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Morgan Silver Dollars: The King of 19th Century Coins

Morgan Silver Dollars: The King of 19th Century Coins
Category: Articles
Author Name: Louis Golino
Posted: 03-29-2017

Morgan Silver Dollars are the most-collected U.S. coin. Find out more about this American classic and add some to your collection from ModernCoinMart!

Morgan Silver Dollars: The King of 19th Century Coins

History of the Morgan Dollar

History of the Morgan Dollar Morgan Silver Dollars, minted between 1878 and 1904 and again in 1921, have no peer in American numismatics. They are by far the most popular, widely collected and traded classic American numismatic coin ever struck. For example, attend any coin show and you will quickly see that slabbed and raw Morgan dollars are everywhere. Interestingly, at the time the coins circulated during the 19th century, they were fairly unpopular with numismatists and remained that way until the 1960's.

Hundreds of millions of Morgan dollars were produced due to legislation (the Bland-Allison Act of 1878) that required the coins to be minted in quantities that far exceeded what was needed for commerce or circulation. This is because there was a very powerful lobby in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that represented silver mining companies.

In 1918, to prop up the price of silver, more than 270 million Morgan dollars were melted in compliance with the Pittman Act, which also called for the series that had stopped in 1904 to resume for one more year in 1921. Millions more were melted later during World War II and also in 1979-1980 when the price of silver reached $50 per ounce.

No records were kept of which coins were melted, so over the years, numismatists have attempted to piece together estimates of surviving coins from various written sources. They determined that, overall, it is the more scarce and rare dates that were melted. Almost the entire mintage of 12,000 1895 Morgan Silver Dollars were destroyed.

According to estimates by Q. David Bowers and other noted experts, there are 100 to 200 million Morgans and as many as 65 million Mint state coins alone, with more than 10-15 million of them 1921 dollars.  Until American Silver Eagles recently overtook them, Morgan dollars were the most plentiful U.S. coins in existence, yet the percentage of the coins originally minted that survives today is estimated to be a mere 15-17%.

Morgan Silver Dollars are an endlessly fascinating coin series that can be collected in a variety of ways such as by date and Mint mark, die variety and others. Their appeal comes mainly from a combination of their attractive design; the fact that they are large, substantial silver coins with a silver weight of .7734 ounces, their connection to American history, especially to the lure of the West, where the coins circulated much more than in other areas, and endless speculation about how many examples of specific dates and varieties exist today. Additionally, there is no other series in which so many pristine, uncirculated examples still exist after a full century has passed!

George T. Morgan and his Design

George T. Morgan and his DesignMorgan dollars are named after George T. Morgan, the 7th Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint. Morgan was actually recruited by U.S. Mint officials from the Royal Mint in England, where he worked as an assistant engraver.  He arrived in Philadelphia in 1876 and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and then began producing pattern designs for the Mint. There was a major silver rush at the time, and U.S. officials wanted a new silver dollar design to be issued to replace the Seated Liberty Dollar. Morgan began preparing his design for a pattern coin, in which he wanted the depiction of Liberty to be of an American woman, rather than a figure inspired by ancient Greek art.

A friend of his suggested he use a schoolteacher from Philadelphia named Anna Willes Williams as his model. The design he created based on his sessions with this model was originally used for a half dollar pattern, and then the Mint’s Superintendent instructed Morgan to use that design and its inscriptions for the obverse of a new dollar coin.Anna Willes Williams

The obverse design of Morgan’s dollar shows Liberty wearing a classic Phrygian cap that symbolizes freedom or emancipation and has cotton and wheat in her hair. This symbolized the reconciliation of the northern and southern American states following the Civil war.

That design was paired with a reverse depicting an eagle, which Morgan designed with the eagle’s wings outstretched and grasping arrows and olive branches. This reverse design symbolized the dual American desire to be prepared to defend the nation, while also preferring peace.

General Services Administration (GSA) Hoard

General Services Administration (GSA) Morgan DollarsThe reason so many Mint state Morgan dollars exist today is due, in a large part, to the fact that they were saved over the years in canvas Treasury bags, where they knocked against each other when moved, and hoarded by people such as Lavere Redfield. This resulted in bag marks, contact marks and abrasions, and sometimes colorful toning even though they were never used in commerce. 

In 1964, the Treasury department discovered millions of uncirculated Morgan dollars in bags that had been sitting around for decades, including 2.9 million with the very desirable Carson City Mint mark. When Treasury officials found all those bags of coins, they decided to hold back the Carson City Morgans, which they knew were typically minted in much smaller numbers than the more common dates, rather than allowing people to get them in exchange for paper money silver certificates as they had been able to do in the early 1960s.

Carson City Morgan Dollars have been extremely popular with collectors for decades not just because of their low Carson City Mintmintages but also because they conjure up the romantic lure of the Wild West, gambling, saloons and the famous Comstock Lode discovery of silver in Nevada. 

These coins were only minted between 1878 and 1893, and a full set of Carson City dollars includes just 13 coins: 1878-CC, 1879-CC, 1880-CC, 1881-CC, 1882-CC, 1883-CC, 1884-CC, 1885-CC, 1889-CC, 1890-CC, 1891-CC, 1892-CC, and 1893-CC.

A 1969 congressional committee determined that the best way to dispose of the Carson City dollars was through a mail bid sale. In 1970, Congress passed legislation that directed the Treasury to transfer authority to sell the coins to the GSA, which conducted a series of seven mail bid auctions for the coins between 1972 and 1980. Those coins, which generated $100 million for the Treasury, were mostly sold by date, but some were sold in unopened boxes, where the bidder had no idea what coins were inside.

A popular specialization is to collect Carson City Morgan Silver Dollars that are still in their original black boxes from the GSA. Some of the Carson City Morgans, specifically the 1882-1884 issues, are relatively common in grades up to Mint State 66 because many examples survived. Others are quite scarce and even extremely rare, especially the 1889-CC, of which less than 10,000 of the original mintage of 350,000 coins exist, and of which only one coin exists in the original GSA holder. One of the most popular dates is 1878-CC, the very first Carson City Dollar.

When the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) grades the GSA-housed coins, it uses a blue-and-white band that goes around the holder (and in the case of the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), a black band), with the grade indicated instead of removing the coin from its GSA box. A larger number of CC coins on the marketplace are not housed in the black boxes and may have come from a different source than the GSA sales.

Another popular way to collect Carson City Dollars, whether GSA or from other sources, is to focus on prooflike and deep mirror prooflike coins, which have amazing, deeply reflective fields. These coins are quite scarce in GSA holders.

Morgan's $100 Union Design

Morgan's $100 Union DesignModernCoinMart (MCM) carries several exclusive commemoratives for classic U.S. designs that were never struck, including George T. Morgan's $100 Gold Union. You can purchase a 1 oz. silver commemorative with his original design, or a 1/10th oz. gold version. The unstruck pattern was designed for use in settling large international financial transactions. The design evokes the Trade dollar and the Seated Liberty dollar. Liberty is shown wearing a Phrygian cap with an olive branch in one hand and a staff in the other. In the background are incoming ships, symbolizing commerce with foreign countries.

However you choose to collect Morgan Silver Dollars or George T. Morgan's other designs, the series will provide many years of enjoyment and will encourage you to learn more about coins and the history that surrounds them.

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About The Author

Louis Golino Louis is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing on modern coins. He has been writing a weekly column for CoinWeek since May 2011 called “The Coin Analyst,” which focuses primarily on modern U.S. and world coins and developments at major world mints. In August 2015 he received the Numismatic Literary Guild’s award for Best Website Column for “The Coin Analyst,” and in August 2021 the column received the NLG award for best column on modern U.S. coins. He has also received other awards for his writing. He is also a contributor to several magazines, including Coin World, where he writes a bimonthly feature;The Numismatist, the American Numismatic Association’s monthly publication, where he writes a monthly column on modern world coins; and and other publications. He began writing about coins in 2009. He is a founding member of the Modern Coin Forum hosted by ModernCoinMart and has written articles for MCM since 2014. He has collected classic and modern U.S. and world coins since he was about 10 and first joined the ANA in the 1970’s. He has been writing professionally since the early 1980s.

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