The Morgan Silver Dollar is one of the best known and most popular coins to buy, collect, and trade minted by the USA. There are many different ways to buy silver today, and collectible coins like the Morgan Dollar make a great choice. The coin was named after George T. Morgan who came up with the design and has been around since 1878. The history of the silver dollar is tumultuous, as this coin was instrumental in creating many of the coinage laws we have in the United States today. There are millions of Morgan Silver Dollar coins in existence, and many more have been melted down in the years since mintage.
In this article, we’ll discuss many fascinating aspects of the Morgan Silver dollar. This tiny coin has had a huge effect on the way our economy was formed from the beginning, and its place is vital in US history. From the designer who first engraved the Morgan Silver Dollar, to the influential history of this coin, we’ll explain everything you need to know about silver dollars. Read on to discover where this one dollar came from, all the locations it was minted, and exactly how many are still around today.
What is a Morgan Silver Dollar?
The Morgan Silver dollar is a minted silver coin, first produced back in 1878. Previous to its inception, there were no standard silver dollars in circulation. The Seated Liberty dollar had previously been used, however, the Coinage Act of 1873 saw an end to its mintage, and left a gap in the market for the next 5 years. In 1878, the Morgan Silver Dollar began production as the only standard option, made from 90% fine silver alloyed with copper.
Morgan Silver Dollar Specifications
The exact design and specifications of the Morgan Silver Dollar can of course vary between mintages, however, the general description remains the same. The coin has a diameter of 1.5 inches and weighs 26.73 grams, which is just under a troy ounce. The edge of the coin is reeded (meaning ridged or grooved) which is an anti-counterfeiting measure put in place by the U.S. Mint. The design of the Morgan Silver Dollar has remained unchanged since its inception, named after George T. Morgan who completed the original engraving.
The stunning design of this silver coin is one of the reasons it has remained so popular throughout the years. The patriotic image was actually designed by an Englishman, but this doesn’t make the coin any less American. The obverse of each Morgan Silver Dollar displays Lady Liberty as a goddess, where she wears a cap adorned with two cotton blossoms and two heads of wheat, alongside the word “Liberty” inscribed on a ribbon. These agricultural elements represent the first crops grown by Americans, and thirteen silver stars represent each of the original colonies.
At the base of Lady Liberty’s neck, you can find a small letter “M”, the mark of this coin’s designer George T. Morgan. The obverse of the Morgan Silver Dollar also shows the date of mintage and the motto “E Pluribus Unum”. This Latin phrase was one of the traditional mottos of the United States, it means “out of many, one.” The use of these words on the Morgan Silver Dollar is uncoincidental; the phrase refers to the union of thirteen individual states into one nation. It’s very fitting that these words are minted on this silver coin, which became iconically representative of the success of the United States.
The reverse of the Morgan Silver Dollar is dominated by an American Eagle with wings outstretched. In its talons are grasped an olive branch representing peace, and arrows of war showing power. This mighty image represents the mentality of America; the USA is a nation of peace, however, she will proudly defend her borders. The motto on this face of the coin is written in English above the eagle, reading “In God We Trust”. A laurel wreath sits beneath the design, and just underneath you can find the mint mark of your coin. Although not every Morgan Silver Dollar features a mint mark, the ones that do will tell you the location that the coin was minted.
Who Designed the Morgan Silver Dollar?
George T. Morgan arrived in the US from England in 1896. He was already very successful in his field, known for producing beautiful engraved designs with only simple tools. Morgan was born in 1845 and attended both Birmingham Art School and the prestigious South Kensington Art School in London. After starting his own engraving business, Morgan was hired by the Royal Mint of England, where he began tutelage under Leonard Charles Wyon.
In 1876, George T. Morgan was offered a surprise position at the newly established United States Mint as a “Special Engraver”, leading to his emigration to the USA. When he arrived, Morgan began work in the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. Here, he was given the task of creating new designs for both the silver dollar and the half dollar. At this point, the 1873 Coinage Act still prevented silver coins from being struck, but the Mint knew that soon a need for the dollar coin would re-arise.
The image of Lady Liberty which is featured on Morgan’s design has an interesting origin story in itself. In 1877, George Morgan used a school teacher called Anna Williams from Philadelphia as a model for his drawings, describing her appearance as the “nearly perfect Grecian profile”. The design was originally intended for the half-dollar, but everything changed after the Bland-Allison Act. Little did Williams know, the image of her face would soon be embossed upon the most widely circulated coin in United States history.
The 1873 Coinage Act
The Coinage Act of 1873 was passed by congress to change how precious metals were minted into coins in the United States. This law had a huge impact on the mintage of all silver and gold coins, particularly the silver dollar designed previously to the Morgan. The new law was intended to revamp the outdated policies of the Mint Act of 1827 and make gold and silver mining more effective for the US Government.
Because of the increasing quantities of silver being discovered and mined, the silver price was decreasing. At this point in time, any solid silver could be taken to any mint and struck into coins, but the 1873 Coinage Act put an end to this practice. Miners who spend massive amounts of time and energy digging up silver from the earth could no longer turn it into money, and this created quite the political controversy.
The 1873 Coinage Act was put in place to essentially protect the US economy and firmly cement it in the gold standard. This meant all money and coinage was based around the value of gold, devaluing silver in a huge way. Without a way to strike their silver into fully legal tender, miners must find something else to do with their precious metal. All mintage in the US was now based solely around gold bullion, that is until the Bland-Allison Act came about.
The Bland-Allison Act
Following 1873, the United States experienced a 5-year depression. This was due to a number of factors, but many assigned blame to the end of bimetallism in the US. By 1878, enough interest had built to create a new coinage bill, one which would reintroduce silver as money in the United States. The Bland-Allison Act would not reintroduce free coinage, but instead offer an alternative way to mint silver coins. The effect of these laws went further than simply allowing silver metal to be minted into legal tender.
In fact, the Bland-Allison Act was written containing a passage stipulating the purchase of large amounts of silver by the United States Treasury. The government would have to buy from two to four million dollars worth of silver from western mines every month. This provided silver miners with a customer for their hard work, while strictly regulating the mintage of silver coins. The Bland-Allison Act helped pave the way for laws today which allow precious metals to be used as legal tender in certain states.
Where Did the First Morgan Silver Dollars Come From?
The origin of the Morgan Silver Dollar goes back to before either of these coinage acts were introduced, all the way to 1859. This time marked the discovery of the Comstock Lode, the largest deposit of silver ever found in the United States. Located near Virginia City, Nevada, the Comstock lode was originally a gold mine. However, efforts were impeded by huge amounts of blue-colored clay, which made mining in the area very difficult.
Samples of the clay were sent away for testing, and lo and behold, it was found that the blue clay contained some of the purest silver ever discovered. Although miners in the area tried to keep the secret, soon the word spread and hundreds of thousands of hopeful miners flooded to the area. This led to a huge surplus of silver on the American market, so the U.S. Mint began minting Morgan Silver Dollars to use some of the precious metal supplies. The Comstock Lode wasn’t the only source of silver that was minted into Morgan Dollars, but it did represent a huge proportion of it. By the time the mine ran dry in the 1920s, it had produced around half a billion dollars worth of silver.
Where was the Morgan Silver Dollar Minted?
Morgan Silver Dollars were minted in a total of five different locations, each with their own identifiable mint mark. Coins from Philadelphia are the only exception, as they bore no mark pertaining to their origin. Otherwise, Morgan Silver Dollars came from official government mints in San Francisco (Mint mark S), New Orleans (O), Carson City (CC), and Denver (D). The Denver Mint was only used in 1921 when for a year it was the only location to produce Morgan Silver Dollars. While all these coins technically have the face value of one US Dollar, certain versions are rarer and considered much more valuable.
Different Mintages of the Morgan Silver Dollar
From a coin collector's perspective, not all Morgan Dollars are created equal. Indeed, there are various levels of rarity to each of the Morgan Dollar mintages, with certain coins having incredibly historical value making them highly coveted by collectors. Some, for example, coins produced in Carson City, had extremely limited mintages, so Silver Dollars with the mark “CC” are more valuable. On the other hand, certain Morgan Dollars became more popular due to errors in the design, such as the famous “Hot Lips” Morgan Silver Dollar.
- 1878 - 7 Over 8 Tail Feathers: One of the most well-known mintages of the Morgan Dollar relates to a controversy at the United States Mint. When the coin first began production in 1878 in Philadelphia, the American Eagle design featured eight tail feathers. However, government officials mandated that it be changed to an odd number to match all other US coins. This means that in 1878, there were three different versions of the Morgan Dollar Struck. The original with 8 tail feathers, the new design featuring only 7, and a third which ended up being the most valuable of all. Because the Philadelphia mint was the only one producing Morgan Dollars at the time the design was changed, they simply re-pressed the uncirculated supply. This meant that a small number of 1878 Morgan dollars show 7 tail feathers struck over the top of the original 8. Later, the 7 feather design was distributed to mints across the USA and all subsequent coins featured the correct number of tail feathers. If you have an eight-feathered eagle on your Morgan dollar, then you’re lucky enough to own an incredibly rare coin.
- 1888 - Hot Lips: The Hot Lips (or Double Lips) Morgan Dollar is another well-known variety that is popular amongst collectors. This mintage of the coin was struck twice on the obverse, and the two are slightly misaligned. If you look closely at one of these coins, you can see that Lady Liberty has two sets of lips, two chins, and two noses. It’s ironic that a mistake such as this during mintage could become an incredibly rare and valuable coin years later.
- 1889 - CC: The 1889 Morgan Dollar produced at Carson City Mint is one of the most limited mintages of this coin, and thus it is very valuable. Many coin collectors spend their lives trying to obtain one of these Morgan dollars, as only 350 thousand were ever produced. To this day, there is only one 1889-CC coin that has ever been found still in its original holder.
How Many Morgan Silver Dollar Coins Were Minted?
It is estimated that in total, 657 million Morgan Silver Dollars were minted. Of this figure, more than 300 million were made in the Philadelphia Mint. The US Government New Orleans Mint produced 186 million silver dollars, while in San Francisco 130 million were struck. We already know that Carson City mintages were much more limited at a total of 13 million over 15 years, while Denver Mint produced more than 20 million silver morgan dollar coins in 1921 alone.
After their final year of mintage in 1921, Morgan Silver Dollars ceased production. The silver one-dollar coin was replaced by a new design; the peace dollar. Morgan dollars became a collector's item. However, the story of the Morgan Silver Dollar doesn’t end there. This coin had one more vital contribution to make to US history before it became obsolete.
What Happened to the Morgan Silver Dollars?
We know there was a time when more than 600 million Morgan dollars were in circulation, but that figure is at less than half in the present day. Between the end of their mintage in 1921, and now, something drastic happened to the world’s supply of Morgan silver dollars. Since the silver content of a Morgan dollar is 90%, they were melted down during the First World War. This valuable precious metal was used to pay for the US government's war expenses, and so millions were taken out of circulation.
The 1940s brought a Second World War, and again Morgan Dollars were used to pay. Millions of these coins were melted by the US government, but this time, more people noticed. US citizens saw that the price of silver was much higher than the one-dollar they could get for their coin, and so many more Silver Dollars were destroyed. An unknown quantity of silver dollars was melted privately by citizens, making the coins even rarer. Additionally, there are plenty of Morgan Dollars which between their mintage and now will have been lost or worn out, also contributing to the dwindling numbers.
How Many Morgan Silver Dollars Remain Today?
It is estimated that around 275 million Morgan Dollars are still in existence, which is less than half of the original figure. Even though so many have been lost, there is still a huge number of Morgan Silver coins still around, a testament to just how prolific this mintage was. Nowadays, there’s a range of Morgan Silver Dollars which are popular amongst numismatics and investors. Depending on their condition and the scarcity of the mintage, Morgan Dollars today are worth from $10 to $100.