USA Coin Album: Silver Dollar Memories

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 10/12/2009

This month, David W. Lange shares some memories from his early days of coin collecting. Read on for the full story.

It was my pleasure to review the manuscript for Roger Burdette’s fine book on Peace Dollars and add my comments. The finished product is everything I had hoped it would be, and I wish him much success with it. While on the subject of silver dollars, I’d like to relate a few observations and anecdotes about these coins and the role they’ve played in my collecting history.

I missed out on getting silver dollars in circulation by just a couple of years, as I began collecting coins around 1965. Though other silver coins dating back to 1940 or so were still common then, the big dollars were already being hoarded for their silver value. (The bullion value of silver dollars equaled their face value at just $1.29 / ounce. Fractional silver coins didn’t suffer this fate until the price rose to $1.38, and that didn’t occur until a couple years after the introduction of clad coins.)

The price of silver was not the only cause for the disappearance of silver dollars from circulation. The coins had been obtainable from the US Treasury as late as March of 1964, but the great run on Treasury stocks that had begun in the late 1950s made it obvious that these coins were being taken for their collector value rather than for any legitimate currency need. The sole exception to this situation was found in the gambling casinos of Nevada, where silver dollars were still widely used on gaming tables and in “one-armed bandit” slot machines. Soon, these too were being taken home by customers instead of being cashed in at the end of play. As the casinos found themselves increasingly unable to replace the lost dollars, they briefly resorted to filing off the coins’ dates in a desperate attempt to destroy their appeal as collector items. This did little to slow the withdrawal of silver dollars, since it was becoming evident to nearly everyone that the coins would soon be worth more than a dollar for their silver content alone. The replacement of one-dollar silver certificates with Federal Reserve notes in 1963 only confirmed what the public already suspected.

Like many families of the time, mine had a few silver dollars around the house as I was growing up. Though my mother clearly remembered silver dollars being in everyday circulation in San Francisco during the 1950s, she had neither the interest nor the means to set them aside when they were needed to buy groceries. Instead, the coins that survived had been given to me and my brother as holiday gifts and whenever one of my relatives returned from a gambling vacation in Reno, just a few hours drive away. Mine were put away secretly by my parents, since I was considered too young to have so much money in my hands. I had been collecting coins for a couple of years before I learned of this inheritance, which consisted of about a dozen mixed Morgan and Peace dollars.

After expressing my shock that this fact had been withheld from me despite my obvious interest in old coins, I began to study what the hoard contained. As I recall, the roster included circulated Philadelphia Mint dollars of 1879, 1887, 1889, 1891, 1896, 1897, 1921 Morgan type (of course), 1922 (inevitably) and 1923. The remaining coins, as I remember, were 1922-D and 1926-S. This was clearly not the Redfield Hoard, nor was it going to be easy to complete either the Morgan or Peace series with this foundation. Since my brother had given up coin collecting a few years earlier, I saw no harm in secretly swapping out a couple of my duplicates for ones in his assortment, and so I thus obtained 1921-D and 1922-S dollars for my small collection.

Always one to do things in a grand manner, I purchased all five folders needed to hold the complete series of silver dollars 1878-1935, even though a couple of these would each feature only one of my pieces! The coin department at the Woolworth store, my only source for numismatica at the time, wanted $3 apiece for worn silver dollars, and it soon became evident that continuing this collection was an impossible goal for a ten-year-old. Realizing that I could better apply my funds toward my sets of Buffalo nickels and Mercury dimes, I determined to sell these useless silver dollars. A fellow who worked with my father was a vest-pocket coin dealer, and he came to the house one evening to look over the accumulation. I was very proud of myself when I negotiated a price of $2.25 per coin, my first experience as a coin dealer. This sale also included my brother’s silver dollars, as he too had little use for the coins but plenty of ideas for the money they brought.

In the 40 years since that evening, I’ve put together two or three nearly complete sets of Morgan and Peace dollars in various grade ranges. In my latest venture, I’ve tried to assemble complete sets of evenly worn, problem-free coins grading Fine or Very Fine and having matching color. Most dates have been easy to obtain, but the real stoppers have been 1897(P) and 1925(P), both of which seem to have never circulated enough to reach those grades.

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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