The NGC Universal ID is a four digit alphanumeric that groups coins based on a unique combination of date, mintmark, denomination and striking process (MS, PF, or SP). These IDs are a simple organization of all coins prior to variety attribution and grading.
As one studies 19th century American numismatics more and more, it becomes increasingly obvious how closely intertwined the silver lobby was with certain issues. Two examples that immediately come to mind are the creation of the essentially useless (not to mention confusing) twenty cent piece as an alleged outlet for Comstock silver, and the Sherman Silver Act of 1892 and the subsequent fall from favor of silver dollars as an outlet for these same lobbying interests, leading to the minuscule production of Morgan dollars in the mid-1890s. But underlying the swings in both directions of these special interest and political policy decisions was the Bland-Allison Act of 1878.
When the Comstock Lode was discovered in the late 1850s by Henry T. P. Comstock, a.k.a. 'Old Pancake,' a veritable mountain of silver was mined and dropped onto world markets. As a result, the market price for silver as reckoned in gold dollars dropped significantly. The western mining interests had powerful friends in Congress, and by 1878 Rep. Richard P. 'Silver Dick' Bland and Sen. William Boyd Allison came to the rescue of the mine owners by passing a bill that required the Treasury to purchase between $2 and $4 million of new domestic silver each month. This enormous amount of silver was then mandated to be turned into silver dollars, as silver dollars were heavier than two half dollars, four quarters, or ten dimes.
Enactment of the Bland-Allison Act effectively required that the various mints cease any meaningful or useful production of the minor coinage that the commercial interests needed nationwide. Instead, in order to meet the mandated number of silver dollars required by the Bland-Allison Act, the various mints diverted most of their energies to striking silver dollars-coins that were not needed in the channels of commerce, and many of which sat in government vaults until the 1960s. It was in this chaotic and politically charged milieu that the 1878-S half dollars were (or rather were not) struck.
All one has to do is review the mintage figures for 1878 to see how the mint's energies were diverted from necessary to politically motivated coinage. In that year, the San Francisco mint produced 140,000 quarters, 1/64th of the number it turned out the previous year. Only 12,000 half dollars were struck, whereas 5.3 million pieces had been minted in 1877. But a staggering 13.8 million silver dollars were stamped out, including both Trade and Morgan designs. The 1878-S is a key issue to a set of Seated Liberty half dollars, and it is one that is rarely seen on the market as most examples are locked up in major collections. Of the 12,000 pieces struck, only 60 or so are believed extant today in all grades. For most 19th century U.S. issues, the attrition rate was high, but a rough rule of thumb is around 1% of the mintage may still be known today in all grades. Given that the number of 60 pieces is accurate, that would indicate a percentage of survivors of only 0.005 %. This number also indicates that half dollars were indeed needed for commercial needs in the west in the late 1870s, and the few that were produced in 1878 were simply 'worn out' from circulation.
All 1878-S half dollars were produced from a single pair of dies. As one might imagine, counterfeits have been made and mintmarks added to 'create' this important key. However, authentication is relatively easy. All genuine 1878-S halves show a die chip (or raised lump) high in the recessed area between the left edge of the reverse shield and the first set of vertical stripes. Since this lump is located in a recessed area, it is also visible on coins in very low grades.
Of the surviving specimens, approximately a quarter, or some 16 pieces, are known in the AU58-MS64 grade range. The remaining examples are AU58 or lower, with the circulated population fairly evenly divided between Fine to AU, and Fair to VG.
Description and Analysis courtesy of Heritage Auctions and may not be republished without written permission.
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