It can be a little hard to imagine any Morgan dollar that does not get its fair share of publicity, but the 1888-S may be one of the very few that is a good deal better than many realize and seems to rarely get much attention.
At least part of the reason for the lack of attention may stem from the fact that coming from San Francisco, which many times had large mintages, it would have been easy for many to simply assume that the 1888-S was available. Certainly many San Francisco Morgan dollars like the 1881-S are available and are usually very nice. The 1888-S is an exception as it is not readily available, and when it is seen it tends to be far below the average quality that might be expected from a San Francisco Morgan dollar.
The story of the 1888-S starts with the period. By 1888 there was certainly no shortage of Morgan dollars. That did not mean they were being used by everyone. Silver dollar use at least east of the Mississippi was far lower than in the West. The people in the eastern part of the nation had been using bank notes since the Civil War, and although there had been some doubters at first, most were gone by 1888.
There also was no demand on the part of collectors or dealers for the 1888-S Morgan dollar. The reason was simply that there was no collecting of Morgan dollars by date and mint at the time.
In fact, as new issues and a high denomination there was truly very limited interest in Morgan dollars at all. If a collector wanted one many simply acquired the yearly proof set and filled the holes in their collection with proofs.
Under the circumstances it is likely that many had not even noticed that when it came to Morgan dollar mintages the totals had actually been dropping at San Francisco for some time. The last San Francisco Morgan dollar with a mintage of more than two million had been in 1884 and a couple had actually had totals of less than one million. The 1888-S would be even lower than the other dates of the period with a mintage of 657,000.
With basically no saving, trying to find an 1888-S, if anyone had bothered, would have been difficult.
The first reports of any examples of the 1888-S appearing seems to have been 1942 when large numbers were released from the vault in San Francisco. We cannot be sure how many, if any, had been melted by the Pittman Act.
Numbers apparently kept emerging until the 1950s, with few being saved and many ending up in Nevada casinos. Then the flow simply stopped. Suddenly the 1888-S, which seemed common, was scarce, and the situation was not helped when virtually none appeared in the Treasury releases of 1962-64.
The one saving supply of the 1888-S came in the form of the Redfield Hoard where an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 were found. According to some reports, they were in many cases prooflike.
The situation leaves us today with the 1888-S as a tough but not impossible date. It is better in VG-8 at $115 with an MS-60 at $300 while an MS-65 is $3,150. As it is not well struck, in many cases it is worth taking your time to look at a number of examples.
The future for the 1888-S, like the future of almost any Morgan dollar, is bright. The 1888-S was low mintage and the amount of saving is suspect. There are some nice examples but it is certainly not a date where you can assume you will find a spectacular coin at a low price as it was tough from the start and remains that way today.