962,000* $325,000
* although there were almost 7 million minted, most were melted down for their bullion content.
How to Purchase Morgan Silver Dollars
For the beginner, locating and buying the right Morgan silver dollar can be a daunting task. This type of coin has been more susceptible to fraud than some others: Alterations have been known to have been made and common coins have occasionally been altered to represent key date coins. For example, the rare Morgan 1901 key date coin above displays no mint mark; however, the coin can be replicated simply by carefully filing off the mint mark of another 1901 Morgan coin. A novice can reduce the risk of purchasing an altered coin by the following:
1) Make sure they are graded (and encased) by one of the top grading services such as Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), Independent Coin Grading Service (ICG), Numismatic Guaranty Corporation of America (NCG), and ANACS (formerly part of the American Numismatic Association.
2) Have high value coins inspected by a reputable coin dealer before you buy
3) Make sure that you know the reputation of the seller
With all of its special varieties, rich history and access to high quality inventory, the Morgan Silver Dollar truly does provide a collecting opportunity for everyone. Whether you’re a person with a limited or extensive budget, building a “set” of Morgans will likely prove to be very satisfying.
We wish you all the best and good hunting!