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Mr. Morgan's Dollar
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 Europe.

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 dollars.

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 commerce.

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 the work.

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 effort.

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 Linderman's inspection.

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 variety exists.

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 were counterfeits.

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.


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