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A Look at the Morgan Dollar: 143 Years after its Genesis

2021-03-15 17:16:00
A Look at the Morgan Dollar: 143 Years after its Genesis
Posted in: News, News

A Look at the Morgan Dollar: 143 Years after its Genesis

Last Thursday, March 11th, marked the 143rd anniversary of the Morgan Dollar’s initial production. As one of the most collected U.S. coins of all time, the Morgan Dollar has long been considered a cornerstone of the American numismatic canon.

Originally introduced in 1878, the Morgan Dollar was the first silver dollar to circulate as legal tender in the United States since the Seated Liberty Dollar, which was brought to an abrupt finish by the Coinage Act of 1873. During that four-year span, no new silver dollars were struck for circulation in the United States. A limited amount of silver dollars called “Trade Dollars” were struck, but those were used solely for trading in Asia.

As the discovery of silver boomed in the Western portion of the country, the United States found itself in possession of a surplus of silver bullion. With such an immense stockpile of silver, the Treasury was once again able to produce silver dollars for circulation. Thus, the Bland-Allison Act was passed, requiring the Treasury to strike between two and four million dollars’ worth of silver dollars every month.

Rather than resume production of Seated Liberty Dollars, U.S. Mint Director Henry Linderman opted to employ a fresh design on the new coin. After conducting a thorough search for a qualified die-sinker, Linderman hired a young, English engraver named George T. Morgan. Though Morgan lacked considerable experience in coin design, Linderman was assured of his talent and aptitude by the director of the Royal Mint in London.

As soon as Morgan arrived in America, he began preparing the best coin design possible.  To sharpen his skills for the obverse’s depiction of Lady Liberty, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. To prepare for the reverse design, he studied records of bald eagles spotted in nature.

Morgan was adamant about creating a portrait of Lady Liberty that resembled American likeness, as opposed to the Greek-styled figures normally depicted on coins. After being introduced by a mutual friend, Morgan selected a schoolteacher named Anna Willess Williams to model for his Liberty design. Altogether, Williams sat for Morgan five times to ensure his illustration be perfected.

The hours invested into Morgan’s and Williams’ efforts paid great dividends, as their hard work produced what is one of the most celebrated coin designs of all time. The coin’s obverse depicts a left-facing Lady Liberty who wears upon her head a Phrygian cap, a crown that reads “LIBERTY,” and a vegetal wreath. Liberty’s jaw is rounded yet robust, and her curly hair flows beautifully beneath her cap. Surrounding her profile are thirteen stars- each one representing one of the nation’s original colonies- as well as the date and our national motto, “E PLURIBUS UNUM.”

The Morgan Dollar’s reverse displays a leftward-facing bald eagle with outstretched wings. In the eagle’s talons, it holds the customary olive branch and three arrows. The eagle stands below the motto, “IN GOD WE TRUST,” and above an open wreath that symbolizes peace. Encircling this vivid imagery are the words, “United States of America” and “ONE DOLLAR.”

While George Morgan was designing his dollar coin, it was even considered to be used on the half dollar. Small quantities of pattern examples in different denominations were struck, giving a rare look at an iconic design on a radically different size coin. One famous Morgan Half Dollar pattern is known as J-1599 which only has a population of 10 coins!

Since the Bland-Allison Act demanded such large quantities of the Morgan Dollar be struck, Director Linderman required the Philadelphia, San Francisco and Carson City Mints to strike the coins. There were initially complications with the dies at the two western branches, but these were quickly resolved and coins from all three branches were released that year. Then in 1789, the New Orleans Mint followed suit and struck “O” Mint Morgan Dollars. Aside from the Carson City Mint, which closed in 1893, all of these Mint branches struck the Morgan Dollar until 1904.

The Morgan Dollar comepletely served its purpose as a much-needed silver dollar, particularly in western states like California, where gold had dominated the marketplace for decades. As the Morgan Dollar was struck in droves and solidified its presence in the American economy, gold dollars saw their mintages dwindle until they were at last discontinued in 1889.

As it solidified its place as a mainstay of U.S. currency, the Morgan Dollar maintained reasonable mintage figures throughout its first decade of production. However, in 1890, when a piece of legislation known as the Sherman Silver Purchase Act forced the Treasury to purchase 4,500,000 ounces of silver and produce 2,000,000 silver dollars every month, rampant inflation ensued and the national economy went into recession. Alas, the Mint had no choice but to strike all silver purchased under the Act until none remained. When this feat was finally achieved in 1904, the Mint ceased production of the Morgan Dollar.

The Morgan Dollar remained out of production for nearly 20 years, until a piece of legislation called the Pittman Act of 1918 opened the door for a return. This act required the melting and recoining of hundreds of millions of silver dollars struck by the US Mint. Much of the melted bullion was sold to Britain, whose economy was struggling in the midst of World War I. After over 270 million coins were melted, the Morgan Dollar saw its unlikely return in 1921. The coin was struck in Philadelphia, San Francisco and, for the first time ever, Denver. Though the Morgan Dollar’s return was undoubtedly exciting, it was short-lived. With the world living in harmony after World War I, the United States wanted to celebrate peace with a new silver dollar design. Thus, the Peace Dollar was introduced and the Morgan was once again retired.

A century after its retirement, the Morgan Dollar is regarded as one of the most iconic coin in American history. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the coin’s retirement, the U.S. Mint has declared it will strike centennial Morgan Dollars in 2021, giving collectors their first opportunity to collect a Morgan Dollar struck during their own lifetime.