USA Coin Album: The Morgan Silver Dollars of 1921

Posted on 1/11/2022

A centennial retrospective puts the 2021 Morgan Dollars in perspective.

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated of the US Mint’s 2021 coin releases were the silver dollars commemorating the 1921 transition from the Morgan dollar to the Peace dollar. As was true a century ago, both types were struck in a single year, though this time they were non-circulating commemorative issues.

I’ve written before that I’m not a fan of coins or medals that rehash older coin types, rather than creating new designs that are truly inspiring and relevant to their own time. I view the revival of old coins as a too-easy way to raise money by playing on collectors’ sentimental attachment to earlier issues. It’s forgivable when coin clubs do it with their medal programs or third-world countries have them produced by commercial mints as non-circulating coins, but it seems a step backward when government mints follow suit.

This said, I thought about buying examples of each 2021 silver dollar, assuming that they would be as handsome as the images of the models released by the US Mint. The 2006-S silver dollar and half eagle produced to honor the Old San Francisco Mint utilized the reverse designs of those denominations that were current a century earlier, but the resulting coins were amateurish imitations of the originals. The US Mint seemed committed to reproducing the 1921 designs more accurately this time, though I was ultimately disappointed with the Morgan issues, which are no improvement over the 2006 entry.

To appreciate the 2021 Morgan Dollars more fully, it’s helpful to look at the final edition struck for circulation in 1921. The Pittman Act of 1918 had mandated the destruction of millions of silver dollars, the resulting bullion being loaned to Britain to prevent ruinous speculation in its important crown colony of India. That law called for the replacement of these lost silver dollars with coins struck from newly-mined, domestic silver after the crisis passed.

It wasn’t until the spring of 1921 that silver dollars were once again coined following a 17-year hiatus. There was talk of creating a new design to mark the recently-signed peace treaty ending the state of war between the United States and Germany, but new dollars were needed immediately, so production commenced using the design last struck in 1904.

Mint Director A. Piatt Andrew had ordered the destruction of all obsolete hubs and dies in 1910, so the master hubs for George T. Morgan’s 1878 dollar design were lost. Morgan, now the Mint’s chief engraver, meticulously recreated his design in 1921 using actual coins as the starting point. Some differences are evident when the 1921 dollars are compared to those of 1878-1904. The more obvious of these include a shallower portrait having more distinctly incised hairlines, and noticeably larger stars on the reverse acting as legend stops.

The 1921 Morgan Dollars are notable for often being less than fully struck. This is not a flaw of the new hubs, but rather it’s reflective of the generally lax quality control exercised by US Mints during the 1920s. The Philadelphia and Denver Mints struck many sharp examples as well, but those of the San Francisco Mint typically are quite softly struck overall from worn dies. Fortunately, each of these mints struck many millions of 1921-dated Morgan Dollars, most of which lingered unused within vaults for decades, so gems are affordable for all three issues.

1921(P) Morgan Dollar
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1921-D Morgan Dollar
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1921-S Morgan Dollar

Differences in striking quality and surface texture are evident in the 1921 Morgan Dollars of all three mints.
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Frequently mentioned by collectors and numismatic writers is that the 1921-S dollars display a “Micro S” mintmark similar in size (though not style) to that used for 1878-S and some 1879-S Morgan Dollars. It is indeed small relative to the “S” mintmarks seen on most dollars dated 1879-S and those dated 1880-1904, but it is of the standard size and style employed for all denominations of San Francisco Mint coins dated 1917-41; it just looks too small for a silver dollar. Denver’s “D” mintmark is likewise tiny on 1921 dollars, but there are no earlier issues against which to compare it.

The S mintmark indeed looks “micro” on 1921-S dollars yet this was the standard punch for San Francisco coins dated 1917-41.
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Collecting Morgan Dollars by varieties is popular using the designations initiated by co-authors Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis. Their names are contracted to VAM for numbering these varieties, and the most interesting ones for 1921 Morgan Dollars are those Philadelphia Mint pieces that were coined with distinctive retaining collars. They have much broader edge reeding, with a resulting lower reed count, and it’s likely that these were intended for the striking of foreign coins. Assigned the awkward name of “infrequently reeded” dollars, they comprise several die pairs each having its own VAM number.

Other varieties are known, but they are of interest solely to VAM specialists. These include a number of 1921(P) dollars having “pitted die” reverses that reveal spalling of the die face. Other oddities sought by VAM collectors include assorted flaws of one type or another that, strictly speaking, are just die states rather than true varieties. All of the 1921-D and 1921-S VAM listings are comprised of die breaks or other flaws associated with die erosion and die states and are thus of limited interest to general collectors. More information may be found at the website vamworld.

This 1921-D dollar reveals extreme weakness in the wreath.
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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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