The Morgan Dollar: Once Superfluous, Now Super‑Popular
BY ED REITER
Is there life after death? Those who doubt it ought to consider the case of the Morgan dollar.
The birth of this familiar silver coin in 1878 was greeted with a huge collective yawn by much of the American public. It saw relatively little use during the years it was made by the United States Mint. Thereafter, hundreds of millions were melted or lay idle in storage vaults for decades.
In recent years, however, long after the end of its limited existence as a circulating coin, the Morgan dollar has achieved a vibrant new life – some might even say a measure of immortality – as a collectible. In the last quarter-century, it has become one of hobbyists’ favorite U.S. coins.
There was no real need and little public demand for a new silver dollar when Congress authorized this coin in the Bland-Allison Act of 1878. Agitation for the coin came mainly from the owners of the nation’s silver mines, who were aggressively seeking new outlets for freshly processed ore.
Five years earlier, Congress had passed legislation halting production of standard silver dollars as part of an attempt to reform the nation’s coinage. Mine owners soon were denouncing that law as the “Crime of ’73” and demanding its repeal. A bitter battle arose regarding the merits of “free silver” – the free and unlimited coinage of silver dollars.
The mining interests had powerful friends in Congress – and while they didn’t get totally unlimited coinage, they did win a lucrative deal: Under the new law, the U.S. Treasury was required to purchase between 2 million and 4 million troy ounces of silver every month for coinage into dollars, paying market levels for the metal.
The shiny new dollars poured from the Mint’s presses for more than a quarter of a century. Some found their way into commerce, especially in the West, but many millions went straight into storage.
Curiously, this all-American coin – widely viewed today as a symbol of the Old West – was designed by an Englishman. George T. Morgan, a British engraver hired by the U.S. Mint two years earlier, gave the coin not only its design but also its name.
A Philadelphia schoolteacher, Anna W. Williams, served as Morgan’s model for the pleasingly plump Miss Liberty on the obverse of the coin – later losing her teaching job because of this “indiscretion.” The reverse of the coin shows a strangely scrawny eagle which critics compared to a buzzard.
By 1904, the Mint had satisfied the requirements of the Bland-Allison Act and promptly suspended production of Morgan dollars. Under a World War I-era law, the 1918 Pittman Act, some 270 million cartwheels – mostly Morgan dollars – were melted to provide silver bullion to Great Britain. But many of these were replaced when the Mint produced one last batch of Morgans in 1921.
Morgan dollars awoke from their long slumber in the early 1960s, when the rising price of silver led speculators to redeem silver certificates – blue-seal paper money – for bags of silver dollars at the Treasury. Previously scarce dates emerged in substantial quantities, fueling interest in the series.
Collectors like the size, heft and precious-metal content of Morgan dollars. And no other U.S. coins dating back to the 19th century are so available – and affordable – in glittering mint condition. Because they were never spent, many remain as flawless, fresh and frosty as the long-ago day they were made.
Acquiring Morgan dollars can be a source of great collecting pleasure. Some might even say it’s like dying and going to heaven.