Many of us cannot really attempt a complete Morgan dollar set especially in the top grades. It is just an economic fact of life as some Morgans are significant rarities at the upper reaches of the grading scale.
That said, you should not be discouraged as there also are many different Morgan dollars that are affordable at some point on the grading scale and most of them tell what is usually an interesting story.
The 1891-O is a classic example. What many serious collectors know is that the 1891-O is usually not very well struck and that makes finding an example in a grade like MS-65 a real challenge both to your patience and bank balance. What many do not know is that the 1891-O is still a classic Morgan dollar in any grade for the 1891-O among Morgan dollars is unique.
What is special about the 1891-O is that it was the one Morgan dollar that contained silver acquired under the provisions of each of the three pieces of legislation that produced Morgans from 1878-1904. There was a total of 1,919,913 examples of the 1891-O that were made from silver acquired under the provisions of the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, which created Morgan dollars.
There was also a total of 2,500,000 examples of the 1891-O created with silver acquired under the provisions of the 1890 Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which took the place of the expiring Bland-Allison Act.
Finally, there were 3,534,616 examples of the 1891-O created with silver that came from melted down Trade dollars under the provisions of the 1891 Trade Dollar Recoinage Act.
It’s unfortunate that we cannot tell which silver was used to make any individual 1891-O Morgan dollar. Even so, the 1891-O is the one Morgan dollar that is quite literally a legislative history of the Morgan dollar and that makes it a fascinating Morgan.
The 1891-O has a lot of company in a list of Morgan dollars everyone should know and should consider as a coin to enjoy in a collection. Certainly at the top of that list would have to be the first Morgan dollar of 1878. There is an immediate challenge as the 1878 came with a number of varieties, but this is a case where we actually know that one variety was the first Morgan dollar produced and that is the variety with eight tail feathers. It was produced starting on March 12, 1878 and within a few weeks it was changed to seven tail feathers as the Mint director at the time was examining old eagles on other coins and much to his horror discovered that other eagles had one large tail feather, which suggested an odd number. Not wanting to have the Morgan dollar eagle be different from the others, he ordered a change to seven tail feathers.
It was somewhat ironic that Mint Director Linderman could take the time to identify the tail feather situation as the one major flaw with the Morgan dollar as it was not exactly receiving rave reviews in much of the country.
It must be remembered that in 1878 there was some anger over the Trade dollar that was introduced in 1873 and the fact that with its legal tender status revoked, a Trade dollar was worth less than one dollar. In fact, the Morgan did not help that problem as at the same time you could receive a Morgan dollar in circulation with it’s 412 grains of .900 fine silver and it was worth a dollar while a 420 grain Trade dollar might also be found but it was worth perhaps less than 90 cents. That sort of thing did not sit well with many who had accepted Trade dollars as being worth one dollar.
That was part of the reason for the sometimes dismal reviews of the new Morgan that saw The Christian Union suggest that the motto should be changed to “Forgive Us Our Debts.” The American Journal of Numismatics like a number of others went after the design as the matter of the Trade dollar suggesting, “The long line of monstrosities issued 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.”
While those bombs were being thrown at the new dollar the Mint director was managing to stay calm counting feathers. It makes for an interesting story and although we cannot be precise when it comes to the mintage of the 1878 with eight tail feathers, the best estimate would put it at about 750,000 and thanks to the release of a number of original bags from the Treasury in the 1950s there are decent supplies today despite the lower mintage, making the 1878 with eight tail feathers a date most can acquire.
There were many factors that played a role in the chances for a Morgan dollar to survive to the present day especially in Mint State. Probably the biggest of those factors was the Pittman Act of 1918, which allowed for the melting of up to 350 million Morgan dollars.
At the time, World War I was raging. We were allies with Great Britain against Germany. The finances of the British Empire were shaky and the silver from the dollars was needed for British India.
There were far more silver dollars sitting in vaults around the country, but in the end just over 270 million would be melted. That meant large numbers of assorted dates were melted. One of those dates was probably the 1886-O, which had started out with a mintage of 10,710,000.
We cannot be certain that the 1886-O was heavily melted but we can be certain that it is certainly not available in any significant numbers today in Mint State. Certainly some examples could have been released into circulation, but the greatest probability is the 1886-O was heavily melted and as a result it is not available in anything like the numbers we expect in Mint State especially in MS-64 and better.
The opposite extreme is the 1881-S. Not unlike the 1886-O, the 1881-S was almost certainly heavily melted as a result of the Pittman Act of 1918. The 1881-S, however, started with a very large mintage of 12,760,000, so even if a few million were ultimately melted, there would still be a significant number left to be released at a later date.
There was an added benefit in that not only were there many examples of the 1881-S still sitting in government vaults after the Pittman Act melting was completed, but those coins still remaining were generally of exceptional quality.
It probably helped the quality effort that a new state-of-art facility had been opened in San Francisco in 1874, but it also appears that greater care in general was taken in San Francisco to produce top quality coins. Whatever the reason, the 1881-S is a date you want to know as if you need a reasonably priced exceptional quality Morgan dollar, the 1881-S is almost certainly that dollar.
It is an ironic situation in that just about the time you think you have Morgan dollars figured out, along comes a surprise. The San Francisco Morgan dollars in general are better struck and nicer than are those of other facilities. That is normally true, but then there is the 1904-S that not only had shallow strikes and average luster at best, but which also never appeared in any numbers in the great Treasury release of 1962-1964, or in big hoards where San Francisco dollars were common like the Redfield Hoard.
It simply appears that the 1904-S coins were all released before many were interested in saving Morgan dollars and that results in a poor supply of the date for collectors today.
It had a mintage of over 2.3 million pieces. The quality problem is perhaps the exception that proves the rule for San Francisco. The 1904-S is going to be much tougher than you might suspect.
In the case of the 1893-S, which is seen by many as the key Morgan dollar, there was simply never any supply in the first place. By 1893 the purchasing provision of the legislation requiring Morgan dollar production had been repealed and that meant there was no new silver from which to make Morgans. As a result, mintages dropped dramatically and no more dramatically than in San Francisco, which produced just 100,000 Morgan dollars in 1893. That made the 1893-S tough from the start, but there were virtually no collectors and ironically it appears that the 1893-S had many coins released early and large numbers released in the Rocky Mountain states in the 1930s where once again there were virtually no collectors at the time. The result is that there are virtually no Mint State examples of the 1893-S in Mint State.
As Q. David Bowers notes in his book The Official Red Book of Morgan Silver Dollars of the 1893-S, “The majority of known pieces, into the thousands, are in the single grade category of very fine.” Of course the 1893-S with its low mintage is important and expensive in any grade, but clearly if you want an example in any grade but very fine you are facing a difficult task in finding and affording the coin you want.
If there is any Morgan dollar with fewer examples known than the 1893-S that would have to be the 1895 and with good reason as the 1895 was the only proof-only Morgan dollar date. Once again it was a situation where there were no longer large amounts of silver arriving to be made into Morgans.
For many years the thought was that the official mintage of 12,880 examples of the 1895 was correct with the best guess being that the 12,000 business strikes were actually destroyed in the Pittman Act melting. New research including the discovery that the Assay Commission 1895 was a proof now suggests that the 12,880 total was a mistake and that the mintage of the 1895 was just 880 which were in the proof sets of the year.
It is probably fortunate that what few 1895 Morgans there were would have been found in proof sets, because that means they ended up in the hands of collectors. Of that 880 coin total, it would not be surprising to find that 600 still exist, but that still is an extremely small number.
Certainly the 1895 is too expensive for many hobbyists, but for those with the money the 1895 is a special coin once described as the “King of the Morgan Dollars” and that is quite a title.
Another Morgan from 1895 is also worth knowing. The 1895-O became the mystery Morgan. In fairness, the 1895-O was typical of the year. It had a lower mintage of 450,000 pieces. That said, no one knows where they went. By 1895 when they were produced there was no need for many new Morgans in circulation and that was especially true of a Morgan made in New Orleans. Had it been San Francisco, there might have been some reason to believe a number were released into circulation but it was New Orleans, which was not an area where Morgans were flooding the channels of commerce.
Not being seen in circulation back before 1900 was one thing, but the 1895-O went against all odds and simply never appeared in bag form. In 1958 there were 219,000,000 Morgans sitting in vaults and every date was represented with at least a few pieces if not a bag except for the 1895-O.
As Bowers, who has studied the various releases observes of the 1895-O in his book, “I have found no account or even a rumor of any being a part of the 1962-1964 Treasury release.” That makes the 1895-O one of the key dates in MS-64 and above as there are virtually no top quality examples known.
In the case of the famous Carson City dollars, there are some of the most interesting stories of all. Generally low mintage Carson City Morgans were the stars of the 1970s GSA sales of the final Morgans to be found in government vaults. At that time there were a few million coins remaining. The previously tough Carson City dollars were the bulk of that group and with the Carson City facility being famous for its low mintages those dollars were a bonanza the likes of which few could imagine.
In the case of a date like the 1884-CC, the total was 962,638 pieces or 84.73 percent of the entire mintage sitting in their original bags. It was like being transported back in time literally to the vault of the Carson City Mint. Other dates also had over 50 percent of their entire mintage represented and that explains why many Carson City Morgans are so available today in Mint State. Even with their large numbers, demand continues to keep prices rising as there appears to be no such thing as too many Carson City dollars.
Interestingly, however, not all the Carson City dates were represented. In fact, it appears that some dates primarily from the 1870s and those last few years starting with the 1889-CC were not in the GSA sale. What happened to dates like the 1879-CC and 1889-CC and others is an open question.
The best guess is that Carson City dollars that were shipped to Washington about 1900 ended up in the back of the Treasury vault. As a result they were not used for Pittman Act melting or paid out over time since they were in the back of the vault. Somehow, however the first years of production, 1878 and 1879 as well as the last years from 1889-1893, must have gotten separated from those from the early 1880s as up to 1885 the dollars were in the GSA hoard but the others were not found in any numbers.
Frankly, we do not know what happened. The expectation is the missing dates might have been melted but whatever the reason a date like the 1879-CC is very tough and the 1889-CC is by far the most difficult Carson City dollar and that makes it one of the keys to a Morgan dollar set.
Of all the great Morgan dollar stories that of the 1898-O, 1903-O and 1904-O is perhaps the most fascinating. The three dates, but especially the 1903-O were seen as rare to completely unavailable back in early 1962. At the time a Mint State example of the 1903-O was around $1,500, which made it a key Morgan dollar at the time. Then suddenly supplies of all three began pouring out of the Treasury. The numbers were extremely large with perhaps hundreds of thousands of the 1903-O and lesser, but still large numbers of the others. The three dates that everyone assumed had been melted under the provisions of the Pittman Act were suddenly available.
Collectors today will find the three are not rare but actually among the more available New Orleans Morgan dollars and that fact would have surprised any collector of the late 1950s. Enjoy them.
A final Morgan worth a little special attention is the 1921-D. Many like to assemble a set of Morgans involving one coin from each of the facilities that produced them. Such an approach leaves only one option for Denver and that is the 1921-D as Denver did not open until after production had halted after 1904.
Needing silver dollars in a hurry the secretary of the Treasury had production resume in 1921 at the three mints at the time, including Denver. That made the 1921-D the one and only Morgan dollar produced at Denver. Fortunately it had a large 20,345,000 mintage. It is also worth noting new hubs had to be made for the 1921 production meaning there are slight differences including smaller mintmarks than were used in prior years.
The supply is large but a top quality 1921-D with good eye appeal is tougher than many think as another characteristic of the changes in the hubs is that the Morgans of 1921 tend to have flatter appearances than those of the earlier mintages.
Those are just a few of what are many interesting Morgan dollar stories. From the most available to the key dates every Morgan dollar has a story and many times they are very different. That makes for an option of collecting Morgan dollars not by date and mint but rather simply by the dates you find most interesting. It’s a novel approach, but if you want something new, it might be worth trying.