Every coin should be fun, but it?s been my experience that no coin of the United States is more fun than the Morgan dollar. There are a lot of reasons for this not the least of which is the great feeling you get simply having a silver dollar in your hand or pocket.
Sadly the times are long past when you could actually receive a silver dollar in change. I am one of the lucky ones who can remember walking down a street in the 1950s by the railroad station passing the barber shop where there were coins on display in the front window and fingering that silver dollar in my pocket trying to decide if it was better spent on a coin in the window, or staying in my pocket where it made me feel so good.
At least at that moment the 1883 gold-plated ?racketeer? nickel or 1862 Indian Head cent, which were so interesting, did not seem like good deals for my Morgan. You might have made a different decision, but it?s an opportunity I hope everyone can have at one time in their life.
Of course there is much more to any Morgan than simply feeling good having it in your hand or pocket. Every Morgan is the product of an enormously interesting story that started back around 1859 when the first silver deposits were found around Virginia City, Nev. Silver was mined in such quantity that it would ultimately result in falling silver prices. Falling prices created the idea in the heads of those most involved in silver mining that the United States government should buy more silver to make more silver coins and thereby support the price.
Many times I have thought that the Morgan dollar story was really like an enormous old tree with many branches. All Morgan dollars come from that common trunk of the silver in Nevada, but once made, they virtually all have their own unique story and that is one of the main things that makes Morgan dollars so much fun and so enormously interesting.
Why one Morgan dollar is hundreds of thousands of dollars in top grade but not all that expensive in other grades is simply one possible story of the many involving every date.
The 1895-O is a great example of that situation. In fairness, with a mintage of 450,000, the 1895-O was going to be a better Morgan dollar from the start, but realistically in circulated grades it is available.
In his book, The Official Red Book Of Morgan Silver Dollars, Q. David Bowers discussing the 1895-O suggested, ?There are scads of high EF and AU coins around, indicating that many 1895-O dollars must have been in circulation for only a short time.?
Bowers goes on to suggest the number released into circulation was probably 100,000 or more, which was a large percentage of the total mintage. The rest would have probably sat in vaults for an extended period unless some were taken out and destroyed in the Pittman Act melting of 1918 when over 270 million were melted. That Pittman Act melting claimed large numbers of many dates, but we do not really suspect it as playing much if any role in the story of the 1895-O.
Where the 1895-O went is the question. When the millions of silver dollar were released from the Treasury in the early 1960s, it was conspicuous in its absence. Bowers concluded, ?I have found no account or even a rumor of any being a part of the 1962-64 Treasury release.?
While it is a fairly easy date to find in circulated grades considering it?s low mintage, in Mint State the 1895-O is a five-figure coin even in MS-60 and when you get up to MS-64 the price is likely to be at least $100,000 and double that in MS-65 and the problem is not just the cost, but finding any 1895-O which is generally not well struck to even buy.
The 1895-O is just one example of a date that simply seems to have disappeared in certain grades. In the case of then1886-O you have another. This time, however, a mintage of 10,710,000 would seemingly make the 1886-O readily available.
The 1886-O may be even more extreme than the 1895-O simply because of that high mintage. The 1895-O might have had most of its mintage released into circulation, but that was certainly not the case with the 1886-O as there were more than enough Morgan dollars in circulation and even more in vaults. In fact, the vault problem was so severe that vaults outside the mints were being used with the fortune in silver dollars being guarded by guards with Gatling guns.
It?s pretty hard to lose 10 million silver dollars, but Bowers and others have tried to trace the release of every Morgan dollar but the 1886-O is barely evident in the reports, with just a small trickle of examples being reported as opposed to the usual bags and that continues all the way through the Treasury release of the 1960s.
There is really only one conclusion to explain why the 1886-O is really a very ordinary date in circulated grades and but suddenly in higher grades it becomes nearly impossible. Actually there are two factors in that the small supply of Mint State 1886-O dollars we can study shows the 1886-O was not very well made with particularly poor luster. The number reaching high grades is very small, but the real problem is that there are basically no supplies to allow for cherrypicking.
The 1886-O, it has to be concluded, was a Pittman Act victim and in extremely large numbers. Had it been any other way, the 1886-O would be found in much higher numbers at least in lower Mint State grades. As it is, despite a significantly larger mintage, the 1886-O is in the same class as the 1895-O when you get to MS-65 or better.
Other great Morgan dollar stories have nothing to do with prices and melting. The initial 1878 Morgan dollar comes with a variety of options regarding the tail feathers. The change from 8 to 7 tail feathers was a decision of Mint Director Linderman, but what makes the decision so interesting, if not comical, is that it came shortly after the first Morgan dollars had been released. At the time, the Morgan dollar was in many cases getting something less than rave reviews. The editor of the American Journal of Numismatics was probably more critical than most suggesting, ?The long line of monstrosities from the United States Mint, certainly receives its crown in the new dollar. The ugliness of the piece adds another wrong to the original one of dishonesty.?
Those are shocking words to generations of collectors who just love the coin and its design.
It is not the job of officials to change coins anytime someone does not like a design, but ? that said ? over the years some have taken steps to change designs if they presented a problem. Ironically, Linderman having had a major role in creating and approving the Morgan dollar was having his problems with the design as well.
The problem was that Linderman had been busily comparing the eagle to other eagles in the past and much to his horror he discovered that past eagles had an odd number of tail feathers, but the new Morgan dollar had eight. Clearly such a major difference could not be allowed to stand, so he called in the staff and ordered a reduction in tail feathers from 8 to 7 and that would result in the assorted varieties found on the 1878 with difference reverses and numbers of feathers.
It makes you question what in the face of such biting criticism the Mint Director was thinking, but we will never know more th an the fact that he was busily counting feathers.
There is no doubt that generation after generation of collectors young and old have been fascinated by the idea that the Morgan dollar was the silver dollar of the Old West. That may not be fully accurate as there was an Old West well before the first Morgan dollar was produced and certainly the average Morgan dollar produced in Philadelphia or New Orleans was probably no closer to a herd of buffalo than the nearest zoo, but the fact remains that certainly the case can be made that some Morgans in fact were in circulation at some times in the history of the Old West.
After all, the gunfight at the OK Corral was in 1881 and certainly there were assorted other significant events that took place while Morgan dollars were being made. The fact that much of the silver was from the Comstock Lode and produced at Carson City still seems to overshadow everything else when it comes to proving that Morgan dollars are Old West dollars.
Certainly over the years the ties with the Old West have been if anything, promoted with the government being perhaps the leader as when it had Carson City dollars in large numbers to sell in the 1970s at least one offering called them, ?The Coins That Jesse James Never Got.? Outlaw James, was more Midwest than Old West. In reality, most who were doing the buying already were aware of the relationship between Carson City dollars and the Old West.
As a youngster, the fact that a Carson City silver dollar was made from silver from the Comstock Lode was a fact that loomed very large along with their generally low mintages. I could not really collect Morgan dollars.
They were far too costly for my budget, which was based on an allowance and odd jobs that rarely produced more than one dollar. A kindly grandfather, however, made a difference as every Saturday he would arrive at the house and give my brother and me a silver dollar and some other loose change from his restaurant.
As I completed or took as far as was possible other collections, I eventually was able to assemble a small number of Morgan dollars. The problem was I had found one from every mint except the one I wanted most, which was Carson City. I thought a dollar from Carson City was clearly a special coin from a special time. With a love for history and a collection of assorted objects from what I saw as historic times such as various items from the Civil War, a Carson City dollar was about as high on my want list as anything could get.
I could not search for Morgan dollars the way I did for Lincoln cents as even if there were rolls to check, there were insufficient funds in my pocket to acquire a roll in the first place. My chances of finding a Carson City dollar were basically limited to what dollars appeared at my grandfather?s restaurant. It was only after I found my one and only Carson City silver dollar in circulation in the form of an 1878-CC that I really took the time to study the famous facility and its problems.
In fact, I had been interested in why Carson City produced so few coins when compared to the other facilities. Being less than 20 miles from the heart of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City it would seem logical that Carson City would have been cranking out silver dollars morning, noon and night. The mintages, however, did not support the fact and the facility produced nothing from after 1885 until 1889 and then ceased coin production entirely after 1893. It all seemed strangely out of character for a facility with so much silver being produced nearby.
The study of Morgan dollars as well as the mints that produced them is a large part of the fun and the Carson City facility had an interesting story. The reason for the low mintages was certainly not a lack of silver, but rather a lack of local support for political and business reasons.
The first superintendent at Carson City was a man named Abe Curry who was a well-known partner in the mining operation of Gould & Curry. One paper he probably looked like a natural for the position, but Curry had a lot of sworn enemies and they swore to never send the metal from their mines to Carson City and they carried through on their threat.
They sent their metal to San Francisco and even when Curry left the boycott continued. As a result, Carson City never had the silver to make coins that officials expected when the facility was approved.
There were other factors as well. The Comstock Lode was discovered in 1859. Nothing lasts forever and by the 1890s the Comstock Lode?s importance was decreasing as it was falling below Colorado in terms of silver produced each year. Colorado would begin to lobby for its own mint and there would eventually have to be decisions made regarding how many facilities the United States needed and where.
A possible factor in the decision to close coinage operations at Carson City was cost. A study done at the time showed Carson City by far was the most costly facility when it came to making coins. When the required production of silver purchases for making silver dollars was decreased, there was no longer a need for so many mints and the combination of factors made Carson City the most likely facility to be closed and that happened after 1893 production.
The fact that Carson City had hardly lasted two decades meant that the pool of available Carson City coins would not be what might be expected. As a result, Carson City coins of all denominations have had a usually well-deserved reputation as being scarce especially in top grades.
Almost as interesting as the facility itself was what happened to Carson City dollars after they were produced. Certainly some circulated but there were millions in the vaults and around 1900 they were sent to one of two places. They either went to the Treasury vault in Washington, D.C., or the vault at the San Francisco Mint and where a Carson City dollar was sent would play a significant role in its prospects for future survival.
The dollars sent to Washington in most cases survived and became the bulk of the General Services Administration sales in the 1970s. Even though a few had probably been paid out through the cash window, when the sales of dollars were stopped, the vault contained a stunning numbers of dollars of some dates. The dates still sitting in the vaults were primarily from the period 1880-1885, with the total of the 1884-CC reaching nearly 85 percent of the original mintage.
The sales of these dollars even at premium prices were great fun. While I did not have enough money to buy the better dates where there were few coins offered, such as the 1879-CC, I was able to purchase coins from mixed lots and some of the more available dates. Any time you have such a sale there are bound to be complaints, but the fact is most of the buyers of the Carson City dollars from the GSA sales came away happy and as there were new varieties and errors in the lots as well, but at no extra cost. Some felt that they had really hit the jackpot with their purchases.
The surprise availability of some dates created truly extraordinary situations in the market. The 1885-CC is the best example as it is available in Mint State today thanks to large numbers in the GSA sales. The problem is that the 1885-CC appears to have virtually never circulated and we see that at the grading services where the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation and the Professional Coin Grading Service have combined to see over 16,000 examples of the 1885-CC in Mint State, but a mere 18 in various circulated grades.
The situation was entirely different if the Carson City dollars were shipped to San Francisco. There the possibilities were basically that the dollars would be paid out or they would be melted under the terms of the Pittman Act of 1918, which saw the destruction of just over 270 million silver dollars. The belief is that some unusually tough dates like the 1879-CC were probably melted then in some numbers.
T hose dates that were paid out for general circulation were not, however, always lost forever. The biggest consumer of silver dollars at the time was the casino industry, which then was headquartered in Reno, Nev. Bag after bag of Mint State silver dollars were shipped to Reno and while many would meet various fates on the casino gaming tables, some were actually saved by owners for sale to coin dealers and Carson City dollars were well known as being worth saving.
There was another factor in the Reno area and that was a hoard amassed by LaVere Redfield, whose estate totaled in excess of 400,000 silver dollars. The bulk of the coins in the Redfield holdings were from San Francisco, which is natural as they came from the San Francisco vault, but there were others and most of the others were Carson City dates. There were usually not high numbers, but a few bags of Mint State Carson City dollars would make an enormous difference in supplies today and they did as the sale of the coins from his estate coupled with the GSA sales made the majority of Carson City dollar dates available at least briefly for reasonable prices.
Ah, those were the days.
There are other stories of other dates which all couple to make Morgan dollars a collection where every date tells a story.
Morgan dollars reflected an era in which they were struck and what happened to them reflected another era. You can probably say the same of other issues, but nowhere can you have more fun while learning about virtually a century of American history than with Morgan dollars.