USA Coin Album: A Tale of Two Coins — Part Two

Posted on 10/9/2018

San Francisco produced nearly ten million Morgan Dollars in 1878.

Last month, I took a look at the trade dollars coined by the San Francisco Mint during that issue's final year of mass production. As in 1873, there were actually two types of silver dollars coined for 1878. While in the earlier year it was the trade dollar superseding the standard dollar, during 1878 the trade dollar was phased out simultaneously with the commencement of a new standard dollar series.

This time out I'll take a look at the 1878-S Morgan dollar, the first of many millions that would emanate from the San Francisco Mint over more than 40 years.

While the Philadelphia Mint was struggling to perfect dies for George T. Morgan's dollar design, creating no fewer than three reverse master hubs in the process, San Francisco received its first dies and collars for the new coin type April 16, 1878. These dies exhibited the second reverse hub on which the eagle had a flat or slightly concave breast and seven tail feathers. In addition, all display a small S mintmark that was not again used for Morgan dollars. The entire mintage of 9,774,000 1878-S silver dollars would be from reverse dies having these characteristics, and a small portion of the 1879-S coinage also used these leftover reverse dies, creating a scarce variety in the process.

Of the ten die pairs shipped to San Francisco April 8, that mint's coiner declared three of the obverses and eight of the reverse dies unsuitable for striking! Production nevertheless commenced April 17 using the remaining dies, and 36 additional die pairs were shipped west in June, all of these still featuring the second style reverse and a small S mintmark. Not noticed until almost a century later is that a few of the reverse dies bore a distinctive peculiarity. Typically, for Morgan dollars having the second style reverse, the central arrow shaft projects only as far as its junction with the feathers. On just a few of the 1878-S reverse dies, however, this "nock" is extended well beyond the feather bases. These "long nock" varieties are quite scarce, comprising Van Allen-Mallis [VAM] varieties 26, 27, 56 through 60, 62 and 72. All are unique to 1878-S and are highly prized by Morgan dollar variety collectors. It's worth noting that the third reverse style, which in 1878 was used only at the Philadelphia Mint, incorporated a similar feature into the hub. It's likely that the extended nock was hand cut on the older style dies used for 1878-S dollars.

Normal knock (left), Long knock (right)
Click images to enlarge.

Given this date's high mintage, plus the fact that many thousands remained unused in vaults for decades, Mint State examples are plentiful today. Most are in lower grades ranging from MS 60 through 63, but gems grading MS 65 are obtainable at a reasonable price. Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) has certified more than 4,000 1878-S dollars at this grade, as well as far lesser numbers up to the grade of MS 67. The San Francisco Mint silver dollars dated 1878-82 are also fairly plentiful when displaying reflective, prooflike fields, with more than 200 1878-S examples certified by NGC as MS 65 PL. Far more rare are those having deeply prooflike fields (designated DPL). NGC has graded only about a couple dozen such pieces as MS 65 DPL, and these coins bring very strong premiums.

Given that the western states and territories scarcely used paper money before World War I, countless worn 1878-S dollars are also known. Though most westerners became accustomed to paper money after the Treasury restricted the issue of gold coins in 1917, states such as Montana, Idaho and Nevada still used silver dollars in daily commerce as late as 1964. Extremely worn 1878-S dollars were recovered from casino hoards after the coins passed from general circulation, but these are valued at only a modest premium over their bullion value.

The year 1878 was indeed one of two different dollar coins, and both of the San Francisco Mint issues are readily collectable. Their combined mintages amounted to nearly 14 million coins, though the attrition rate for both types was quite high. The Treasury Department finally agreed to redeem non-mutilated trade dollars at full face value in 1887, and some 7,689,036 pieces were recovered in this amnesty and later recoined into both standard silver dollars and fractional silver coins. The standard silver dollars coined starting in 1878 were subjected to their own mass melting in 1918-20 under the Pittman Act (270,232,722 pieces destroyed). More than 53 million additional standard dollars succumbed in 1942 to provide silver for the Manhattan Project that created America's first atomic bombs.

How many of the trade dollars and Morgan dollars melted in these massacres were dated 1878-S is unknown, but there appear to be enough survivors to delight collectors. Displaying examples of the two issues side by side is bound to launch an interesting discussion.

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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