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American Silver Dollars

October 20th, 2011 Coins


1878: A Good Year for Coins

As it turns out, 1878 was a great year for future coin collectors. It’s the year Morgan silver dollars were first minted. In case you’ve been under a rock, the Morgan silver dollar is one of the most popular silver dollars among collectors. This year marked the beginning of a long and prosperous life of the Morgan silver dollar: it was issued for 26 years, with nearly half a billion coins minted!

But the 1878 silver dollar was the most special. It’s the only year the Morgan dollar has a varying number of feathers on the eagle. After the design by George T. Morgan was approved, people decided that the eagle needed eight feathers, not the seven that the U.S. Mint had been printing on coins! So some of the 1878 coins have seven feathers, others have eight, and still others have eight repressed on top of seven!

The Morgan silver dollar was minted at several branches of the U.S. Mint:

  • Philadelphia
  • New Orleans
  • San Francisco
  • Carson City
What is incredibly sad about the Morgan dollar is that the U.S. Government issued several acts that resulted in the melting down of many of these special coins:
  • The Pitman Act of 1918 required 270 million older silver dollars (most Morgans) be melted
  • The Silver Act of 1942: hundreds of millions were melted
  • Private refiners have melted the coins since the 1960s, since the price of silver made melting the coins profitable

Clean Your Attic: You Never Know What You’ll Find

Sometimes, lucky coin collectors have a gem so valuable in their collection they don't even know it. Take a certain Maine librarian who received a box of coins 15 years ago, never realizing that in the box was the most rare silver dollar a collector can own valued at $1 to $6 million! The coin was one of only two silver dollars in 1866 that were made with the motto “In God We Trust” missing.

One day, he found an advertisement listing an identical coin to be auctioned nearby. He contacted the auctioneer to discuss his coin. The auctioneer, who did not believe the librarian initially, was an instant believer when he saw photographs of the silver dollar from 1866.

After inspecting the coin in person, it was confirmed that this indeed was the multi-million dollar coin that had been missing for 37 years. The coin, along with 6,999 other coins, was stolen at gunpoint from the Willis du Pont estate in Coconut Grove, Florida in 1967. Because it was stolen, the librarian cannot sell or keep the coin. And therein lies the rub!

The coin was returned to du Pont, who donated the rarity to the American Numismatic Association Money Museum in Colorado.

How Silver Dollars Are Made

While many people collect coins, few actually know the process of making coins. Here’s an insider’s look at how silver dollar coins are made.

Naturally, the first step in creating a coin is deciding on its design. For circulating silver dollars, that process gets input from officials, artists and the public who sit on coin design committees.

Every U.S. coin is required by law to have all of the following elements on it:

  • “Liberty”
  • “In God We Trust”
  • “United States of America”
  • “E Pluribus Unum”
  • Coin’s denomination and year of issue
Once the design is selected, it is drawn and then sculpted into a model etching. This clay model will be 3-12 times larger than the actual coin. Plaster is poured over the model. This is repeated until the plaster model is perfect. The final model is sent to United States Mint’s lab in Washington D.C. for quality assurance.

Once this model is approved, an rubber mold is formed, then filled with epoxy. The new epoxy model is mounted onto a transfer-engraver. This machine traces the epoxy model onto a smaller sized steel blank, called a “master hub.” The machine is so careful at this job, it takes 24 hours to complete one! One hub is created for each side of the silver dollar.

This hub is used to create a “master die,” which is used to strike the actual coins. The coins come as a metal coil that weighs almost 6000 pounds! Just think of how many silver dollars that would make!

Join Lewis and Clark on an Expedition

After the Louisiana Purchase was, well, purchased in 1803, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led an expedition of 8,000 miles westward, in order to improve relations with Native Americans and map out new territory.

One hundred years later, the U.S. Government passed Public law 106-126, which authorized the minting of a bicentennial silver dollar that celebrated this cross-country trek by Lewis and Clark.

Donna Weaver, the sculptor and engraver who designed the coin, depicts an image of Lewis and Clark discussing their exploration. Lewis holds a rifle in one hand and his journal in the other. The reverse of the coin is dedicated to the relationships that were forged with various Native American tribes on Lewis and Clark’s “Corps of Discovery,” represented by two feathers. In the center is an image of the Jefferson Peace Medal, which was presented to tribes by Lewis and Clark on their adventure. Above these images are 17 stars, correlating to the number of states in the Union at the time.

The coin was minted in both proof and uncirculated versions for collectors, and only 500,000 of each were issued. Surcharges from sales of the Lewis and Clark silver dollar went to both the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial and the National Park Service in order to fund the activities surrounding the bicentennial commemoration.

Overview of American Silver Dollars

American silver dollars have always held a special place in the hearts of Americans. They are unique and beautiful. The fact that the rising price of silver has caused both the government and dealers to melt these endangered coins only makes them more valuable. The Morgan dollar, for instance, has shrunk to only 17 percent of its original issue number, due to melting.

All silver dollars were issued at specific Mints:

  • Philadelphia: Flowing Hair, Capped Bust, Sitting Liberty, Trade, Morgan, Peace, Eisenhower, Silver Eagle (no mint mark or 'P') silver dollars
  • New Orleans: Sitting Liberty, Morgan ('O' mint mark) silver dollars
  • Carson City: Sitting Liberty, Trade, Morgan ('CC' mint mark) silver dollars
  • San Francisco: Sitting Liberty, Trade, Morgan, Peace, Eisenhower, Silver Eagle ('S' mint mark) silver dollars
  • Denver: Morgan, Peace ('D' mint mark) silver dollars
  • West Point: Silver Eagle ('W' mint mark)
The most popular silver dollars among collectors are the Morgan dollar (especially years 1878-1921), the Peace dollars minted between 1921 and 1935, and the Silver Eagle dollars, issued 1986 up to the present.

American silver dollars range greatly in worth, depending on their condition and when and where they were minted. Some have tremendous value, such as the 1893 “S” silver dollar, minted in San Francisco. If you’re lucky enough to own one, it’s worth $250,000!

Pricing Your Silver Dollars

So you’re a collector and ready to sell some of your silver dollar collection? Or maybe you just cleaned out your Aunt Mae’s attic and found a slew of silver dollars and want to know what they’re worth? Either way, there are a couple of resources you can easily use to determine the approximate value (what a dealer actually offers may vary from this amount slightly due to demand and the market at the time you sell).

Books: There are several good silver dollar price guide books available. One visit to Amazon.com will net you over 300 results! There are general coin price guide books and some specific to silver dollar pricing. Either way, get a newer book to ensure the values are relevant to today’s market.

One of the most well-known pricing guides is the Redbook. The book contains a brief history of each coin as well as detailed shots of some of the images on the coin. It lists prices for each grade of coin for reference.

Online: The Internet also opens the door to hundreds of coin value websites. Some provide the same information as the Redbook, and others offer a form to fill out with details about your specific silver dollar, which will probably give you a better estimate of its worth.

PCGS.com (Professional Coin Grading Service) is a reputable company that provides a pricing guide online. You simply find the corresponding silver dollar you want to find a price for, locate the grading (if you know it) and there is your value!

Silver Dollars: Where Buffalos Roam

Each new silver dollar issued creates a wave of excitement among collectors. No less thrilling was the Buffalo Silver Dollar, issued in 2001 to commemorate the grand opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The act approving the coin was signed by President Bill Clinton.

The coin’s design is based on James Earl Fraser’s Buffalo Nickel, which was originally minted between 1913 and 1938. The front of the coin features a Native American, while the reverse hosts a buffalo, making it the appropriate coin to celebrate the newest branch of the Smithsonian celebrating the American Indian.

Here’s how popular this coin was: the U.S. Mint started taking orders on June 7, 2001. Just 10 days later, the entire batch of 500,000 coins was sold out! The 90 percent pure silver coin came in several options:

  • Proof ($37)
  • Uncirculated ($32)
  • 2 Coin Set (one Proof, one Uncirculated: $64.95)
  • The American Buffalo Coinage and Currency Set ($59.95)
    • Uncirculated coin
    • Replica of 1899 $5 Silver Certificate, featuring Ta-to’-ka-in’-yna-ka (Running Antelope) of the Sioux tribe
    • 21 cent Bison stamp
    • 10 cent stamp from the 1987 Great American Series
The uncirculated coins were minted in Denver, while the proof coins came from Philadelphia. A portion of the proceeds from the coin sales went to the opening of NMAI.

Susan B. Anthony: Why She Graces a Dollar Coin

Did you know Susan B. Anthony was the first woman to be featured on a circulating coin? In 1978, President Carter approved the Susan B. Anthony Dollar Coin Act, which altered the weight, size and design of the silver dollar to be graced by the image of Ms. Anthony.

All that is great, but who was she? And why did she get her own coin? Susan B. Anthony was a leading civil rights leader at the turn of the century. She got the ball rolling on women’s rights and African American rights in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She withstood persecution, violence and yes, even jail time, to make the world friendlier for those marginalized at the time.

Here are some interesting facts about her:

  • In 1869, Anthony called the first Woman Suffrage Convention in Washington D.C.
  • In 1872, she was arrested for voting. The judge ordered the jury to find her guilty and she was fined $100. She refused to pay.
  • In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or the Susan B. Anthony amendment, was passed, giving American women over the age of 21the right to vote.
We’ve come a long way, baby!

The Charm of the Old Silver Dollar

There is just something about old silver dollars that intrigues even amateur coin collectors (i.e. those of us who just collect it in our pockets). They have a grace and gravity that is often lost in today’s era of paper and plastic currency.

1839 Silver Dollar: This is a great example of a collect-worthy old silver dollar. It was the third consecutive issue of the Gobrecht dollar (refers to the executor of the design) as well as the last year this coin was minted. In 1840, the silver dollar would have a more conservative eagle based on designs from previous gold coins.

It is estimated that over 300 proof coins were minted, and none were minted for circulation. Some variations of this coin that may be valuable include:

  • No stars on reverse (original)
  • Starry reverse with a Silver, plain edge and a Die Alignment III (restrike)
Morgan Silver Dollar: There are many noteworthy years the Morgan dollar was collected. Often referred to as “Cartwheels” due to their enormous size, Morgan dollars were the favorite form of currency for the Wild West, including Jesse James! These coins have been out of circulation over 80 years, and can range in value from $70 to $500!

The Eisenhower Silver Dollar

In 1965, it was thought that silver coins had become extinct. Congress put a five year ban on minting silver dollars, due to the silver shortage in the country. As the end of this ban neared, discussions began about creating a circulating coin honoring the recently deceased President Dwight D. Eisenhower. However, the plan did not include making this coin in silver. They would, instead, have a shell that was 80 percent silver and 20 percent copper, surrounding a 21 percent silver, 79 percent copper core. This makes the dollar 40 percent total silver.

The coins were finally issued on November 1, 1971. And they were a flop. Americans found the coins heavy and cumbersome, and preferred to use paper dollars. The coins became souvenirs, and people kept the Eisenhower silver dollars as collectibles rather than spend them as currency. Given the lack of demand, the U.S. Mint decided to only mint as many as necessary to fulfill orders of uncirculated coins for collectors, totaling less than 2 million coins.

Despite the coin’s impending doom among consumers (or maybe as a result), the coin is appreciated by collectors today, and serves to tell an interesting story about the history of numismatics. Not all coins are a hit!