USA Coin Album: Transitional Pairs — Part Four

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 6/12/2013

David's look at transitional pairs — coins of the same denomination struck with different designs in a single year — continues this month. Strictly speaking, the standard silver dollar of 412.5 grains and the trade dollar of 420 grains are unrelated coin issues, but most collectors don’t make this distinction.

In 1873 Congress finally terminated several denominations no longer considered necessary to commerce, and among these was the Seated Liberty silver dollar coined since 1840. It was discontinued in favor of a coin similar in size but having a higher silver content that would make it competitive in the Far East trade against the popular Mexican eight-reales coin.

The last Seated Liberty dollars were those coined early in 1873 at the Philadelphia and Carson City Mints (there’s a mintage report of 700 San Francisco Mint dollars, too, but these are unknown today and may represent simply a bookkeeping entry of 1872-S dollars). The new trade dollar bore an entirely new design by Chief Engraver William Barber depicting Liberty seated upon bales of cotton and other American agricultural wealth, her outstretched hand beckoning to distant shores. The eagle is nearly a mirror image of that on the previous dollar, sans shield, but Barber repeated the mistake of the Mint’s early years in placing the arrows of war in the eagle’s dexter claw. To make no mistake about the coin’s value, its exact weight and fineness was specified on the reverse.

The first pieces were coined July 11 and began to circulate in China by the fall of 1873. All three mints struck millions of trade dollars over the next several years, but 1873’s production was modest by comparison. Collectors seeking to own examples of both silver dollar types dated 1873 should focus on the Philadelphia Mint Seated Liberty dollar, as the CC Mint coins are quite rare. For the trade dollar, the Philly and Frisco dollars are of about equal availability, though the S Mint pieces are more scarce unworn.

Coining of the trade dollar for circulation was suspended early in 1878 in favor of a new standard dollar and then terminated altogether shortly thereafter. Because the coins’ domestic legal tender status had been revoked in 1876, holders of these coins could not redeem them for face value, and they quickly became a nuisance and a source of much resentment in commerce. Philadelphia struck proofs alone in 1878, while only the San Francisco Mint, as the main port of embarkation for Asia, struck large quantities. To assemble a transitional pair with the new standard silver dollar introduced that year, collectors will almost certainly acquire the 1878-S trade dollar. More than four million were coined, and this date is readily available in all grades through the lower range of Mint State (the 1878-CC trade dollar is an expensive rarity).

Fierce lobbying efforts by the silver mining interests of America’s western states and territories forced passage of the Bland-Allison Act February 28, 1878, and this mandated the coining of millions of standard dollars annually. The resulting coin carried Special Engraver George T. Morgan’s handsome bust of Liberty on its obverse and an eagle seemingly held at gunpoint on its reverse. In 1878 alone, the three active mints struck more than 22 million of these Morgan dollars. There are several distinctive varieties, particularly for the Philadelphia Mint coins, but pieces from any of the three mints are readily available in most grades and will make a fine display alongside the ill-fated trade dollar of 1878.

The Morgan dollar would again become half of a transitional pair in 1921. Though bullion purchases for silver dollar coinage were cut off in 1893, with the resulting metal finally running out eleven years later, those silver dollars dated 1904 would not be the last. The same powerful mining interests which forced the coining of unneeded and unwanted silver dollars in 1878 scored again with the Pittman Act of 1918. It called for the melting of several hundred million silver dollars to provide bullion for stabilizing that metal’s price at a time of inflation, but it also specified that these coins were to be replaced after the crisis had passed with an equal number coined from newly purchased, domestically mined bullion. It was in 1921 that this massive recoinage began, and the first 86 million silver dollars struck that year bore a revival of Morgan’s old design. The mints at Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco all produced substantial numbers.

With the signing of a peace treaty between the United States and Germany that same year, a campaign arose to commemorate this event on the silver dollar. In a whirlwind design competition, Antonio de Francisci’s entry was adopted with some minor revisions. The dies for this coin, however, were not ready until the final week of that year, and the Philadelphia Mint alone produced just over a million examples before the calendar turned. The new dollar featured a youthful, flowing haired Liberty reminiscent of the earliest USA coins, paired with a fierce eagle perched atop a mountain peak.

Examples of both the Morgan and Peace silver dollars of 1921 are readily available in all grades through the gem level, and they make for an especially popular pairing. The Peace dollars of that year are in much higher relief than the later pieces, and they represent a unique type coin in their own right.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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