The 1878 silver dollar – the first Morgan

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As usual, before we describe and go into the history of any historic silver coin, as we like to look at the year in which the US mint struck the coin to give us some context about the political social and economic events going on at the time.

This helps to put the period in which the government issued it into perspective and give you an idea of the background to its release.

1878 was the year of the first of, what came to be known as, the Morgan silver dollar.

This particular year saw some major new advances in the technology of the time, with the setting up of the Edison Light Company, the first telephone to ever be installed at the White House being fitted, and a patent being granted for a thing called a “gramophone” or “phonograph!”

The year also saw The California Street Cable Car Railroad Company starting its service. DC was given a new government by Congress, and in California, an outlaw called “Black Bart,” held up a Wells Fargo stagecoach and took a safe box from it. this was later found empty, and a poem inside mocked the people trying to find him. Stagecoach robbery was still a problem at this point in American history. It is also the year that one of the 20th-century’s monsters, Joseph Stalin, was born, in Russia.

You can see from these events that we are at the beginning of a modern United States – with technology beginning to come to the fore and the need for a unified system of currency becoming a necessity.

The Coinage Act comes to pass

Morgan silver dollars were introduced by the government after the controversy which lead to the Free Silver Act. This committed the government to minting a minimum amount of silver dollars each year, and they decided to use the commitment to this, to introduce a brand-new silver dollar coin.

Before the introduction of this Coinage Act, any silver could be brought to any mint and made into legal tender for a small fee. This means bullion producers used less silver than the face value of the coin and made a large profit on the difference. Trade suffered, and the government wanted to regularise the practice.

George Morgan was an Englishman who was recommended for the job of designing the new coin. He was an engraver and sculptor and was asked to prepare the designs, inscriptions, and dies for the new coin.

He enrolled as a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the fine arts to study for the assignment. It was here that he formulated the idea of the Liberty head and bald eagle design which he worked on throughout the year.

One of the things he decided was that he would use an American woman to be the model for Liberty and not take the design from ancient Greek or Roman profiles.

A legendary coin takes shape

By November, 1887, Morgan had completed the engravings and prepared the dies for the United States Mint.

Philadelphia, San Francisco, Carson City, and New Orleans, were the sites chosen to produce the Morgan dollars. The silver dollar value was based on the face value of the silver Morgan dollar not on the silver content. Because of the wear expected on the coin in daily use, it had been decided that the composition of the coin be 90% silver, and 10% copper, to make it tougher and more resilient.

The four mints involved in the production did not strike the same number of coins at each site. There was a large disparity in the production of the silver coins. Each had its own mint mark on the reverse side of the coin under the eagle, where the olive branches join.

The mint marks for the coins are the key to their value. Philadelphia coins have no mint mark. Carson City are marked CC, San Francisco are marked S, and New Orleans are marked O. Production of the coins was highest at Philadelphia and lowest at Carson City. This means that the Carson City ones are generally rarer, and worth more than, say, the Philadelphia ones.

Much depends on the general condition of the coin – its luster, its wear, it’s damage and it’s grading. Morgan dollars are sold based on their PCGS grading in general, in the US. The coin values rely on the grading service to vet them and make sure that the price reflects the condition of the coin and that the dollar values they fetch are reasonably accurate.

Watch your tail …

One of the other major factors which skews the price of the 1878 Morgan silver are the “tailfeathers” of the eagle. There are three known combinations of tail feather varieties. The coin can have either eight tailfeathers, 7 over 8 tail feathers, or seven tailfeathers.

Because of the change of design from 7 to 8 tail feathers some coins were struck in another die over the original design. This means that an impression of eight tailfeathers may have been left on seven tail feather coin or vice versa.

Although the seven feathers design was scrapped the Mint in Philadelphia kept it and it continued as their “signature” for the remaining years of the Morgan dollar.

“The tail feather conundrum,” is definitely something to look out for on any Morgan silver dollar that you buy.

Collin Plume

Collin Plume

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The Morgan Silver Dollar is an essential part of American History. The first was released in 1878 and became an immediate success. We have sourced 3 different versions of this iconic coin. These will be an investment as well as a family heirloom for generations to come.

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