1879 Silver Dollar: The Ultimate Collector’s Guide
The 1886 Morgan silver dollar comes from the 27-year long first run of the series (1878-1904), and it has found itself on many a coin collector’s wish list over the past century.
The coin’s rich, bold and large design makes it a welcome abnormality in comparison to many coins from the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.
The story of its inception and proliferation only adds to its mystique and weight in the coin collection market.
In 1873, the United States Congress’s enactment of the Fourth Coinage Act ended the free coinage of silver within the country – a fateful decision which led to a sharp decrease in the price of silver after mining increased exponentially on the West Coast.
Just a few years later, multiple bills were introduced in the House of Representatives in hopes of resuming the free coinage of silver.
This came after public outcry reached a fever pitch in the months preceding.
A Presidential veto (by Rutherford B. Hayes) of one such bill was overridden by Congress on February 28, 1878.
This bill would morph into the Bland-Allison Act which required the Treasury to purchase two to four million dollars’ worth of silver a month, coining it into silver dollars.
The Mint had already prepared for the resumption of silver coinage in 1876, with Mint Director Henry Linderman tabbing young design master George T. Morgan for what he assumed would be the half dollar.
That year, Morgan started a six-month apprenticeship under Chief Engraver William Barber at the Philadelphia Mint.
A year later, Morgan’s design work for the projected half dollar would be put to use for the nation’s new silver dollar – a coin necessitated by the passing of the Bland-Allison Act.
And thus the Morgan Silver Dollar was born on March 11th, 1878 when production began at the Philadelphia Mint.
The coin lasted in circulation through a regulation change which ended the Treasury’s required purchase of silver, ending its run in 1904 when the Treasury’s supply of silver exhausted itself.
Morgan was tabbed for a one-off revival of his silver dollar in 1921.
He had to create a new master die for it after the Treasury destroyed the original master dies in 1910.
Mints: Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans
- Overall: 31,414,000
- Philadelphia: 19,963,000
- San Francisco: 750,000
- New Orleans: 10,701,100
Weight: 26.73 g
Diameter: 38.1 mm
Edge Type: Reeded
Composition: 0.90 silver, 0.10 copper
Designer: George T. Morgan
Obverse Features: For his representation of Liberty, George T. Morgan made a conscious choice to eschew classic Greek sculptural featuring in favor of a much more Americanized bone structure and look.
Everything from the curl of Liberty’s chin to the contained wave of her hair was carefully detailed by Morgan in hopes of cultivating a less Euro-centric look which was uniquely American.
It succeeds, providing this version of Liberty a much more vital and current air than some of its coinage counterparts from its era and even eras forthcoming.
Liberty faces left wearing the traditional Phyrgian cap. Taking a page from his mentor, Charles Barber, Morgan’s Liberty wears a headband with the word “LIBERTY” inscribed upon it.
A collection of leaves and sheaves protrude from the headband.
The phrase “E PLURIBUS UNUM” rainbows above Liberty’s head in extremely clear and concise type for the coin’s time period. Centered dots separate the words.
Seven six-point stars circle left down to the mintage date from the “E” in “E PLURIBUS UNUM,” while six come down from the “M” on the right.
These 13 stars represent the original American colonies in striking, well-organized fashion.
Denticles, a repeating tooth-like pattern common in 19th Century and early 20th Century coins, surround the border of the obverse.
Reverse Features: Morgan’s 1876 enrollment at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts was meant to prepare the young art star for creating Liberty’s visage for an upcoming half dollar – a design which ultimately was adapted to the silver dollar.
However, the interesting subplot here is that Morgan also took up some nature studies during his time at the university to create the bald eagle design which is represented here on the reverse of the Morgan silver dollar.
His studies paid off.
Morgan’s version of the bald eagle has a unique bend and life to it which is more faithful to the actuality of the animal than any previous representations of the eagle on United States coinage.
It leans into its wing spreading, almost breathing off the coin’s image while clutching onto three arrows with its talons.
The phrases “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and “ONE DOLLAR” rainbow on the top and bottom of the reverse, with six-point stars separating the phrases on both sides of the face.
“IN GOD WE TRUST” lies in horizontal alignment under the top phrasing above the eagle’s head, popping off the coin in a divergent Old English font.
Mint marks for New Orleans and San Francisco can be found in extremely small type just beneath the wreath which half circles the bottom of the eagle as a sort of frame.
Errors and Variations
An 1886-O Morgan silver dollar once auctioned for a staggering $140,000 at auction back in the late 1990s thanks to its place as one of the few MS-65 graded 1886 Morgan silver dollars to have hit general auction.
It’s interesting to note that there were over 10 million 1886 Morgan silver dollars minted in New Orleans, which makes such scarcity more wondrous and impressive.
The real collector’s gem in the series, though, are 1886-S Morgan silver dollars.
Two years before, 3.2 million Morgan silver dollars were minted in San Francisco.
That number was sliced by more than half (1,497,000) in 1885 and in half again for 1886, with only 750,000 minted at the West Coast mainstay.
This makes “S” mint-marked 1886 Morgan silver dollars a rarity on the market.
In average condition, and 1886-S Morgan silver dollar trades for about five times the value of a normal 1886 Morgan silver dollar.
Another key rarity are proofs of the 1886 Morgan silver dollar, with only 886 of them struck at the Philadelphia Mint.
The cameo contrast on surviving examples is usually pretty low because of the age, but these beauties remain a collector’s diamond selling in the mid- to high thousands depending on overall condition.
Grading and Condition Issues
Grading a late 19th Century United States coin can be extremely tough work with natural oxidization and repeated handling leaving some in extremely muddled shape.
The nice thing about a Morgan silver dollar is that it’s much larger and has much more defined detail tells than most United States coinage from the period, allowing for easier grading when all is said and done.
For circulated 1886 Morgan silver dollars, the biggest grading tell is the condition of Liberty’s multiple hairlines on the obverse of the coin.
For a Morgan silver dollar to hit the top of the circulated grading scale (Extremely Fine, 40-45), all of Liberty’s hairlines must have strong definition to them. In addition, her ear must show and have similar detail strength.
As her hairlines lose definition, the coin loses ground on the grading scale.
A Very Fine (VF-20) 1886 Morgan silver dollar will have two-thirds of its hairlines showing, with less and less detail to the hairlines dropping the coin’s overall condition.
One extra tell for circulated 1886 Morgan silver dollars is the overall detail sharpness of the eagle’s breast and wing tips on the reverse.
If there is just slight wear on both, you may have a coin in really solid condition.
However, the worse they look, the worse condition your coin is likely in.
In regards to uncirculated 1886 Morgan silver dollars, the real money comes in at Choice Uncirculated (MS-65) and above.
For a coin to reach that pinnacle, only a light amount of scattered contact marks are allowed.
They cannot distract or detract from the coin’s mint luster, which must still be strong and have solid eye appeal.
The uncirculated value scale for the 1886 Morgan silver dollar isn’t exactly that of a collector’s paradise.
Consider that the silver melt value for the coin is $12.70 and an 1886 Morgan silver dollar at the top of the circulated grading spectrum trades for just over three times that.
For a normal 1886 Morgan silver dollar to have a strong collector’s value attached, it needs to be an uncirculated piece graded at 65 or higher.
The jump between an MS-60 and MS-65 Morgan dollar is exponential, with coins graded even higher than that sometimes auctioning in the high hundreds and thousands.
Such coins are definitely hard to find, though, considering the series was issued over 130 years ago.
The real collector’s breakthroughs are the few proof coins left circling the market, with prices sitting at just over $4,000 for these at the time of this writing.
Good (G-4): $20.00
Very Good (VG-8): $26.00
Fine: (F-12): $31.00
Very Fine (VF-20): $37.00
Extremely Fine (EF-40): $40.00
About Uncirculated (AU-50): $42.00
Uncirculated (MS-60): $51.00
Choice Uncirculated (MS-65): $185.00
Proof (PF-63): $4,124.00