If you are like most collectors, you are attracted to Morgan dollars. What’s not to like about a coin that has a diameter of 1.5 inches and contains over three-quarters of an ounce of silver, or 0.7734 ounce to be precise?
Everyone would love to be able to complete a Morgan dollar set in the top possible grade. As it turns out, most of us have to be a little more realistic in terms of our finances. That limits our options. There is an awfully good case to be made for simply forgetting the stress and just picking certain Morgan dollars you like and find interesting.
Realistically every Morgan dollar tells a story and usually a fascinating story. By simply acquiring interesting Morgans you can build a collection that fits your budget and your interests. If that collection then goes on to become more complete that’s fine, but if not, you still have a collection that interests you and a lot of fun in the process.
I basically had to take my own approach relatively early in life as any thought of working on a Morgan dollar collection from circulation proved to be a lot more ambitious than my budget would allow. It was also somewhat more ambitious than the Morgan dollars to be found in circulation would support.
This situation was actually a good introduction to Morgan dollars for me as where they are concerned the factors influencing their availability are so many that unlike most collections you cannot easily predict whether a Morgan dollar will be easy to find in the grade you want or not.
The 1886-O is a perfect example. In circulated grades it is around $30, trading essentially for silver value. It is tough in MS-60 as it was never reported to be in the large numbers of dollar bags paid out by the Treasury in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite that fact it is available as is seen in a price under $700 in MS-60. The problem with the 1886-O is that while available in MS-60, it is not in MS-65 or better where it becomes $190,000 and where the Professional Coin Grading Service reports just a few examples and Numismatic Guaranty just one above MS-64, an MS-66. The 1886-O is a classic example of a New Orleans dollar, which frequently were not especially well made, as almost every 1886-O you find will have a flat strike.
That is just the story of one date and mintmark for a series that stretches from 1878 to 1904 and then has a one-year extra issue from 1921.
When growing up I found other Morgan dollars, but the dates in circulation in the 1960s were not as diverse as might be expected. I was able over the course of a couple of years to acquire a number of different dates, but in particular a Carson City date was a problem. After looking and looking, an 1878-CC finally did surface and even though well worn it was a special moment for me to finally have a coin from Carson City.
In fact, I was always partial to 1878 Morgan dollars as they were the first year the Morgan dollar was issued. That was especially true of the 1878 with 8 tail feathers. You can probably not find a better story as what we forget today is that the Morgan dollar was not well received by the public at the time of issue and with very good reason.
You have to remember the Morgan dollar was replacing the Trade dollar in a roundabout sort of way. If the Trade dollar was not replaced, the public was going to start replacing members of Congress as the Congress in 1876 had repealed the legal tender status of the Trade dollar. That meant that even though the coin said DOLLAR and looked like a silver dollar, it was legally just silver.
If the silver was worth more than a dollar, that was fine, but in fact the silver was dropping in price to levels to well below a dollar. You can imagine the reaction today if suddenly someone told you that your Presidential dollars are not worth their face value but rather whatever the metal they contain is worth.
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There was a significant outcry from the public and eventually Trade dollars would be redeemed at their face value, but that was not the situation in 1878. In 1878 people were angry. If they owned Trade dollars, they were losing money.
The Bland-Allison Act, which authorized the purchase of silver to make Morgan dollars, did nothing to address the Trade dollar problem as those supporting the legislation were only concerned that the government buy up a lot of silver in a hurry. The public already faced with the Trade dollar issue was suddenly confronted with a new and slightly lighter silver dollar, but one which the government said was a dollar.
Suffice to say at the time the government had virtually no credibility on this subject with many. One paper suggested that in addition to ONE DOLLAR should be added the motto "With about 8 percent off.” Another was unhappy about the size of IN GOD WE TRUST and suggested instead “One hundred cents,” but then added that the one hundred cents would, “be more of a whopper than the other.”
The design did not escape the critics either. The first Morgan dollars were struck in March of 1878 and in the April American Journal of Numismatics the editor observed, “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.”
There were plenty of other comments and while a few were positive they were very few. It could be suggested that officials were somewhat out of touch at the time. After all, it was the Congress that had made the Trade dollar fiasco possible. In the face of the critics, Mint Director Linderman managed to find his own problem with the original 1878.
Linderman was apparently doing something useful, which was counting tail feathers. Actually, he was making a study and in the process he noticed that the eagles of the past had one tail feather larger than the others. That caused him to conclude that there were an odd number of tail feathers, but the new Morgan dollar had eight. With the courage of his convictions, he immediately halted production and ordered that the number of tail feathers be changed. That would produce a “7 over 8 tail feathers” variety as well as a reverse of 1878 with the top arrow feather parallel to the shaft of the arrow and a reverse of 1879 with a slanting top arrow feather. The reverse of 1879 would also have a more rounded breast.
The result of the Linderman activity was technically four different 1878 Morgan dollars. I like them all, although the 1878 with 8 tail feathers has to be seen as a special favorite as it was the first. We cannot be sure of its mintage but Q. David Bowers in his book The Official Red Book Of Morgan Silver Dollars puts it at 750,000.
The second design, with 7 over 8 tail feathers, was created by employees who were probably rolling their eyes over Linderman’s feather counting and they at first simply pressed the master die which they already had with 7 tail feathers, leaving us with 7 visible feathers and the tips of some of the 8 showing below. Bowers estimates a mintage of 500,000 and he has a point in calling it doubled tail feathers.
Then we have the 7 tail feathers 1878 reverse design and another version of 7 tail feathers on the reverse of 1879. In the case of these two slightly different reverses, the more available is the 1878, which was also used for the coins produced at facilities other than Philadelphia. Both it and the reverse of 1879 are available, although with greater recognition, there is a definite possibility that the reverse of 1879 would prove to be tougher than the current price difference between the two suggests.
The 1878-CC, which I was able to find has also always been a favorite. The 1878-CC had a large mintage for Carson City of 2,212,000 pieces. It was released into circulation and some were stored for many years by the Treasury and later released. The 1878-CC was the one Carson City dollar that was actually reasonably available prior to the General Services Administration sales of the 1970s. In fact, only a small number of 60,993 1878-CC dollars were even in the GSA sales.
There were interesting factors surrounding the 1878-CC as according to the Carson City Morning Appeal in April of 1878 the workers were not happy with the situation as was seen in the comment “Great disgust was expressed at the general appearance of the dies.” Interestingly enough, they went ahead anyway and the 1878-CC has a reputation as being one of the more consistent and well struck of the Carson City Morgans.
As you can see, virtually every Morgan dollar is unique and that is what makes them such an interesting group and one where you can really select any date you might especially like and not go far wrong. One that is clearly unique because of the silver from which it is made is the 1891-O.
We don't normally think of the 1891-O as being unusual. It was typically a New Orleans Morgan dollar that is a nice way of saying it was not struck very well. With a mintage of nearly 8 million, there are still adequate supplies except in the top grades.
What is especially unusual about the 1891-O is that it is the one Morgan dollar that was actually produced from silver acquired by all of the legislation involving Morgan dollars. A total of 1,919,913 examples of the 1891-O were made from silver acquired under the Bland-Allison Act, which had been the initial legislation that had made Morgan dollars not only possible but required.
The Bland-Allison Act was replaced by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which was passed in 1890, and 2,500,000 examples of the 1891-O were made from silver acquired under the provisions of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.
Finally, a total of 3,534,616 1891-O Morgan dollars were produced from silver acquired under the provisions of the 1891 Trade Dollar Recoinage Act, which means that they were quite literally made from melted Trade dollars that the government had been forced to redeem. No other Morgan dollar was produced using silver of all three pieces of legislation. Of course, you cannot tell which silver was used in any particular 1891-O.
All the Morgan dollars from Carson City rank as special in the minds of many collectors. I am certainly no exception. Carson City was located close to the heart of the Comstock Lode. That fact alone gives the facility a special place in the minds of many as it quite literally turned out dollars that are also authentic souvenirs of the Old West.
The politics of the situation were complicated and the Carson City facility never turned out the numbers of coins it could have simply because some mine owners refused to send their silver there, opting instead to ship it to San Francisco. As a result, Carson City mintages tended to be low.
The Carson City dollars seemed even more elusive than their already low mintages suggested. There was a good reason as the with the end of silver dollar production at the facility the Carson City dollars were transferred east to the Treasury around 1900. That meant that as the years passed and bag after bag of dollars would emerge for use they were rarely Carson City dollars.
Sitting next the White House in the Treasury vault perhaps saved millions of Carson City dollars for collectors today. It appears to have been a simple case of first in being the last out. The Carson City dollars were logically the first to be stored in the Treasury and consequently they ended up in the back of the vault well before the Pittman Act, which resulted in the melting of just over $270 million. Not only were the Carson City dollars out of sight and seemingly out of mind when it came to melting, they were in much the same situation when it came to being issued for use and once the stockpile was basically exhausted, leaving approximately 3 million coins, most of them were the first dollars placed from Carson City.
The Carson City numbers were truly remarkable. There was nearly 50 percent of the 1881-CC total mintage as well as more than 50 percent of the 1882-CC total along with more than 60 percent of the total of the 1883-CC and 1885-CC and nearly 85 percent of the 1884-CC. It was very literally like opening a time capsule. It makes all of the dates where the totals were large available and extremely interesting.
The 1885-CC may be one of the most interesting of all. The 1885-CC is available in Mint State. It is not cheap, being $620 in MS-60. What is so fascinating is that as Q. David Bowers suggests in his book, “Ironically, the 1885-CC is the rarest of all Morgan dollars in circulated grades, eclipsing the 1889-CC, 1893-S and all other contenders.” Bowers is right as if you check grading service totals the 1885-CC is tougher than even the other dates heavily represented in the GSA sales. At PCGS out of some 14,324 1885-CC dollars seen only 18 were circulated and at NGC out of 4,753 seen just 3 were circulated. It is certainly highly unusual to find Mint State coins vastly outnumbering circulated examples of the same date and that is all the more unusual when the coin in question is from the 1880s, but it is the case with the 1885-CC.
The story of the 1903-O has to make it a favorite as well. The 1903-O was basically the key Morgan dollar date for many years. In the early 1960s it was priced at $1,500 in uncirculated, but few were offered even at that lofty price. The assumption was that the 1903-O had been basically totally melted in the Pittman Act melting. It was a logical way of explaining why there were so few examples to be found out of a mintage of 4,450,000. The Morgan dollar world was turned on its head about November of 1962 when suddenly there were reports of numbers of uncirculated examples of the previously nearly impossible 1903-O.
What was happening was that some 1903-O coins were suddenly emerging from the Treasury vault. There were other dates involved as well, but none achieved such a dramatic fall from rarity status than the 1903-O, which suddenly dropped from $1,500 to prices closer to $15. Even in MS-65 today the 1903-O thanks to the bags released is just $690. No one can honestly say just how many were released back in the last months of 1962 and the early months of 1963, but it was certainly many. In reality the belief that many were melted under the provisions of the Pittman Act was probably correct. It is just that all were not melted and a number that will never be known was released. Bowers observes, “I guess that 200,000 to 350,000 might be in the ballpark,” but whatever the total it was more than enough to make the 1903-O a very special date with a most unusual past.
Those Treasury bags of Morgan dollars loom large in the story of almost any Morgan dollar date. The 1903-O is now available because it was found in large numbers in those bags while the 1895-O is almost impossible in upper Mint State grades in large part because it is one date that almost everyone agrees never emerged in bags from the vaults.
Other dates are lesser known. The 1903-S is overlooked by some. It had a lower than average mintage of 1,241,000. In fact, back at the time there had been speculation that there would be no 1903-S dollar production. Not unlike the 1904-S which is also very difficult to find in Mint State the 1903-S seems to have simply disappeared into thin air.
In all probability circumstances were probably the exact reverse of the Carson City dates as the 1903-S and 1904-S Morgan dollars, which were the final years of Morgan production at that time, were probably in the front of the vault. They would have either been used quickly or been excellent candidates for Pittman Act melting. What we know today is that while lesser known both are extremely tough in Mint State with the 1903-S at $3,950 in MS-60 while the 1904-S is at $1,225 in the same grade. For two Morgans, which had mintages of 1,241,000 and 2,304,000, respectively those are surprising prices but that happens a great deal with Morgan dollars and that is one of the reasons why they are so interesting.
Some Morgans that are really tougher than their mintages would suggest are perhaps the most overlooked Morgans of all. They are the three from 1921. In fact, the 1921-D should not be overlooked as it is the only Morgan dollar ever produced at Denver. That makes it a must coin if you want a Morgan dollar produced from every facility. In MS-60 the high mintage 1921 is just $49.40 while the 1921-D and 1921-S are $50.50 and $50, respectively. They had large mintages and were the only Morgans produced after the Pittman Act.
Also, the 1921 Morgans have a lesser known story as they were not produced to use up silver but rather to save the government money. The Pittman Act melting meant that the government had to recall Silver Certificates, which were backed by silver dollars. To cover the currency loss the government had to take out short-term certificates of indebtedness bearing 2 percent interest. The secretary of the Treasury wanted those certificates retired and he wanted it done quickly and that saw the three facilities switching from 8- to 12-hour shifts so they could produce the needed dollars.
The three Morgans from 1921 were the only Morgans produced for that reason and while they seemed odd being so much newer than the others back when I was assembling my collection, I was particularly happy to find that 1921-D as that filled out my set in terms of every mint.
You can really look at these and many other dates in the Morgan dollar set and in every case there will be an interesting story and a very interesting coin. It makes a Morgan dollar collection an enormous amount of fun even if you just select certain dates to avoid the expense of higher priced coins. Whatever you decide with Morgan dollars, I expect you will have a great deal of fun and enjoyment.