The Coinage of 1921, Part Three

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 12/1/2004

The Pittman Act of 1918 mandated that the millions of silver dollars melted under that legislation be replaced after the war with new ones struck from newly-mined, domestic silver...

David Lange

The Pittman Act of 1918 mandated that the millions of silver dollars melted under that legislation be replaced after the war with new ones struck from newly-mined, domestic silver. The language was very specific on that point, as legislators from the western states wanted to support their local industry. While members of veterans groups and the American Numismatic Association campaigned for a new type of silver dollar commemorating the war's end, the U. S. Mint was forced to push ahead with coinage using the old Morgan type of 1878.

It was not anticipated that any such coins would ever again be struck after production ceased in 1904, so in 1910 the Philadelphia Mint's engraving department destroyed the master hubs and models for the silver dollar. George T. Morgan, now the Mint's chief engraver, had to thus recreate his own work from scratch in 1921. The resulting coins, while clearly of the same design, display subtle differences from the dollars last minted in 1904. Perhaps the most notable distinctions are that the eagle's breast is flat and the topmost arrowfeather is parallel to the others. Both of these features were typical of the first Morgan dollars coined early in 1878, before the hubs were revised that same year, so it seems that Morgan must have worked from his original drawings or from an actual coin of the first emission.

Less obvious distinctions include larger stars on the reverse, plus a few revisions to Liberty's portrait. Her hair is now more deeply incised, though the separation line between her hair and face is less pronounced. She has lost her eyelash, as well as a bit of fat from the underside of her chin. The Victorian ideal of a plump face evidently succumbed to the slimmer fashion of the Roaring '20s!

All three mints active at that time turned out many millions of Morgan dollars in 1921 before the new Peace design was ready. Most quickly went into long-term storage, so none of these coins are scarce in uncirculated condition. While most of the Philadelphia Mint 1921 dollars are fairly well struck, this is seldom the case for those of the Denver and San Francisco Mints. The latter, in particular, are usually found with soft overall impressions. The P-Mint dollars, when softly struck, are more likely to be weak around their peripheries, much like the dimes, quarters and halves of this date. Luster for all three mints varies from prooflike when the dies were fresh, satiny as they began to wear, down to fully frosty as a consequence of erosion and the resulting flowlines. The deeply prooflike surfaces seen on earlier Morgan dollar are very rare for the 1921 issue.

The Peace dollar design was not approved until December of 1921, yet the Philadelphia Mint managed to produce just over a million examples in the final weeks of the year. The high relief of the dies resulted in rapid die failure, so the set distance between the dies was increased to reduce stress. This left most of the coins with incomplete strikes, those having strong centers usually revealing flat lettering at the borders, while ones displaying full rims and legends suffered weak hair detail around Liberty's ear.

Though proof coins were not being offered to the general public at that time, a number of proofs are known of both the Morgan and Peace dollars dated 1921. Coined at the whim of George Morgan himself, he placed these coins with prominent Philadelphia dealer Henry Chapman, who distributed them discretely to wealthy collectors.

The Morgan dollar "Chapman proofs" have mirrorlike fields and satiny devices. They are clearly not of the quality seen in the publicly-offered proofs of 1878-1904, yet the few pristine survivors are quite beautiful. Also offered in the marketplace are the so-called "Zerbe proofs," these allegedly having been produced at the behest of prominent numismatist Farran Zerbe. While a number of these coins have been certified, there is not universal agreement that they are proofs rather than simply first strikes from fresh dies. In either case, they are certainly worthy of a premium for their superior quality as compared to the typical 1921 dollar.

The only remaining denomination coined for general circulation in 1921 was the double eagle. Though more than a half million pieces were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, it is evident now that most never left the Treasury or the federal reserve banks. We know this because only a few dozen pieces survive today, the others having succumbed to President Franklin Roosevelt's demonetization and withdrawal of gold coinage. With many of the surviving coins being lightly worn, it's a bit hard to determine how this issue looked as made. Though nearly all seen are sharply struck, their luster varies from satiny to frosty, with the latter predominating.

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

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