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In early 1878, the Morgan dollars were issued with eight tail feathers as part of the reverse design. The popular nugget goes that naturalists immediately informed the Mint that they had committed a grave design error, and that eagles' tails have a central feather with equal numbers of feathers on either side, thus they must have an odd number of tail feathers. The legend continues that the Mint quickly changed the design to one with seven tail feathers, although they could have just as easily chosen nine tail feathers. Q. David Bowers writes in Silver Dollars and Trade Dollars of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia that numismatic researcher Eric P. Newman, to assist with Bowers' manuscript, contacted the Raptor Center in St. Louis. Newman discovered that most birds of prey, including the American bald eagle, have 12 tail feathers! Bowers writes further that various evidence indicates that designer George T. Morgan planned to use seven tail feathers from the very beginning, but that the dies were prepared in haste without attention to minute details: hence the various tail-feathered varieties of 1878; and that in reality, the dies with seven tail feathers have many more minute differences than merely a different number of tail feathers, apparently aesthetic tweaks on Morgan's part.
The 8 Tail Feathers reverse was used only in 1878, the first year of the Morgan design, making this issue extremely important to type collectors.
Description and Analysis courtesy of Heritage Auctions and may not be republished without written permission.
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