How America's Great Morgan Silver Dollar Came About
by John Devitt
The U.S. Mint's 1878-1921 Morgan dollar remains undoubtedly the most famous and collected classic silver dollar worldwide. How did this masterpiece of American minting emerge?
Interestingly, the coin sprang from a period of great financial instability in America, the Long Depression that began with the Panic of 1873 and continued until 1879, the year after the Morgan dollar's introduction. One cause of the financial catastrophe was the 1873 Coinage Act, called "the Crime of '73," which demonetized silver and temporarily ended the production of silver coins for the American economy. Combined with the failure of a major American railroad, "tight money" quickly led many overleveraged investors and companies into bankruptcy and Wall Street into chaos. When the Depression wore on and public outcries increased over joblessness, Congress finally authorized new circulating silver coinage, the largest of which was the magnificent Morgan silver dollar. As millions flowed into commerce in 1878, the Depression began to allay, partly the result of fresh hard-asset silver money in the system. Morgan dollars were packed with precious silver from the great Western mines, a vast source of national wealth. At the time, just one was the daily pay for cowboys, railroad builders and many industrial workers.
Designed by a Young Apprentice at the Philadelphia Mint
The Morgan is named after its creator, George T. Morgan. Born in England in 1845, Morgan trained at the London Mint and absorbed the finest European traditions of coin engraving. He was accepted as an apprentice at the principal Philadelphia Mint in 1877 and his superlative designs for a new U.S. silver dollar won out over the existing Chief Engraver's. The famous Philadelphia portrait painter Thomas Eakins (later to be regarded as the nation's finest artist of the period) recommended a 17-year-old schoolteacher named Anna Williams to be Morgan's model for his Liberty personification. His beautifully sculpted Liberty Head wears a tiara inscribed "LIBERTY" holding wheat of the North and cotton of the South (symbolizing the coming together of the nation after the Civil War) and a liberty cap (the traditional emblem of hard-won freedom).
For the American Eagle reverse, Morgan carefully worked from a stuffed eagle at the Philadelphia Mint and achieved superbly realistic detailing. His original design showed seven tail feathers, but the Mint Director requested another to fill out the look. However, upon the Morgan dollar's release into commerce, ornithologists objected that eagles always have center tail feathers, so Morgan reverted to his original odd-numbered tail design later in 1878. The eagle clutches arrows of preparedness and an olive branch of peaceful intent. Surrounding the eagle is a large laurel wreath, honoring the nation's greatness. The inscription "In God We Trust" (which began on U.S. coinage during the Civil War) is inscribed in Old English script.
The Ups and Downs of Morgan Dollar Mintages
As the production of the Western silver mines peaked in the 1880s, so did the output of Morgan silver dollars in that decade. When the principal silver mines were largely exhausted, the output of Morgans declined sharply in 1890-1892, then plummeted in 1893-1895 after Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Popular agitation for greater silver minting (climaxing with Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan's famous speech for silver at the 1896 Democratic Convention) led to increased Morgan dollar production in the late 1890s, early 1900s and through 1904, when the series was suspended by Congress. One final huge release of Morgan dollars came in 1921, before its successor the Peace silver dollar emerged later in that year.
In addition to being a lifeblood in commerce, many Morgan silver dollars were held in the U.S. Treasury as intrinsically valuable securities. However, the vast majority of those minted have been lost to history, when huge numbers were melted by the Treasury during the World Wars. Today their relative scarcity adds to their collecting appeal as a masterwork of the minting art.