How to Build a World-Class Morgan Silver Dollar Collection
Featuring the Little Darlings Collection
The Morgan Silver Dollar is America’s most collected coin, with a rich history born out of the old Wild West. These big, beautiful silver dollars conjure up images of cowboys and saloon poker games, outlaws and stage-coach robberies, casino slot machines and honkytonks of the past. Born out of the rich silver mines of Nevada that turned small mining camps into large bustling cities full of promise and entrepreneurial enterprise. Today, Morgan Dollars are among the most colorful and treasured relics of the old American West.
This large, hefty, handsome, historic silver dollar is named after its designer, United States Mint Engraver George T. Morgan. The obverse depicts a profile portrait representing Lady Liberty, while the reverse depicts an American eagle with wings outstretched.
Morgan Dollars were considered large and bulky and not very popular in daily commerce and they were mainly circulated in the South and in the Wild West. Cowboys on long cattle drives would drop these silver dollars into their canteens to hide them for security, but also found that the silver kept their water pure.
These were among the coins that Jesse James and his gang stole in their holdups.The silver dollars that Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp threw across saloon tables in Tombstone, and the coins that Annie Oakley shot holes through in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Shows. The Morgan Silver Dollar is truly an inspirational coin of historical significance.
Minted from 1878 to 1904, and then once again in 1921, before retiring as America’s most popular coin. Morgan Dollars are called the “King of America’s Coins” for a good reason, because they helped the United States grow the western frontier and fuel the engines of American industrialization. During the late 19th Century, the Morgan Dollar became a rallying point in politics between the Eastern Bankers, known as the “Goldbugs,” and the Western Silver Mining interests, dubbed the “Silverites.”They contributed to one of America’s major economic depressions known as the Panic of 1893 and became a major political platform in the 1896 and 1900 Presidential elections. The “Gold” or Silver” bimetallism debate over the monetary standard gave the politicians much to argue about.
In the early 20th Century, mass melting’s of Morgan Dollars helped finance the First World War and then again in 1942 during World War II. Forged by fires of the U.S. Mint melting pots, to the rediscovery of a massive hidden hoard found in the Treasury vaults in the 1960’s, the Morgan Dollar is one of the most complex and misunderstood coins issued by the United States.
Over the years, many Morgan Dollars ended up hidden away in Treasury vaults, forgotten for many decades, and some 270,000,000 ended up in melting pots due to the Pittman Act in 1918.Fortunately, a massive hoard of Morgan Dollars was discovered during an audit of the Treasury in the 1960’s. Shortly after, the Treasury Department drastically reduced the silver content in the nation’s coinage which led to a renaissance of sorts for those seeking to hoard Morgan Silver Dollars for their intrinsic value of silver. This desire to acquire “real money” is a natural occurrence when currency is debased, and those who understood this natural law of money have been rewarded handsomely by adding Morgan Dollars to their holdings.
The Treasury Department released many millions of Morgan Dollars in the GSA sales of the 1970’s, creating a buying frenzy with the public who was looking to capitalize on the devaluated U.S. dollar. This created an explosion in the demand of this once very unpopular coin and lifted its status into America’s favorite collectible coin.
The Morgan Silver Dollar is a coin of many contradictions. From leading the country into financial ruin at the end of the 19th Century, to saving the day in the beginning of the 20th Century, and then back into the limelight in the 1960’s when the silver content was taken out of America’s coinage and massive hoards were made available for sale to the public.It is little surprise the Morgan Dollar is an American classic and that became the most widely collected coin of today.
Over the 27 years of Morgan Dollar production, some 657 million Morgan Dollars were produced in 96 different date-and-mint combinations. Hundreds of millions of Morgan Silver Dollars have been melted over the years. The timeline below gives a brief overview of the major events that affected this American Classic Silver Dollar.
The Morgan dollar is a big, beautiful silver coin that was minted from 1878 to 1904, and once again in 1921 before retiring as America’s most popular coin. Yet, the Morgan dollar is also one of the most complex and misunderstood series of U.S. coins.
Morgan dollars are among the most colorful and treasured relics of the old wild west. This historical timeline will take you back to the Morgan Dollar’s beginning and through all the significant events around this historic coin.
In 1859, gold prospectors on their way to the California Gold Rush discovered that the sticky blue-grey soil they were digging in along the Carson River in Nevada, was pure sulphuret of silver.
An old prospector with the gift of gab, named Henry Comstock convinced the two miners who made the discovery that it was on his property and he had already staked the claim, but agreed to a partnership to avoid any argument. The “Comstock Lode,” became the richest silver mine in American history.
Comstock’s and the others’ claims started the “Rush to Washoe,” and brought thousands of miners with silver fever to Virginia City area and became the dominating event in Nevada’s history.
Over the next two decades, the Comstock Lode produced more than $300 million in 19th-century dollars. There were six major bonanzas the first five years of production. The mines declined after 1874, although underground mining continued sporadically into the 1920s. Today, Nevada is known as the “Silver State” because of the silver produced from the Comstock Lode.
At the height of the Civil War, the Comstock Lode exercised far-ranging political and economic influence. The Nevada territory caught the attention of President Lincoln. Because of its wealth and potential to become a free state, President Lincoln encouraged Nevada to seek statehood at a very rapid pace. The law required the Nevada Constitution to be delivered to Washington, D.C., so Nevada officials telegraphed the entire constitution, which took more than 12 hours to tap it out, at a cost of over $4,000… The longest telegraph communication in history.
Nevada joined the Union as the 36th state on October 31, 1864, just weeks after the fall of Atlanta. Nevada’s main contribution to the Civil War was the Comstock Lode, contributing over $45 million to help finance the Union Civil War effort to defeat the southern states.
The “Big Bonanza” was an enormous gold and silver vertical ore body more than 1,200 feet deep, discovered beneath Virginia City in 1873.It was the greatest mining strike in the history of the American West which made the “Bonanza Kings” millionaires many times over.
The famous western television series, “Bonanza,” (1959-73) chronicled the adventures of the Cartwright family on the fictional Ponderosa Ranch outside of Virginia City.In Season 1, Episode 9, “Mr. Henry Comstock,” the Cartwrights meet the silver-tongued claim-jumper that laid the foundation of Virginia City.
It was in Virginia City that Samuel Clemens acquired the pseudonym Mark Twain.At the age of 26 in the summer of 1862, after an unsuccessful attempt at prospecting, and with just $45 to his name, Clemens accepted a job as a $25 a week reporter for Virginia City’s most influential daily newspaper, called the local Territorial Enterprise.He often wrote about the Comstock Lode once stating; “Often we felt our chairs jar, and heard the faint boom of a blast down in the bowels of the earth under the office.”
In his book “Roughing It,” Twain described the arduous process of mining the Comstock and refining the silver ore. The book was a semi-autobiographical travel literature by Mark Twain. It was written in 1870-71 and published in 1872.
The Comstock Lode in 1859 upset the 16:1 gold to silver ratio. Silver prices lowered which resulted in a flood of silver dollars causing the gold standard to be endangered. Britain wanted to increase control of America’s money supply and a British banker was given 5 million dollars to bribe congress to demonetize silver.
President Ulysses S. Grant signed the controversial Mint Act of 1873, demonetizing silver and omitting the silver dollar and abolishing the right of silver bullion holders to have their metal struck into legal tender coins which put the nation firmly on the gold standard. But the silver interests in the west, known as the “Silverites,” fought the eastern gold advocates known as the “Gold Bugs,” and news press called it the “The Crime of 1873,” which became a major political platform.
The Mint Act of 1873 (Crime of ’73) became a rallying point between the Western mining interests and the Eastern banking concerns. The Western miners were outraged about the “Crime of 73”, and they spent the next 5 years fighting to get the act repealed, and earning respect that silver deserved. The solution was the Bland-Allison Act of February 28, 1878.
Congressman Richard Bland, known as “Silver Dick,” because of his advocacy of “free silver.” co-sponsored the act with Republican, William Allison. The Bland-Allison Act helped the United States return to bimetallism and was the birth of the Morgan Silver Dollar.
George Thomas Morgan was the 7th Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint, responsible for designing the Morgan Silver Dollar.Born in Birmingham England in 1845, he had an early interest in art and learned the art of modeling and sculpting at several prestigious art institutes.He was hired at the British Royal Mint as an assistant engraver, and became exceptionally talented in the art of designing coins.
In 1876, Morgan was recommended by the Deputy Master for the Royal Mint to work as an Assistant Engraver at the U.S. Mint. He became Chief Engraver in 1917, until his death in 1925.
When George T. Morgan was presented the opportunity to design the new silver dollar to replace the Seated Liberty Dollar that ended production in 1873, he wanted Lady Liberty to depict an American woman of the time. A beautiful schoolteacher from Philadelphia was recommended by a friend, named Anna Willess Williams, who became Morgan’s model.
Morgan was immediately impressed by the beauty of the young lady, who was only 18 at that time. Williams was a modest woman who wished to remain anonymous. However, in 1879 a Philadelphia newspaper revealed that she was the “Silver Dollar Girl” and the rest is history.
The front side of the Morgan Dollar (heads), known as the obverse, features a beautiful close-up profile portrait of Lady Liberty facing left. Lady Liberty is weary is wearing a Phrygian crown that symbolizes freedom, encircled with a ribbon inscribed with LIBERTY. Above the crown are cotton and wheat that decorate the ribbon that symbolized the reconciliation of the North and South following the Civil War.
E PLURIBUS UNUM is above Liberty’s head, with 13 stars below. There is a single small M at the base of Liberty’s neck as a tribute to the designer, George T. Morgan.
The back side of the Morgan Dollar (tails), known as the reverse, features an eagle with wings outspread with the motto, IN GOD WE TRUST above. Encircling the coin above is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA with the denomination, ONE DOLLAR, with stars on either side.
The eagle is clutching both an olive branch and 3 arrows in its talons, symbolizing peace, yet readiness for war.Below the eagle and around its sides is a wreath of laurel to honor the nation’s achievements. The ribbon which ties wreath together is another M for Morgan.Below the wreath are where the mintmarks are located.
Shortly after the first release of the Morgan Dollar in 1878, someone advised the U.S. Mint that the eagle should have seven tail feathers, instead of the eight in the initial design. The 8 Tail Feather variety illustrates how minute details can often become stumbling blocks. Mint Director Henry P. Linderman ordered that the change be made to the correct number.
A number of coins were already struck and it was too late to recall them. At first, the engraver updated the die to strike seven feathers over the original eight, creating the 7/8 doubled tail feathers variety. The final 1878 issues were of the anatomically correct 7 Tail Feather variety.
Morgan Silver Dollars were minted between 1878 and 1904 and for one final year in 1921, struck on steam presses. Throughout its 27 years of production, three bills were passed to approve the minting of silver dollars, two famous mints closed; Carson City in 1893 and New Orleans in 1909, and the Denver Mint was established in 1906.
Philadelphia Morgan’s have no mintmark.Mintmarks are on Branch Mint issues below the ribbon; New Orleans-O, San Francisco-S, Denver-D, Carson City-CC. This beautiful silver dollar has a 38.1 mm diameter, weighs 26.73 grams, struck in 90% silver and 10% copper.
The Carson City Mint was created in 1863 but was not put into operation until 1870. The mint was established in Carson City to facilitate minting of silver coins from silver in the Comstock Lode. It ran until 1885, then went on a hiatus and resumed operations in 1889, after which it ran until 1893, when it closed permanently.
The Morgan silver dollar was one of the most popular coins struck at the Carson City Mint. These coins with the desirable “CC” mintmark were only minted from 1878 to 1893, with only 13 coins in the series. This short set is a fun set to assemble.
During 1889, the falling price of silver made western silver interests desperate for increased government subsidies, while eastern bankers wanted additional paper currency. Senator John Sherman, introduced legislation that was a marriage of convenience for both groups, requiring the Treasury to purchase nearly twice as much silver as before and adding substantially to the amount of money already in circulation.
The 1890, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was passed by Congress to succeed the Bland-Allison Act. It required the government to purchase least 4.5 million ounces of silver monthly and to coin a minimum of two million silver dollars per month for the first year. It also required that mine owners be paid in Treasury notes redeemable in gold, which eventually led to a run on the Treasury’s gold supply.
By 1893, the Treasury vaults overflowed with silver dollars and minting of dollars dropped sharply. The production of Nevada mines began to decrease and silver prices continued to fall worldwide. Farmers in the west had overextended debt, railroads expanded faster than demand, with several going bankrupt in 1893.The Government’s gold supply was running out because they were buying silver instead of gold.
The panic struck Wall Street by the end of 1893, when over 15,000 businesses and 500 banks collapsed, with runs on the banks. It was a very serious economic depression that began in 1893 and ended in 1897.
More than half a billion Morgan dollars were struck from 1878 through 1904. When the silver reserves were finally depleted in 1904, the Mint ceased to strike the Morgan dollar. The U.S Treasury vaults were full to the brim with Morgan Silver Dollars by the beginning of World War I. German propaganda discredited the United Kingdom’s currency, which led to a run on the British supply of silver.
The Pittman Act in 1918 a solution that was a federal law sponsored by Senator Key Pittman of Nevada. The act authorized the conversion of not exceeding 350,000,000 standard silver dollars into bullion to help pay for wartime efforts and conserve the gold supply. This resulted in melting over 270 million Morgan dollars for sale of bullion overseas to buy bullion from mining companies at above-market rates.
A provision in the 1918 Pittman Act mandated that hundreds of millions of Morgan dollars be melted down into bullion, and that the government must buy new silver for a price of $1 per ounce, a considerable premium over current market levels to appease the Western silver mining interests and for the re-coining silver dollars to replace the melted coins.
The last Morgan’s were minted 17 years earlier, in 1904, and the dies were destroyed in 1910. George T. Morgan was asked to redesign the dies and minting resumed in May 1921. Over 86 million 1921 Morgan dollars were made at the three U.S. mint facilities in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Denver, which was the first and only Morgan with the “D” mint mark.
After the last Morgan dollars came off the press at the end of 1921, the Peace dollar replaced the Morgan to commemorate the end of World War I, known as the war to end all wars. Then 20 years later after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entered into World War II. The government needed silver again, and millions of silver dollars still sat in storage awaiting their fate at the melting pots.
The Silver Act of 1942, ordered the melting of over 53 million silver dollars, yet hundreds of millions of silver dollars still remained, stored in government vaults. Silver dollars could be obtained simply by redeeming a silver certificate, but there was little interest then in collecting Morgan Dollars at that time.
After WW II, silver dollars trickled out of the U.S. Treasury until the late 1950s and increased in the early 1960s, when demand substantially increased as silver prices rose. People made quick profits by redeeming silver certificates for silver dollars. In November 1962 collectors were delighted when a great Treasury Hoard of Morgan silver dollars was revealed, when long-sealed federal vaults were opened during a government accounting.
The forgotten hoard had been hidden away for many decades, and included around 3,000 mint bags containing 1,000 Carson City Morgan dollars each, resulting in over 2.9 million coins with the coveted CC mintmark.
After the recent discovery of about 3 million Carson City Morgan dollar in the Treasury vaults, a plan was made to liquidate the surviving coins. In 1970, Congress authorized the General Services Administration (GSA) to sell the coins, sealed in special GSA holders, through a mail bid auction.
The GSA launched a massive advertising campaign for the first sale on Nevada’s birthday on October 31, 1972. Dubbed as “The Great Silver Sale,” with the second sale promoted as, “The Coins Jesse James Never Got.” Five additional GSA sales continued until the conclusion in 1980. All seven GSA sales grossed in the around $100 million.
Collecting Morgan Dollars has become a popular set-building pursuit among many coin enthusiasts as well as investors. The goal is to complete a set of all coins minted which includes one of each date and mintmark. The most desired coins in the set are known as “Key Dates.” Key Date Morgan Dollars are usually the most valuable and rarest of the series.Often referred to as “Keys,” they tend to have higher price appreciation over time than their common-date counterparts and thus become a targeted acquisition for investors. There are also “Semi-Key Dates” that are the next level of difficult-to-obtain after “Keys” and those too show great price appreciation over time.
Supply and demand fundamentals move markets, especially those with a fixed supply and a strong collector foundation. With popular collectibles like the Morgan Dollar, rarity, and demand drives pricing.A coin’s population or survival rate directly affects supply, so when there are high supplies, prices are usually lower. However, when a Morgan is difficult to obtain and in demand, like a Key Date, it will have a numismatic premium which trends higher based on market conditions, rarity, and condition.
The 1889-CC Morgan Dollar is a Key Date coin that has a small supply is extremely popular and enjoys a steady increase of demand, as with all Carson City Morgan Silver Dollars. The Carson City Mint opened in 1870 to accommodate a shorter traveling distance for the silver coming out of the Comstock Lode. The mint in Carson City struck Morgan Dollars from 1878-1885 and 1889-1893. The four-year hiatus was for political reasons and in October 1889, Morgan Dollars once again began rolling off the mint’s presses. Only 350,000 coins were struck in the last three months of 1889 due to maintenance issues. The result is that the 1889-CC Morgan Dollar is one of the lower mintage issues of the entire Morgan Dollar series. Many other less-famous dates had lower mintages, but many 1889-CC Silver Dollars had an early demise. Approximately 300,000 1889-CC Silver Dollars were melted, ensuring 1889-CC survivors to become one of the Key Dates in the Morgan Dollars series.
Almost 50 years ago, extensive research was published by Leroy C. Van Allen and A. George Mallis on the variation of the dies used to strike Silver Dollars. The term VAM is an acronym for “Van Allen-Mallis”. In 1971, Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis published “The Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars,” which is one of the foremost authorities on these coins. There are over 3,000 different VAM numbers and since the VAM book was first published and has been updated with new editions and supplements to reflect the latest findings.
The VAM system catalog identified die varieties by their respective date and mintmark and these VAM numbers are exclusive for each specific Morgan variety. Some VAM varieties have fun nicknames like, Long Nock, Alligator Eye, Spitting Eagle, Hot-Lips, and Scarface. There are also popular variety lists like the ‘Hot 50’ or ‘Top 100’ varieties. VAM collecting is very popular, and it is the “thrill of the hunt,” that drives many coin collectors on their journey in collecting as many different die varieties as possible.
Morgan Silver Dollars, minted from 1878 to 1904 and again in 1921, are by far the most popular and widely collected U.S. coin series in numismatics. America has had a long love affair with this legendary lady born out of the Wild West. Few coins have captured the hearts and minds of collectors as much as these big beautiful silver coins. Morgan Silver Dollars are fascinating as a coin series and are both challenging and fun to collect.
Morgan collecting is very flexible, and there are many ways to build a collection.The many varieties offer collectors several intellectually exciting options. There are many ways to assemble sets from date ranges to mintmarks. Listed below are ways one might choose to focus.
Coin grading is the expression of an opinion that describes the condition of an individual coin that most dealers and collectors agree. Over time, numismatists and coin grading services have refined and agreed upon specific definitions, descriptions and numeric values that help all coin collectors describe coins accurately when buying or selling.
Morgan Dollars are large and heavy coins that are made of silver which is relatively soft and malleable.Their large size made it difficult to strike the design fully. Five mints manufactured Morgan’s (Philadelphia, New Orleans, Carson City, San Francisco, and Denver.The quality of the strikes can vary from strong to weak, depending on the year and mint.
In 1949, a well-known numismatist by the name of Dr. William Sheldon (1898- 1977), assigned alphanumerical grades to his coins to determine a logical mathematical relationship between the numerical grade and the value of each coin.
The Sheldon Grading Scale was a brilliant combination of numbers and letters, standardizing grading, from a low grade of 1 to a high grade of 70. Today, the Sheldon’s grade descriptions are used as the general guide for all coin grading from PCGS and NGC.
Third party coin grading services are companies that grade and authenticate coins, then seal those certified coins in tamper-proof hard plastic cases that have come to be called “slabs.” Grading companies are categorized into three “tiers,” or quality of service categories.
Because of the great consistency in grading and guarantees provided by the top tier services there really is no reason to acquire coins that are not certified and graded by PCGS and NGC. The coins by the top tier often trade sight-unseen, at premium prices over coins with the same grade in the second tier. Coins in third tier holders are not recognized by mainstream quality dealers and should be viewed as uncertified and potentially problem coins.
Coin grading determines a coin’s condition using an industry adopted system of standards and terminology. Graded coins can be bought and sold, sight unseen because of standardized grading scales. The top of the Morgan Dollar grading scale is the Proof Morgan.
Proof, or PR is a specially made coin distinguished by sharpness of detail and usually with brilliant mirror-like surfaces. Proof is a method of manufacture, not a condition… Proof coins range from PR-60 to PR-70.
A Mint State coin has never been circulated and is abbreviated by the MS designation. An MS coin is as fresh as the day it was released from the mint. It likely displays “mint luster,” that fresh brightness that radiates from the surfaces of a newly struck coin. The quality of mint state coins are broken down into a numerical system from Mint State 60 to 70 (MS 60-70).
About Uncirculated is abbreviated as AU. The AU grade is important because it represents a very desirable coin on which only the most modest wear can be detected on the highest points of the relief. Mint luster should normally still be present on AU coins. About Uncirculated, AU coins are graded between AU50 and AU58.
Extremely Fine grades are abbreviated as XF. This is the first level when wear becomes somewhat obvious without the aid of magnification or better lighting. Design detail must remain sharp for a coin to be designated XF. Original mint luster will likely still remain in some protected areas surrounding higher relief design elements. Extremely Fine, XF coins are graded from XF40 to XF45.
Very Fine grades are abbreviated as XF. This is still a very presentable grade, but by the time a coin has worn to the point of being Very Fine, some of the finer points of design details are gone. All lettering and major design details should still be present, unless the coin was weakly struck. Very Fine, VF coins are graded from VF20 to VF35.
Fine grades are abbreviated as F. A coin designated as fine still retains some of the detail on the obverse bust as well as on the reverse, but about half of the finer portions of the design details are by now gone on both sides of the coin. The word “Liberty” is featured on the headband, this word should still be complete in coins in fine grade, however the lines defining the band on which it is displayed are by now interrupted. Fine, F coins are graded from F12 to F15.
Fine grades are abbreviated as VG. The major design elements such as the obverse bust and the reverse eagle are still present in this grade, but most of the details of hair, feathers, and leaves are gone. The word “Liberty” is featured on the headband, only the first three letters of this word remain visible. The band on which the word was placed is likely entirely worn away. Very Good, VG coins are graded from VG8 to VG10.
Fine grades are abbreviated as G. Coins surviving in good condition must still have full definition of the rim on both the obverse and the reverse, however little more than the outline of the obverse bust, the reverse eagle, wreath, or other major design element remains. The word “Liberty” is now entirely worn away on the headband. Good, G coins are graded fromG4 to G6.
A coin graded About Good or AG is a very worn coin. The date and mint mark must still be readable, but the rims on each side of the coin are partially or fully gone, as well as is much of the detail of any design elements near the rims. The major design elements are by now a mere outline, and the obverse bust looks more like a faceless mannequin. Coins graded AG, FR, PO, (1-3) are at the lowest end of the grading scale.