In order to understand the Morgan dollar and the reasons for its existence, one must look to events that took place in 1878, prior to the striking of the first of the “new standard dollars.” The silver industry—and U.S. economy as a whole—suffered a severe blow when Germany dumped silver in the world market, and another when the Coinage Act of 1873 demonetized silver. With a subsequent boom in silver mining, the price of metal dropped as the supply grew. Advocates of a new coin argued that by
expanding the nation’s money supply through the use of readily available silver, the
nation’s economic problems could be solved. After four years without silver dollars, the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 reauthorized these coins.
An engraver named George T. Morgan was selected to design the new silver dollar. Morgan set out to find a model for the obverse—a woman with classical features that he could model Miss Liberty after. He soon met Anna W. Williams, a schoolteacher who he deemed had the perfect profile for this
The obverse of the coin depicts a portrait of Miss Liberty, facing left. She is wearing a liberty cap over which is a wreath of oak leaves, cotton bolls, and wheat ears. In front of the wreath the
word “liberty” is written across a slight coronet. Her hair is partially coiled in a style that was popular with women in the early 1880s. There are seven stars at the left rim, and six at the right. A small “M” can be found on the base of the portrait, representing Morgan himself.
The reverse features an eagle, looking to the right, its massive wings raised as if preparing to take flight. A highly stylized bird, it conveys a sense of prestige and strength. It holds an olive branch in its right talon, and three arrows in its left. A laurel wreath frames the eagle, extending from wing to wing. Composed of 90% silver, the Mint mark, if one is present, is below the wreath.
While the above features have remained constant throughout the years, there have been essentially three main variations of the reverse used in the Morgan Dollar series. In the first reverse design, the breast of the eagle is flat and concave and the eagle has eight tail feathers. This design was utilized only in 1878. The second reverse design depicts the breast of the eagle as still flat and concave, but the eagle exhibits only seven tail feathers and has parallel
arrows. This design was used for the majority of other 1878 silver dollars, and for some 1879-S and 1880-CC dollars. A subcategory of the second reverse is the 7/8 tail feather design. This is where the seven tail feathers were stamped over the original 8 tail feathers.
This iconic coin was only minted from 1878 to 1904 and was minted again for one year in 1921. A symbol of the American West, the Morgan Dollar represents the growth of the United States and is the cornerstone of early American commerce.