By R.W. Julian
In the early
1950s, unlike today, the Morgan dollar was not
all that popular. A few rare dates were of
interest but otherwise collectors focused on
other series, such as the Lincoln cent. All of
that has now changed, and the Morgan dollar is
arguably one of the key areas for numismatists.
Silver dollars were struck as early as 1794 but
the coinage was halted in 1804 as too many of
the coins were going to the Orient for luxury
goods and did not return. In the 1830s Mint
Director Robert M. Patterson thought the time
was right for a resumption of dollar coinage and
by 1840 full-scale striking had begun. The new
coinage was primarily kept for bank reserves but
also used in commerce.
The new dollar coinage, however, came crashing
to earth in the late 1840s as gold discoveries
in California and Australia drove up the price
of silver. Bullion dealers bought up dollars and
other silver coins and shipped them to Europe at
a good profit. By 1850 the American silver
dollar had ceased to circulate and would not do
so again until 1878.
In 1853 a revision of the coinage laws permitted
the silver dollar to be struck from private
bullion brought to the mints, although minor
silver coins were now struck only on government
account. Dollars continued to be struck in the
1850s and 1860s but were used for only two
purposes. The first was as bank reserves while
the second was for export to the West Indies and
The status of the silver dollar began to change
in the late 1850s. Massive discoveries of silver
in Nevada meant that the United States, for the
first time, was a silver exporter rather than
importer. The amount mined escalated during the
American Civil War of 1861-1865 but much of the
metal went to Europe to pay for war materiels
and bond obligations.
When the Europeans signaled that they were
getting too much silver and preferred payment
solely in gold, silver began to accumulate in
this country. Beginning in 1868 a considerable
portion of this silver found its way to the
Philadelphia Mint where it was coined into
The situation was even more complicated from the
fact that paper money was the order of the day
in most of the country. Except for small coins,
such as the cent and nickel, paper was used for
virtually every transaction, the government
having printed notes with denominations as low
as three cents.
The increasing quantities of silver being mined
in the West meant that the value of the metal
began to drop, slowly at first but nevertheless
a bad omen. President Ulysses S. Grant ordered a
thorough review of the situation in 1869 by the
Treasury Department. The president clearly hoped
that gold and silver coins would once more see
their way to the marketplace.
Among those persons interviewed were mining men
and bankers. Those with a vested interest in the
mining industry searched for a use for this
excess silver. The plan finally decided upon was
to produce a disk of silver (the Trade dollar)
for export to China. Many experts felt that now
would be a good time for American competition to
the Mexican dollars widely used in world
From 1870 to 1873 this whole matter of coinage
and the Trade dollar was argued at length in
Congress. In February 1873 the new coinage act
was signed into law by President Grant. The
standard silver dollar was abolished as a
denomination and replaced by the Trade dollar,
which bothered no one at the time but later
became known as the "Crime of 1873."
At the same time as the Trade dollar coinage
began in July 1873 the Treasury ordered the
mints to produce large quantities of minor
silver coins. These were put into circulation
and by the summer of 1874 silver coins were
being increasingly used across the United
States. Silver was purchased for this coinage,
slowing down the fall in value of that metal.
As is well known today, the Trade dollar
experiment was a failure though probably would
have succeeded had it been given a few more
years. The fall in the price of silver was
leading, however, to ever-increasing demands
from mine owners and bullion dealers for a
resumption of silver dollar coinage to soak up
the excess metal being mined.
While the silver interests had one thing in
mind, Mint Director Henry R. Linderman had quite
another. He felt that the Seated Liberty design
had been on the silver coinage far too long and
wanted it replaced with something more in tune
with the artistic tastes of the 1870s. To this
end, because he did not trust chief engraver
William Barber, Linderman asked his British
counterpart, Charles Fremantle, for suggestions
on a good English engraver that might come to
the United States.
Fremantle suggested George Morgan and it was not
long before Linderman and Morgan had made the
necessary arrangements. Morgan arrived at
Philadelphia in the fall of 1876 and was
promptly put to work by Linderman preparing
designs for the minor silver coins.
At the same time the silver advocates in
Congress were getting stronger. In December 1876
Rep. Richard Bland introduced into the House of
Representatives a bill for the free coinage of
silver dollars for anyone bringing bullion to
the mints. While this might have solved the
excess silver problem, it would also have
wrecked the financial stability of the country.
Bland's bill seemed promising at first but was
defeated by the Senate.
The silver situation continued to deteriorate
but disaster struck in the fall of 1877. During
the Civil War great quantities of U.S. silver
coins had gone to Canada and Central America but
this silver coinage suddenly began to return
which meant that the government would no longer
buy newly mined silver for the minor coinage.
Bland reintroduced his bill in November 1877 and
the House soon approved it. The Senate again
proved the sticking point, however, mainly in
the person of Sen. William Allison, who well
understood what would happen with uncontrolled
silver coinage. He insisted on tight control by
the government, with purchases of $2 to $4
million worth of silver per month at Treasury
discretion. President Rutherford Hayes was
against the idea and vetoed the Bland-Allison
Act but his veto was overridden by Congress in
late February 1878.
In the meantime Mint Director Linderman had seen
the handwriting on the wall and by the middle of
1877 had begun to consider what kind of artwork
would grace the new silver dollar. In particular
he was determined that George Morgan would
create the designs.
Morgan had prepared, by early 1877, several
innovative pattern half dollars, one of which
used the famous head later to be found on the
Morgan dollar. (The eagle on the reverse was
originally on a pattern eagle - gold $10 -
prepared at Linderman's orders in 1877. The
eagle also appeared later on a pattern half
dollar.) In early October 1877 Linderman
privately informed Morgan that he was to work on
designs for the obverse and reverse of the
coming silver dollar and that the motifs chosen
by Linderman were to be the basis of his work.
Just after the private consultation with Morgan,
Linderman announced a design contest between
chief engraver William Barber and George Morgan.
The fix was in but no one told Barber as the
secret was very tightly kept. Barber undercut
his own chances by producing dies that were
ill-suited for dollar coinage. By accident he
made the head too high in relief and the pattern
pieces did not strike up well, a point not lost
on Linderman as it gave him ammunition for
denying anything that Barber did.
Because Morgan was using the earlier work for
his obverse and reverse designs, he was able to
complete his first set of pattern dollar dies by
early December. During the latter part of
December Morgan spent a considerable amount of
time carefully refining his designs for the
dollar. Several dies were made, and at least
three cracked in the process of making
additional patterns ordered by Linderman.
Linderman decided to call in outside help for
Morgan to make certain that the very finest
pattern silver dollar would result. The director
asked Morgan to visit A. Loudon Snowden, a
former chief coiner and now Philadelphia
postmaster. Snowden was an expert on coinage
designs and well qualified to help Morgan refine
During January 1878, on more than one occasion,
Snowden spent several hours with Morgan at the
latter's private lodgings. During these visits
Snowden was able to point out flaws in the work
such as the eagle's heads looking more like
those of a snake.
Snowden went on to remark that the wings were
slightly too long and ought to be shortened
where possible. He also noted out that the
arrowheads were more like tripods than
arrowheads. It was thought that instead of three
leaves on the stem, four would be better. While
Snowden's criticisms might seem harsh, it was
clear from the tone of his letters to Linderman
that he thought highly of Morgan's work and the
criticisms were genuine attempts to improve the
Morgan spent the next several days going over
his original models very carefully in order to
make the changes suggested by Linderman's
surrogate. The positive plaster models were then
taken to Snowden's office on Jan. 28 for a
further round of suggestions. The postmaster
found, in general, that Morgan had done a good
job in carrying out the suggested changes, but
that a few more minor alterations were required;
these were quickly done.
Although the basic design was in place, Snowden
and Linderman continued to make "suggestions"
for further improvements and Morgan carried
these out to the best of his ability. The last
changes were made as late as Feb. 20, 1878. On
several occasions dies had been made from the
plaster models and specimens struck for
On Feb. 28 Snowden visited Morgan one last time
to discuss the models and both agreed that
enough had now been done. Even Snowden thought
that some of the minor changes ordered by
Linderman had gone a little too far but on the
whole the models were very good.
By coincidence, on that same day Linderman
notified Philadelphia Mint Superintendent James
Pollock that Morgan's design had been chosen
over Barber's. The decision, by order of the
director, was to be kept secret from all but
Morgan, who was now asked to begin preparation
of the regular working dies.
Linderman's letter of Feb. 28, 1878, did not
appear out of the blue as might otherwise be
thought. Feb. 28 was also the day on which both
houses of Congress overrode the presidential
veto of the Bland-Allison Act.
It required several days to prepare the first
working dies. These were finished on March 11
and Linderman was on hand for the first coinage;
he watched as the dies were put into the coining
press just after the noon hour. Shortly after 3
p.m. the first good coin was produced and laid
aside for President Hayes, ironically a strong
foe of the whole affair.
Part of the day was also spent in making special
strikes for various other officials, including
Linderman and Treasury Secretary John Sherman.
Because of this activity not all that many
regular issue coins were struck on the 11th but
the 12th would see full-scale coinage.
It had been intended, once coinage had
commenced, to send dies to San Francisco and
Carson City so they could begin their work.
However, Linderman abruptly countermanded this
and ordered that a full week's worth of coinage
be done before deciding on the next step. To
judge the progress for himself, Linderman
returned to Philadelphia on March 18.
After thinking it over, Linderman found fresh
fault with the Morgan design and ordered that a
new reverse hub be made with the changes he had
in mind. The most important of these
alterations, at least to modern collectors, was
changing the number of tail feathers on the
eagle from eight to seven. It was claimed that
all eagles prior to this time had an odd number
of tail feathers.
Morgan quickly went to work to carry out the
latest directives and within a few days had
succeeded in completing the task, though
preparing the actual working dies required
additional time. Those collectors interested in
distinguishing the two reverses may do so easily
by noting the position of the first letter A in
"AMERICA." In the first master die the A is
somewhat distant from the eagle's wing while on
the second the letter A touches the wing.
The revised dies were finished in the latter
part of March and soon placed into production.
The eagle now had seven tail feathers although
some earlier dies, for expediency, had been
carefully altered by using the new hub on them.
This is the reason that the 7/8 tail feather
Once the new reverse dies had been completed,
Morgan began work on the obverse changes desired
by Linderman. These were completed in early
April and placed into service. The alterations
to the obverse, however, are relatively minor
compared to those made on the reverse.
Interestingly enough, all of these changes were
not lost on the public. Some citizens, for
example, even wrote the Bureau of the Mint
asking if the pieces with seven tail feathers
Even though Morgan had faithfully made all of
the changes required by Linderman, the Mint
director had second thoughts and pointed out
some new alterations that needed to be made.
Morgan believed that enough changes had been
made, and politely said so in a letter, but his
thoughts had little effect on Linderman.
About the middle of April Linderman again
visited the Mint and ordered fresh changes to
both obverse and reverse hubs, from which the
working dies are made. He did accept Morgan's
claim that the second set of hubs was working
quite well, however, and agreed that the work on
the third set of hubs could be delayed until
there was time to do them properly. As a result
dies from the third set of hubs were not put
into service until the latter part of 1878.
Because the second set of dies had proved
generally acceptable, Linderman permitted the
branch mint dies to be sent out on April 8,
1878. Coinage at San Francisco and Carson City
commenced soon afterward.