By Paul M. Green
Morgan dollars tend to have reputations. News last week that the Goldbergs are selling a small hoard of 1894-P silver dollars couldn’t be more timely from my point of view as we work our way through the Morgan series by mint.
The most historic Morgans in the minds of many are Carson City dollars because of their association with the Carson City Mint, which was located less than 20 miles from Virginia City and the heart of the mining activity in the Comstock Lode. The San Francisco Morgans, which also used Comstock Lode silver in many cases, are better known as the group where some truly extraordinary coins are found as for whatever reason San Francisco produced not only extremely nice Morgan dollars but sometimes a lot of them. In the case of New Orleans it can be the other extreme as care seemed to be lacking. It is also the New Orleans dates where some of the biggest surprises in terms of dollars appearing in $1,000 bags from the Treasury vaults were found.
The other major facility that produced silver dollars was the Philadelphia Mint and as so often happens in the case of coins from the later part of the 1800s and much of the 1900s, the coins from Philadelphia have a way of getting overlooked.
It is perhaps just a case where normally speaking Philadelphia as the main facility would have higher mintages of decent quality coins. There were not likely to be extremes and there were usually no significantly low mintages. In Morgan dollars, however, the Morgans that emerged from Philadelphia are not as easily placed in a simple category. The Philadelphia Morgans were a diverse and interesting group which deserve more attention than they usually receive.
From the start the Philadelphia Morgan dollars showed their diversity In 1878 there would be four different reverses on the first Philadelphia Morgan dollars and that fact alone tells a story. One of the four reverse(s), the one with eight tail feathers is especially historic as it is without question the first Morgan dollar.
In fact, the first Morgan dollar with a reverse featuring eight tailfeathers did not last long. It was an interesting situation as the Morgan dollar was not greeted with hysterical trumpeting of joy. In fact, with Trade dollars still in circulation that were not being honored as dollars because their legal tender status had been revoked in 1876, many people were not happy to see any kind of silver dollar.
The initial Morgan dollar took a lot of criticism based on the problems with the Trade dollar, but it had problems with the art critics as well. The editor of American Journal of Numismatics probably took the prize claiming, “The long line of monstrosities issued from the United States Mint certainly receives it crown in the new dollar.The ugliness of the piece adds another wrong to the original one of dishonesty.”
The art critics were not the only ones examining the new dollars. Mint Director Henry Linderman was also not happy. He had apparently been spending his time in a useful manner examining the tailfeathers and coming to the conclusion that historically all the eagles depicted on U.S. coins had one large tail feather, suggesting an odd number of them. The new Morgans did not, so he held a meeting that resulted in a couple minor changes but most important was the order to reduce the number of feathers.
The Morgan dollar had only been in production a couple week and dies were available with eight tailfeathers, so the response was to impress the eight tailfeather dies with new ones of seven feathers. This left the tips of the eight feathers still visible and created what is called the doubled or seven over eight tailfeathers variety.
That solution was not the end of it. When the new dies were produced, some had the top arrow feather parallel to the shaft, which is known as the reverse of 1878, while others would have the top arrow feather slanting, called the reverse of 1879.
The situation produced four different 1879 Philadelphia reverses and many questions as to how many of each were made. In his book The Official Red Book of Morgan Silver Dollars, Q. David Bowers suggests a mintage of perhaps 750,000 of the original eight tailfeathers, perhaps 500,000 of the doubled tailfeathers, an estimated 7,850,000 of the reverse of 1878 and another 1,500,000 of the reverse of 1879.
All were released to circulation and thus are available to various degrees. They also would appear in bags from the Treasury over a long period. Of the group, the final reverse of 1879 may well be tougher than current prices suggest.
The other Philadelphia dollar of the 1870s was the 14,806,000 mintage 1879. A coin with such a high mintage should be available today, unless it was heavily melted as a result of the Pittman Act, which in 1918 saw the melting of just over 270 million silver dollars. Some might have been melted, but the 1879 is still easily found as bags containing them were paid out of the Treasury vaults for decades.
By 1890 the required Morgan dollar production was in full swing and the dollar was being used heavily in the West. That was not the case in the rest of the country, especially the, East where bank notes were replacing coins in upper denominations. The 1880 Morgan from Philadelphia had another large mintage, 12,600,000 pieces, from many different dies. As a result the quality of the 1880 varies widely, with the main point being they are available. Bag after bag emerged from the Treasury through the 1950s. Even though there was little numismatic interest over the period, the sheer numbers mounted up, making the 1880 available today.
Much the same could be said of the 1881, which continued the pattern of high mintages at 9,163,000. Even if some were melted and others weakly struck, the sheer quantity produced resulted in the 1881 being available today.
The 1882 should be the same with a mintage of 11,100,000, but the 1882 while available is a date that is known for bagmarks. In addition its quality ranges from well struck to lightly structure and that makes any 1882 a more challenging coin to find in truly top quality than might be expected.
In an era of available dollars, the 12,290,000-mintage 1883 is one of the most available. In addition to its large mintage, the 1883, while possibly melted in some numbers in the Pittman Act melting, just kept appearing from everywhere. The famous Continental-Illinois Bank Hoard reportedly had over a dozen bags, and if that was not enough the Treasury kept releasing bags as well. In the end, while frequently poorly struck, the 1883 remains an available date.
You can say much the same for the rest of the dates of the 1880s. In every case the Philadelphia mintage was large. With little commercial demand at the time, dates like the 1884 or 1888 would simply sit in vaults, being slowly paid out when demand arose. Of course, new supplies kept coming faster than demand and as a result when the Pittman Act melting did take place the Philadelphia dates of the 1880s were logical ones to have been melted in some numbers. Even with the melting there would still be plenty to be released later, and that saw additional supplies of many dates right up to the final bag releases in 1964. As a result, a complete run of Philadelphia dates from the 1880s is easily assembled today, but check care fully as coins can vary significantly in quality. With the heavy mintages there were weak strikes and assorted varieties, which can make the group more interesting and more difficult than might be assumed.
The 1890s started very much like the 1880s ended. The 1890, mintage of 16,802,000, is another of the available dates although it is well known for light strikes and dull luster. In fact, the 1890 is one of the real sleepers in grades above MS-65 as there are virtually none. Bowers sums up the situation well in his book, saying of the 1890, “If you: want a nice one buy a proof.”
The 1891 is available, but if you look at the 8,693,556 mintage you will notice it was down slightly. That would be a sign of things to come. Vaults all over the country were filling up with Morgan dollars and even though the Congress would pass the Sherman Silver Purchase act to continue Morgans as the Bland-Allison Act expired, the purchasing provisions of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act would be quickly repealed and that would basically spell the end of the large Morgan dollar mintages and the beginning of some tough dates, even from Philadelphia.
The 1892 is the beginning of the trend. The 1892 had a mintage of just 1,036,000, far lower than any previous date from Philadelphia. The low mintage caused some interest and for many years the 1892 was not readily available. Some probably suspected it was melted, and while that might be true, in the 1960s the 1892 suddenly appeared in some numbers. With weak strikes in many cases, the 1892 is seen as slightly below average in quality and despite some saving from the 1960s bags, the supply of the 1892 has never been very strong. That is especially true if you want an example in a grade above MS-65, where only a few are known.
The silver purchasing clause of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed in 1893. That saw the bottom literally fall out of Morgan dollar production. The 1893 had a mintage of just 378,000, another new low for Philadelphia. We have no good information on just how the 1893 was released. Moreover, the 1893 was identified quickly, so some examples were pulled from circulation over time, but realistically it would not have been large numbers as there were not large numbers of Morgan dollar – collectors even in the 1960s when a few bags emerged from the Treasury. In general, although we do not really know its past, it can be said that the 1893 is tough in every grade as would be expected based on its low mintage.
The 1894 is even tougher as would be expected with a mintage of just 110,000. That total is lower than any other business strike Morgan except for the 1893-S. There are no readily available grades for the 1894 as might be expected with its extremely low mintage. Once again the mintage would have alerted collectors and dealers to the fact that the 1894 would be better, but lack of collector interest in dollars would have kept the numbers being saved low. Historically, there have been reports of a bag here and a bag there of the 1894 appearing, but the bottom line on the 1894 is that the period of prime saving in the form of $1,000 bags being released from the Treasury showed only reports of a few coins in the Treasury holdings and no bags. That makes the 1894 every bit as tough as its mintage suggests. There are small numbers in virtually every grade but no grade where you can call the 1894 even remotely available.
The 1895 is simply special. Official reports put the mintage of the 1895 at 12,880, but in fact we are now quite sure that was a reporting mistake. For a time it was thought that the 12,000 business strikes could have been melted because of the Pittman Act, but the research and evidence as well as logic suggest that at least a couple business strikes would have survived if for no other reason than the Assay Commission. All now point in the same direction, that the 1895 was a proof-only issue placed in proof sets along with the Barber coins of the period. That puts its mintage at just 880.
There is actually good news and bad news in being proof-only. The bad news is the small total mintage, which makes the 1895 elusive and expensive even if you can find a mishandled proof. The good news is that although the total was low, the coins tend to be nice and had a very good chance of surviving to the present day. Much the same observation could be made of proofs, which were produced every year in the case of Philadelphia Morgans: if a date is extremely tough in a grade like MS-65, a proof might be an easier option. In the case of the 1895, however, there are no business strikes and that makes it the lowest-mintage Morgan dollar of all.
The supply of the proo(f)-only 1895, however, is better than might be expected. There are estimates that perhaps 600 or more exist. Not all are Proof-65 or better, and with demand far in excess of the supply no one is likely to give you a discount deal on an 1895, but if you have the money an 1895 is a classic blue chip coin always in demand and always a cornerstone of any collection.
For the next few years Philadelphia mintages would rebound into the millions, making the 1896, 1897 and 1898 all relatively available. They might not be quite as available as some of the earlier dates but they are not dates that cause collectors much trouble when it comes to assembling a set of nice quality Morgans.
The 1.899 does not cause much trouble either, and therein is the surprise in that the 1899 had a listed mintage of just 330,000. With that mintage the 1899 should be tough, and the fact that it really is not that tough has caused some to doubt the mintage. It may simply be a case where the 1899 in terms of survival had good timing – it was seen as a tough date based on the mintage and when bags did appear they were usually saved in greater numbers than would be the case for a common date.
Bowers suggests that in the 1950s probably 50,000 to 100,000 Mint State 1899 dollars were released, followed by reports of bags in the 1960s as well. While all the coins were not saved, it was enough to make the 1899 one Morgan date that is more available than might be expected. They were above average in quality, so it makes for a nice opportunity to get a lower-mintage Morgan at a reasonable price.
The Philadelphia Morgans of the 1900s show another side of Morgan dollars. While not always scarce, they are always interesting. The 1900, with an 8,830,000 mintage, is not scarce but it is interesting. It was the year a new reverse hub was introduced. Not every coin was made from this hub, but those that were do not have the same definition on the eagle’s breast feathers, making it possible to have a good strike but poor definition on the breast feathers. Under the circumstances, picking a better-defined piece is a good idea and that may take some time.
The 1901 is a very tricky date. With mintage of 6,962,000, the 1901 is available in Mint State. Where the 1901 is not available is in MS-65 and above. It is hard to point to a specific reason although at least part of the reason may be that the 1901 coins saved tended to be lower Mint State grades.’ It may be that there were not better-quality coins in the bags, or it may also simply be that back in the 1950s when many were set aside there was less emphasis on quality than we have today. It is just a question that will never really be answered as we can find the 1901 in Mint State but rarely if ever in the highest grades The 1902 is another departure from the normal patterns. It is an available date with a mintage of 7,994,000, but it had unusually poor striking and subdued luster, making it an available date but one that is hard to find with a good strike and eye appeal. What makes it interesting is that the 1903 is the opposite with a 4,652,000 mintage, and every one seems to be at least above average and as if Philadelphia was alternating quality The 1904, while once again available, is another date where quality is not usually found.
With the production in 1904 the Morgan dollar had reached its end, or so officials thought. The original hubs were destroyed in 1910, only to have an emergency call for more production in 1921 as coins melted under the Pittman Act had to be replaced to back Silver Certificates. That produced one more Philadelphia Morgan, the 1921 with its enormous 44,690,000 mintage. The 1921 is certainly available, but the nature of the dies makes finding an appealing example more difficult than many might suspect.
There would be no more Philadelphia dollars after the 1921 but the legacy of years of production is certainly an interesting one. In fact, diversity might well be the best way of explaining what you find in Philadelphia Morgan dollars. From the scarce to the relatively easy, there seems to be at least one Philadelphia Morgan dollar with every possible characteristic. That makes the Philadelphia Morgans a more interesting and more challenging group than might be expected. They are a diverse and fas-cinating group well worth special attention and study.