The impact of the Pittman Act of 1918 on the supplies of silver dollars today can never be overlooked. In one brief period a total of 270,232,722 silver dollars were melted, with the bulk of the silver being shipped to India.
It could have been worse. The Pittman Act actually authorized the melting of up to 350 million silver dollars. That said, 270 million silver dollars is a significant number as it probably represented 50 percent or more of the number in vaults at the time.
We have no choice but to live with the fact that all those dollars are gone forever from the market. What has historically made the matter difficult is that there was never an accounting of what numbers of what dates were actually melted. It has produced some surprises along the way, and for some they have been costly surprises.
It must be remembered that for decades collectors had very little knowledge about the supplies of most Morgan dollars. There were hundreds of millions of Morgans in the vaults and no one was providing any information as to what dates they were. Additionally, there were the better than 270 million that had been destroyed. The problem was that if a date was tough, no one knew if that meant it had been melted or if it was simply yet to be paid out from the vaults.
New Orleans dates proved to be the classics of “rare yesterday, common today.” The 1898-O, 1903-O and 1904-O were all tough. The assumption by many at the time, however, was that the three had all been basically destroyed under the provisions of the Pittman Act. Certainly that was possible, and the three became key dates. The 1903-O was actually the key Mint State Morgan dollar in the late 1950s and early 1960s at a price of around $1,500.
Then in November of 1962 the 1903-O suddenly began to emerge from the Treasury by the bag. The estimates vary, although it was probably at least 200,000 examples. Suddenly the 1903-O was readily available at about $15 and not $1,500. The same thing happened to a lesser degree with the 1898-O and 1904-O.
Ironically, despite the fact that large numbers of the three previously tough dates emerged, there is reason to believe that some numbers of each of the date had been melted under the Pittman Act. All three dates had mintages in the millions, and the numbers that emerged from the Treasury could not account for anything close to their full mintages.
Misunderstandings because of the Pittman Act melting have been a constant factor in the Morgan dollar story over the years. The proof-only 1895, which has an officially listed mintage of 12,880, was a date where some felt that the case could be made that the entire mintage except for 880 proofs was actually destroyed. That would have been, except for the fact that the listed mintage turned out to be in error. To the best of our knowledge, there were never 12,000 business strikes. This is just another example of some of the confusion created by a huge melting where the records do not include the numbers of each date.
The case can certainly be made that the majority of Morgan dollar dates had some losses because of the Pittman Act. One group of exceptions might be the Carson City dollars of the period from 1880 to 1885. These are the dates that were found in large numbers in the Treasury vaults and became the coins sold in the 1970s by the General Services Administration.
Their story is likely to be simple in that they were shipped east around 1900 after the Carson City facility stopped producing coins. Being the first coins shipped from any facility to the Treasury, they probably ended up in the back of the vault. When dollars were needed for melting or for use, it would have been natural to simply take the bags from the front of the vault. Consequently, these Carson City coins were never melted or paid out, resulting in the enormous numbers that were eventually sold in the 1970s.
Other dates, however, were not so lucky. Stored in vaults in the various mints or in the front of the Treasury vault, they would potentially be pulled out to be shipped to the casinos in Reno or the melting pot as a result of the Pittman Act. Almost all would have suffered some losses, but which ones had the largest losses from the Pittman Act?
There were many factors besides the Pittman Act that could have played a role in certain dates not being available today. That said, coins that were paid out or not saved in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, is something we can usually trace. Finding the dates that simply vanished and left no record of having been released into circulation is where we find the dates most likely to have been destroyed as a result of the massive melting.
Generally there is a belief that most Carson City dates were not destroyed, and that seems to be correct. The 1879-CC may, however, be an exception. Today the 1879-CC is seen as basically the second-toughest of the Carson City Morgan dates behind only the 1889-CC. This is a little unusual since the 1879-CC actually has a reasonably solid mintage of 756,000.
There are reports of a few examples of the 1879-CC in the Redfield hoard and a bag or two in the 1950s, but there are never reports of any numbers of the 1879-CC being released at any time. The best guess to explain the lack of numbers has to be Pittman Act melting. It did not destroy the entire mintage of the 1879-CC, but it looks very possible that hundreds of thousands of an already fairly low total ended up in the melting pot.
Another date that might surprise some as a likely candidate to have been heavily melted is the 1881-S. The 1881-S is the date that most turn to today if they want an inexpensive top quality Morgan dollar. There are literally millions of 1881-S Morgans in the market today, and a huge percentage of them are unusually nice.
Under the circumstances, it seems unlikely that large numbers were melted, but it must be remembered that the 1881-S had a mintage of 12,760,000. Some were released around 1881, but it seems that at least a few million would have made their way into the Pittman Act melting pot simply because there were so many to spare. It’s an ironic thing to have a very available date also be heavily melted, but that seems to be the situation with the 1881-S.
The 1884-O is another case of a large mintage that was seemingly cut down by some force that would most likely have been the Pittman Act melting. The 1884-O had a mintage of 9,730,000. We know because of circulated examples that some numbers were released in circulation at the time of striking, but after that there are not a lot of reports of the 1884-O appearing.
Some 1884-O bags were released in the 1930s and there were other releases in 1962, but the totals come well short of that 9,730,000 mintage, which is a good indication that some numbers were melted around 1918.
The mintage of the 1884-S was not as large at 3,200,000, but it just does not seem to be found in any numbers today. Over the years there were reports of a few bags being paid out, but never many. Those few bags paid out in the 1950s look to be the survivors as the 1884-S just never appears to have had a heavy release. That suggests there were scattered bags and not the sort of quantity one would expect from a mintage of 3.2 million pieces.
The 1885-CC is interesting, as it might be one exception to the 1880s Carson City dollars. In fact, 65 percent of its mintage was found in the GSA sales. The other 35 percent, however, is subject to question.
The 1885-CC is easily the toughest Morgan dollar to find in circulated grades. That’s right, tougher than the 1893-S or 1889-CC. Only the proof-only 1895 might be tougher. That extreme lack of circulated examples suggests that the remaining 35 percent of its mintage did not get released into circulation.
That makes the Pittman Act a reasonable explanation for what happened to them. The numbers would not have been large since the 1885-CC only had a mintage of 228,000, but the percentage of that mintage destroyed could well have been significant.
The 1885-CC might be the most extreme case, but it is very possible that among the Carson City dollars that we assume were melted in 1918, there were some of almost every CC date. After all, the highest percentage in the GSA sale was about 85 percent, but most others were closer to 50 percent of the original mintage. Certainly the other half of the mintages of those dates went somewhere, and the Pittman Act destruction might be a pretty good guess as to why those dates were so tough prior to the GSA sales.
The 1886-S, with a mintage of 750,000, is another date that potentially seems to have lost some numbers in the melting of the Pittman Act. With a modest mintage, we would not expect to see too many examples of the 1886-S floating around. However, for many years after the Pittman Act melting, the 1886-S was seen as a rarity. Finally a few bags did emerge, but it never showed up in any numbers and that includes the massive releases of the 1960s. The likely reason is that it was simply gone long by then, having been melted back in 1918.
The 1890-S is a date with a large mintage of 8,230,373. It appears that large numbers of the 1890-S ended up in a variety of places. It looks to have been released in some numbers at the time it was produced as was fairly normal for San Francisco Morgans. They were seeing use in the San Francisco area. Certainly there still would have been ample numbers of the 1890-S sitting in the vaults when the call for dollars to be melted was received.
Even with perhaps millions hitting the melting pot, the 1890-S was still seen in some numbers in later years. Bags were released in the 1940s and 1950s. While there were not large numbers in the Treasury releases of the 1960s, the Redfield hoard reportedly had 20 to 40 bags. So, while available, the 1890-S would probably be much more available had numbers not ended up in the Pittman Act melting.
The 1891-CC was another Carson City date that seems to have potentially been lost in some numbers to the Pittman Act melting. With a mintage of 1,618,000 coins, the 1891-CC should have been available, yet it was not in the GSA sales in any numbers.
Some were probably released into circulation at the time, but the most likely reason for the disappearance of most of the mintage would be the Pittman Act. There were less than 6,000 in the GSA sales, and the few bags reported in the 1940s and 1950s are just a drop in the bucket of the supply that should have been present.
The 5,296,000 mintage 1891-S is another date that seemingly had a lot of its mintage disappear about the time of the Pittman Act. Once again, some were probably paid out, while others did appear in the 1940s. But as the years passed, there were no great numbers of 1891-S dollars emerging as might be expected. They had to disappear somewhere. They never appeared in the Treasury releases, and that is usually the sign that they were melted.
The 1896-O was another date with a solid mintage of 4,900,000. It should have been around in bags for many years. While a few did appear in 1953 and 1956, the numbers were certainly nothing like what would be expected. The one best answer as to where they all went was the melting pot back in 1918.
The 1896-S with a mintage of 5 million is a very similar case. It should have been seen over the years in some number, but that has not happened. In fact, by the 1970s the 1896-S was seen as tough in Mint State, which is very unusual considering its mintage.
The 1898-O was the first of the three dates that was assumed to have been virtually totally destroyed. That was before large numbers of the 1898-O appeared in the 1960s, causing its price to drop as suddenly there were enough 1898-O dollars to go around. Even with high surviving numbers and a mintage of 4,440,000, there is actually a very good chance that some of that mintage was melted. However, the melting was not as large as many had suspected prior to the release of large numbers of the 1898-O in the 1960s.
There are virtually no Philadelphia Morgan dollars where we can find clear evidence of Pittman Act losses. The 1901 may be the one exception, as it had a mintage of 6,962,000. With that sort of mintage, the 1901 should have been relatively common and large numbers of bags should have been released over the years. In fact, the 1901 was somewhat available but the expected numbers of bags never appeared. Somehow large numbers of the 1901 simply disappeared and, as usual, the leading suspect for that is Pittman Act melting.
The 1903-O was the classic. Almost unavailable prior to November of 1962, the working assumption was that the entire 4,450,000 mintage had been destroyed. The Pittman Act likely did claim a large percentage of the 1903-O mintage, but not all as everyone had assumed. When the 1903-O went from $1,500 to $15 in price, it an interesting situation. It is easy to misunderstand what happened. Yes, large numbers were released, but the initial assumption that large numbers of the 1903-O were melted is probably correct. Three million of the 4,450,000 were probably destroyed, and the total might have been more.
The 1903-O was virtually unknown prior to November of 1962 when the first bags started appearing. That’s highly unusual for a coin with a mintage of 4,450,000. The few known examples at the time tended to be circulated, and then came the release of the bags. The number released has been estimated at up to 1 million, although more likely it was fewer than 500,000. Whatever the total, all the other examples from the 4,450,000 mintage simply disappeared and that probably means in the Pittman Act melting.
The 1904-O was in a very similar situation. With a mintage of 3,720,000, the assumption was that virtually all had been destroyed by the Pittman Act because there were very few available in the early 1960s. This made the 1904-O a key date, although not quite as tough as the 1903-O. Then suddenly in the 1960s more than a million examples hit the market. They had been sealed in a Treasury vault since 1929. That release was enough to make the 1904-O available, but it is worth remembering nowadays that the total released was still only about one-third of the entire original mintage. As the 1904-O was a key date prior to the Treasury release, we have to assume virtually none of the remaining two-thirds of the mintage was ever seen. Those more than 2 million examples were almost certainly victims of the Pittman Act melting as well.
Certainly there are other dates where the case can be made that some numbers were probably destroyed. It stands to reason that when 270 million pieces are melted, almost every Morgan dollar date would have at least a few examples involved in the destruction. These dates, however, appear to be ones where we can see greater evidence than usual that they were melted and that the melting had a significant impact on our supply today.
It was fortunate for collectors that the supplies of most Morgan dollars were so large. Pittman Act melting reduced the supplies, but did not really create many rarities. Some dates are tougher than they should be, but generally speaking, the bulk of the dates heavily destroyed in the Pittman Act melting still are available to collectors today. There are a few exceptions. The 1879-CC is a tough date, for example. But
realistically the Pittman Act melting could have created many more problems in terms of supplies today than appears to actually be the case.