By R.W. Julian
In these early years of the 21st century, we think of Morgan dollars as the most highly collected silver dollar but this is increasingly being challenged by other designs. In particular, the Seated Liberty dollars of 1840–1873 are becoming more interesting to collectors. There will never be enough Seated Liberty dollars for mass collecting but they will attract a growing body of numismatists.
The story of the Seated Liberty motif began in June 1835 when Mint Director Samuel Moore resigned and was replaced by Dr. Robert Maskell Patterson. The new director believed that our silver coinage designs were outdated and unworthy of a great nation; to correct this situation he arranged for two talented artists, Thomas Sully and Titian Peale, to create special artwork just for a new silver dollar.
Sully was given the job of designing the obverse, which was to be a seated figure of Liberty and similar to Britannia on the British coinage, yet distinctly American in character. Sully was to succeed brilliantly in his assignment; Patterson then turned over the sketches to Mint engraver Christian Gobrecht. (Peale designed the reverse with the magnificent eagle, “flying onward and upward.”)
For the obverse design, the engraver prepared a series of dies in which he came ever closer to the ideal figure required by Patterson. In the fall of 1836, after the designs were approved by President Andrew Jackson, patterns were struck and in early December there were 400 silver dollars of the new design made for general circulation in the Philadelphia area. This first coinage was followed by a further 600 pieces at the end of the month. These, of course, have the famous flying eagle on the reverse.
In March 1837 a further 600 pieces were made but using dies dated 1836 for expediency. The year 1839 saw 300 more dollar coins being struck on a screw press, all in December. Both of these coinages, however, were later melted because the steam coining press was not powerful enough to bring the design up very well.
Mint officials, based on feedback from the coinages of 1836, were convinced by the spring of 1840 that the silver dollar would be a commercial success. Many banks kept their reserves in half dollars and Patterson felt that silver dollars would free up many of the older half dollars for general public use.
Patterson’s plans to introduce the dollar once more to general usage were not exactly altruistic. It took about the same amount of labor to produce a half dollar as a dollar and if banks kept the reserves more in dollars rather than half dollars, then there would be a considerable savings of time and effort at the Mint; this, in turn, would free up the institution to coin more pieces of other denominations when there was an urgent need.
In 1840 the Mint was formally opened to deposits of silver for dollar coinage. The public could normally bring silver or gold to the Mint for coinage and receive back whatever denominations they chose. However, this right had been restricted in the case of silver dollars as far back as March 1804.
Because the design of the original Gobrecht dollars could not be brought up well enough in a steam press, the director reluctantly scrapped the superb flying eagle reverse in favor of the 1807 reverse by John Reich, in which the eagle is seated and has the national shield on its breast.
Before regular striking of the silver dollar began in the summer of 1840, however, Patterson hired noted sculptor Robert Ball Hughes to modify the Seated Liberty figure on several of the silver coins, including the dollar. This was done primarily to improve the striking quality of the coinage; the design had to be brought up as well as possible so that the public would receive well-made coins.
The coiner was instructed to begin minting the new dollars in July 1840 and duly delivered 12,500 to the treasurer of the Mint. This first mintage was not all that eagerly received by the banking community and it was not until November that coinage resumed in force. Only 61,005 dollars were made in all of 1840, but still it was a good omen for the future. It was not long before banks saw the convenience of having dollars rather than half dollars as bank reserves and during the 1840s many of them placed the new coins into their vaults.
In the three years from 1841 to 1843 more than 500,000 silver dollars were made, showing well that depositors were interested in the new coins. These heavy coinages required bullion deposits specifically for that purpose as the Mint did not generally strike silver in advance of demand. Later issues of the decade tended to be smaller, but other silver coins also showed a marked decline.
Collectors will have little trouble obtaining silver dollars from the 1840s unless they require the very highest grades. In VF–20, for example, the book value, according to the 2019 Coin Digest, is about $500 for several dates, including 1844. Proofs exist for the 1840s but all are very rare.
The Philadelphia Mint carried the honors when it came to Seated Liberty dollar coinage in the 1840s but New Orleans was not exactly idle during these years. In 1846 the Louisiana branch struck 46,000 pieces and added another 40,000 in 1850; in this case, the 1846 is by far the easiest to obtain for this mint, with values significantly lower. However, New Orleans did not strike dollars again until 1859 and 1860 so a complete set of dollars from this mint comprises only four coins.
It is not clear to what use the 1846 New Orleans coins were put but most of them probably wound up as bank reserves. Others may have been used in trade with Latin America where the American silver dollar was always held in higher regard than their own poorly executed silver pieces.
The California Gold Rush, which began in 1848, was to play a strong role in the coinage of silver dollars, though no one quite realized it at the time. The massive quantities of gold that were torn from the earth in the West upset the delicate balance between gold and silver in the coinage system of the United States; the result was that silver rose in value compared to gold and bullion dealers traveled around the East coast buying up silver coins. The coins were either melted or simply shipped to Europe for use in their mints. In either event, the coins were lost forever to the U.S. marketplace.
Silver dollars were especially hard hit by the great silver melts of 1850–1853 which accounts for many of the scarcer dates from before 1853. With silver high in value, little was brought to the Mint for coinage when the depositor could make better money by simply selling the bullion to the highest bidder.
Between 1849 and 1853 the government struggled to provide the public with a circulating medium. There was plenty of gold and the coinage of copper cents was increased to meet the sudden demand but silver required bullion and that was hard to come by. (Cents, for example, were sometimes rolled up packages of 25 pieces and called “quarter dollars.” The idea did not work well in practice, however.)
The dollar coinage of 1850–1852, except for New Orleans, clearly had problems. During these years the Philadelphia Mint coined less than 10,000 pieces in all, indicating an almost total lack of demand. The nadir was reached in 1851 and 1852 with coinages of 1,300 and 1,100 pieces, respectively. The 1850, with only 7,500 made, is not far from the bottom. For obvious reasons collectors have made great efforts to obtain the dollars of 1851–1852 and prices well reflect this at present. The 1851, for example, in XF–40 books at more than $17,000, a price not for the faint of heart.
In an odd quirk, it is known that Chief Engraver James B. Longacre prepared 4 obverse and 11 reverse dies for 1851, in expectation of a coinage demand that never came. Given the circumstances of silver coinage in general for these years one wonders why a relatively large number of dies would be made.
The government finally solved the silver coin shortage in February 1853 by passing a law that reduced the weights of the half dime through the half dollar; the dollar was not touched. The public could still bring in silver for coinage, but now only dollars could be obtained in exchange for their bullion. Because the dollar now contained too much silver to circulate in the marketplace at par, the 1850s saw very few silver dollars being made. Even the Mint recognized the oddity of a silver dollar weighing more than two half dollars and reacted accordingly. Anyone going to the Mint to buy a dollar coin had to pay $1.08 for the privilege.
There was some improvement in dollar mintages after 1852 – it could hardly have gone much lower – but another low point was achieved in 1858 when no silver dollars at all were coined for the public. Proofs were struck for collectors, however, and today these are highly sought after by date specialists. Present-day estimates indicate that perhaps 300 or so specimens were produced; no official record exists because prior to 1860 proof coins were prepared in the medal department and not counted as coinage in the annual mint reports.
Beginning in 1859 there was sudden and heavy coinage of silver dollars at both Philadelphia and New Orleans. Even San Francisco chimed in with 20,000 pieces in 1859. During 1859 and 1860 several hundred thousand dollars were produced at the New Orleans and Philadelphia Mints. The bullion source was probably imported silver but this is uncertain. The New Orleans dollars are the easiest to find, a curiosity in view of the strong demand for specie of any kind in the South during the American Civil War; perhaps these had been sent to northern banks soon after striking.
With the outbreak of war in early 1861 the number of dollars coined showed a dramatic drop, but not as severe as ten years before. Many of the wartime silver cartwheels may have been struck for the export trade with Latin America, though very little is known at present of this facet of American commercial affairs. Part of the mintages from the 1860s was hoarded, thus preserving them until modern times for collectors; because of this the coins are less expensive than would otherwise be the case.
The motto “In God We Trust” was added to the reverse die at the beginning of 1866, the result of increased religious sentiment during the war. The reverse was also better balanced by the addition of the scroll containing the motto. There exist two 1866 dollars without the motto but these were likely novodels (restrikes) made in 1867 or 1868 for some high-ranking collector.
As early as 1868 there was another sharp rise in the mintage of silver dollars, but this time the reason is known with reasonable certainty. Prior to that date, there had been a strong demand in Europe for American silver and gold to pay for wartime debts. The Europeans by 1868 had seen enough American silver and indicated that in the future they would prefer gold. This left producers and bullion dealers with large amounts of silver on hand.
The law of 1853 had given individuals the right to deposit silver in exchange for dollars and this was increasingly done from the middle of 1868. By 1871 the coinage of dollars had passed the million mark at Philadelphia. Little of this silver was coined at the Western mints of San Francisco and Carson City, indicating that Eastern bullion brokers were the chief depositors.
Because of the heavy mintages at Philadelphia from 1868, these last Seated Liberty dollars are by far the easiest to find. At one time some of the dates actually existed by the bag (1,000 pieces), but most of these mini hoards were broken up years ago.
One of the more interesting dollars was struck at San Francisco in 1870, when a few dozen pieces were made for the festivities surrounding the laying of the cornerstone for a new mint building. No official record was kept of the mintage but surviving pieces today are the subject of strong collector competition whenever offered for public sale.
During these final years of the Seated Liberty design, dollars were also struck at Carson City. San Francisco coined 9,000 pieces in 1872 and a further 900 in 1873, though it is believed that all of the latter were melted when the coinage law of 1873 took effect. All of the Carson City and San Francisco dollars of 1870–1873 are scarce to very rare.
In 1873, in an effort to send our silver abroad and thereby keep a certain price stability, the Trade dollar was created and the standard dollar abolished as a denomination. The last Seated Liberty pieces were struck in March 1873, ending decades of service to the country. Only the collector is now left to appreciate what once was.