silver dollars of the United States of America

McIlvaine, Arthur D.
Numismatic Notes and Monographs
American Numismatic Society
New York
Worldcat Works




Open access edition funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Humanities Open Book Program.


Table of Contents




By Arthur D. McIlvaine


No apology need be offered in introducing a subject as important as that of our own National Coinage—or even this one class of coins ... the Silver Dollar.

The apology comes with the writer's realization of his inadequacy to do more than a small measure of justice to so worthy a subject. Perhaps this present attempt will stimulate another who would be more competent to seize the full value and the far perspective of the topic and present it in its fullest significance.

Presented here are results of the writer's twelve-year investigations of Mint Records and Congressional publications ... studies of many collections, including his own ... examinations of auction catalogs ... and a vast amount of reading at libraries including that at The American Numismatic Society where always there was found sympathetic under- standing and real helpfulness in pursuit of facts. It is, therefore, a pleasure to acknowledge obligation to Sydney P. Noe, Secretary of the Society; and to Sawyer McA. Mosser, Librarian, for their advice and assistance.

Acknowledgment is made also to the Office of the Director of the Mint, Washington ... the Superintendent of the Mint, Philadelphia ... the National Museum, Washington ... and Mr. F. C. C. Boyd for general information on our coinage of Silver Dollars; and to the Massachusetts Historical Society ... the Omaha Museum ... Mr. Farran Zerbe ... Mr. William C. Atwater, Jr. ... Mr. Wayte Raymond ... the Chase National Bank ... and Mr. B. Max Mehl for specific information on the various 1804 Dollars. To my friend and fellow numismatist Don Graf I am indebted for the excellent photography of all the coins illustrated excepting only the 1804 Dollars which were obviously not available.

Arthur D. Mcllvaine
New York,
August 1941


Our United States silver dollar is assuming much more importance numismatically now that economists point to the probability that this famous denomination will not be coined again. The reason for this forecast, though complex, will appear.

Mint records show that more than 855 ½ million silver dollars have been struck since their coinage began in 1794. At the present time there are approximately 500 million of them held by the United States Treasury; and close to 29 million "in circulation" which means they are in Federal Reserve Banks, other banks, in the hands of collectors, and actually circulating.

West of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio they are in fairly common use; and they are preferred by the transient laborers in several sections of the West.

At no time an entirely popular coin due to its size and weight, never-the-less the silver dollar attained a tremendous circulation because of a real monetary necessity during the periods of our greatest territorial settlement and development. More than once the silver dollar has been exploited politically. And, during the years of its greatest annual-average coinage, it proved to a surprised Secretary of the Treasury that our people can not be forced to use coins that are unwieldy and inconvenient.

It is highly interesting numismatically to trace the history of this monetary paradox if for no other reason than that its intermittent coinage and changing types give glimpses at our national development that are not completely visible in other kinds of histories.

"Dollars or units—each to be of the value of a Spanish milled dollar as the same is now current, and to contain three hundred and seventy one grains and four sixteenth parts of a grain of pure, or four hundred and sixteen grains of standard silver." Thus did the Act of April 2,1792, establishing our currency system, provide for the unit of silver money "for the public convenience."

It is easy to understand why the dollar was based on the Spanish silver piece. This was always among the coins brought freely to the Colonies by buccaneers, West Indies traders and travelers. The Colonists' great need for a recognized medium of exchange—and a fairly dependable supply—was one reason for its general circulation; and the heavy charges for minting kept it away from the few privately-operated mints in the Colonies.


There was no snap judgment or accident about the first coinage of dollars. It is doubtful that in all the World's history there has been a group of men of greater mental brilliancy, singleness of purpose and sheer unselfishness than the one which spent nearly a quarter-century formulating and putting into operation the plans for our national economic and political life.

The Morris Report

After due consideration for the relative merits of a silver standard, a gold standard and a bimetallic one, Robert Morris, Superintendent of Finance, reported on January 15, 1782 to the Congress of the Confederation, "Gold is more valuable than silver and so far must have the preference, but it is from that very circumstance the more exposed to fraudulent practices. Its value rendering it more portable is an advantage, but it is an advantage which paper possesses in a much greater degree and of consequence the commercial nation of England has the recourse to paper for the purpose of its trade; although the mass of circulating coin is gold. It will always be in our power to carry a paper circulation to every proper extent. There can be no doubt, therefore, that our money standard ought to be affixed to silver."

For our new coinage, he urged the decimal system because of its simplicity, shrewdly commenting, "Whenever such things (figuring prices and making change) required labor, time and reflection, the greater number who do not know are made the dupes of the lesser number who do." He found the Spanish silver dollar the coin coming nearest to a general standard throughout the Colonies. He did not favor coining the unit of silver—the dollar. Wrote Morris, "No coin of this size would need to be coined because it is sufficient that the value of the unit be precisely known."

About this time, Thomas Jefferson prepared some notes on "The Establishment of a Money Unit and of a Coinage for the United States." He, too, favored the Spanish milled dollar as the monetary unit and suggested dividing it into tenths and hundredths. These expressions of opinion, together with others, became the basis of a unanimous vote of approval by the Congress of the Confederation on July 6, 1785 that, "... the money unit of the United States of America be one dollar ..." Five years later both Jefferson and Hamilton favored a gold standard because it had "a fixed price by weight and with an eye to its fineness" which was obvious at a time when the Spanish silver dollar under consideration possessed neither a standard of weight nor of fineness.

The National Government Takes Action

As would be expected, all these opinions, reports, ordinances, etc., were made the basis for consideration of a currency by the National Government when it met in 1789. Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, soon was required to "Report a proper plan or plans for the establishment of a National Mint," which he did in January 1791. Showing a remarkable understanding of the principles of monetary science, he considered, among many other questions, the varying weights of fine silver in the many issues of the Spanish dollar and found they averaged somewhere between 368 and 374 grains. He finally concluded that, "the unit in the coins of the United States ought to correspond with 24 grains and ¾ of a grain of pure gold and with 371 grains and ¼ grain of pure silver each answering to a dollar in the money of account." His figuring also included the existing market price ratio of gold to silver (at that time 15 to 1); by multiplying the fine gold equivalent of the dollar by 15, he arrived at 371¼ grains for silver which was also about the average of the Spanish dollar. So the ratio was considered to be 15 to 1 for all coinage purposes.

The result of Hamilton's recommendations, and of Congressional discussion, was that the first coinage law—the Act of April 2, 1792—gave us units of both gold and of silver, thus committing us to bimetallism. The reasons may have appeared sufficient at that time—gold was best suited for the development of our foreign trade while silver was for domestic use.

Thus was our silver dollar launched upon its unhappy career.


During the one hundred forty-seven years since our silver dollar coinage began there have been only six different major types.* What makes these so interesting to collectors is the large number of minor variations to many of the basic six designs.

Hamilton's broad and masterly plan for our coin- age left to the Congress, perhaps wisely, many minor details. One of these was the design of the coins; and this precipitated a bitter "debate" between the Senate, which wanted an image of Washington on the obverse, and the House, which wanted a figure emblematic of liberty. The House prevailed and ordered that, "upon one side of each of said coins there shall be an impression emblematic of liberty with an inscription of the word LIBERTY and the year of the coinage; and upon the reverse of each of the gold and silver coins there shall be a figure or representation of an eagle with the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA ..."

Otherwise the designing of the coinage was left largely to the judgment of the mint officers and particularly to the artists and engravers.


Early records of the first mint are not detailed enough to indicate the creator of the first dollar design. Joseph Wright, Robert Scot (or Scott), Henry Voight and John S. Gardner appear on payrolls as engravers; while Moritz Furst and John Eckstein were outsiders who did work for the Mint. Any one of them could have created the design for the 1794 dollar, as most were "artists" as well. (See Plate.)

Liberty's head on this 1794 obverse is evidently a poor copy from the portrait on the medal by the eminent Dupré, struck to commemorate the Saratoga and Yorktown victories. The eagle on the reverse lacks realism. The weakness in the design of this first dollar is undoubtedly due as much to the lack of any authentic descriptions from which to work as to the lack of that imagination which later gave strength and beauty to the designs. Striking improvements in design began when the later issues of 1795 showed the newly conceived "fillet" head of Liberty. This design is generally credited to Gilbert Stuart, foremost artist of the period. (See Plate.)

A noteworthy change came in 1798—the timely use of the splendid "heraldic" eagle with the motto "E Pluribus Unum" which in 1795 had appeared on the half-eagle gold. This is a copy, with variations, of the Great Seal of the United States—a noble and inspiring design which came into being in 1782. The "variations" caused a furor.

Up to the time of this change, the eagle was a modest looking bird with a sprig of laurel in his beak, his talons resting on a rock, or on a mass of clouds, the whole surrounded by a palm wreath; but, the change showed the fully-displayed eagle whose right talon belligerently carried a sheaf of arrows while the left held the olive branch!

In making this grave error, the confused artist or engraver probably believed he was correcting an error of the Seal itself, not realizing that the Seal is of a true heraldic design in which the right, or dexter side is the one looking from the eagle to the spectator. By reversing this positioning to the spectator's right, the engraver actually put the warlike arrows in the eagle's important right talon, subordinating the olive branch to the minor left one.

This design of 1798 includes for the first time a galaxy of stars on the reverse. Strangely enough, the stars on the obverse had been from the beginning six-pointed; but, the new reverse showed stars with only five points. In this the design followed that of the Great Seal. The 1798 basic design continued with only date changes until coinage was stopped in 1804 by executive order; and was not resumed until 1840. Mint records show that there were 1,439,196 dollars struck during this eleven-year period. The edges of all bore the legend—ONE HUNDRED CENTS ... ONE DOLLAR ... OR UNIT.

Between 1794 and 1804 there were only three major types; although there were numerous variations to test the mettle of any collector. In 1881 Captain John W. Haseltine, a Philadelphia dealer of wide renown, described one hundred eleven different die varieties of the dollars of this period. Probably there were struck even more than this large number.

This amazing classification can be explained only by the fact that all dies—obverse and reverse—had to be cut by hand. Not a great deal was known about case-hardening or other phases of metallurgy and press-pressures were not carefully controlled so that dies sometimes cracked during use—but were not discarded at once—causing weird lines or "die-breaks" as the metal was forced into the veins of the cracked die. When a die could be used no longer, a replacement was hand cut; and inevitably it would differ slightly from its predecessor.


President Thomas Jefferson stopped coinage of the dollar in 1804 to prevent its further export. Due to the law of "supply and demand," the market price of silver had risen to a point where the fine silver in the dollar was actually worth more than one hundred cents—its face value. This circumstance gave brokers and money dealers an opportunity to export our dollars at a profit, an opportunity they were quick to seize. Taking our dollars out of circulation in this way defeated the very purpose of their coinage. (See Plate.)

With the new coinage in 1840, the silver dollar might be said to have entered upon its Golden Age. It showed that much progress in both design and manufacture had been made during the intervening years. A new mint had been built. Every possible mechanical improvement was included. Much step-by-step progress had been made in most United States coins. The greatest advancement was in the development of creative designing; and this was reflected in the appearance of the dollar upon the resumption of its coinage.

At this time Christian Gobrecht produced the graceful, classic figure of the seated, draped Liberty and adapted from our other coin designs the shield, Phrygian cap with pole, and the Greek chiton. The eagle on the reverse was an improvement over several of the former birds. The olive branch took its place in the right talon (from the spectator's viewpoint); but, the legend E Pluribus Unum was omitted for unexplained reasons.

The eagle on the reverse of the 1840 dollar is a portrait of PETER, the eagle which lived at the Mint for several years, flying about Philadelphia at his pleasure. He served as a model not only during his eventful life at the Mint, but after his untimely end, due to an encounter with a fly-wheel, he was stuffed and continued to serve his country from a glass case in the Mint Collection room. This 1840 reverse was a poor substitute for the reverse of several Gobrecht patterns which showed a heroic eagle in flight amid a galaxy of six-pointed stars of differing magnitudes. (See Plate.)

There are catalogers and collectors who choose to include several of these Gobrecht patterns with our regular coinage. The only justification for this would be the fact that a number of impressions of these designs were struck. Excellent though these Gobrecht patterns be, it would seem logical to treat all patterns as separate and distinct from our regular coinage.

Patterns are an interesting and important study by themselves. Most of our coins originate from patterns conceived by engravers employed at the Mint, or commissioned by our government to prepare designs. Sometimes the designs are selected as a result of an open competition among artists and sculptors. This has been the practice, in general, even before the United States Mint was formally established. Present laws pertaining to our coinage do not permit frequent changes in the designs of our coins but require that a number of years elapse before a change may be made in any essential detail, excepting only the dates.

During the early years of the United States Mint, most of the engravers were brought from Europe for the purpose of producing our coinage or supervising the work. Their task was not an easy one as there were many denominations of coins to be designed in each of the three metals: gold, silver and copper. Our first silver dollar developed from patterns; and through the years that followed, the procedure has become well defined. New suggestions relative to devices, mottoes, or designs are worked into dies and patterns struck from these dies. The patterns may be struck in any metal, so we find patterns of dollars struck in copper, aluminum and silver. Any basic change in designs of our coins must be authorized by the Coinage Committee of Congress which makes its selections from the patterns, trial pieces, or experimental pieces submitted. This is why at times it seems that the more attractive patterns are not always those selected for the regular coinage.

The Coinage Act passed in 1837 reduced the weight of the dollar from 416 grains of standard silver to 412½ grains and changed the fineness from 893/1000 to 900/1000, keeping the weight of fine silver the same as before (371.25 gr.). The diameters of our dollars, (the "sizes"), have always been expressed in one-sixteenth inches. The first issues were 24½ size; the 1798 fifteen-star variety was made 25 size; the present standard of 24 size was established with the coinage of the 1840 dollars ... 24 size means really a diameter of one and one-half inches.

The 1840 dollar design continued with only date changes until 1873 when coinage was stopped again after some 6½ million dollars had been struck. The inscription "In God We Trust" was added in 1866 as a scroll over the eagle on the reverse after public appeal had stirred the Treasury Department to have this appear on our coins. (See Plate.)


The numismatist whose collection includes all types of the silver dollars probably has noticed the sharp advancements in designs and pleasing refinements in details as type followed type. In the opinion of many whose judgment should be respected, the 1878 dollar is the most handsome type of all. (See Plate.)

Known as the "Bland" or the "Morgan" dollar, this 1878 type followed the introduction of the ill-fated Trade Dollar (1873–85) to become the most prolifically coined and widely circulated of all our various dollars. Richard P. Bland ("Silver Dick"), United States Representative from Missouri—a silver producing state—sponsored the legislation under which this dollar was produced. George T. Morgan, of the Mint staff, created the design, dis- playing great artistic ability and, in addition, a fine sense of humor.

Both are evident in his design, the humor of which is in his crowning Liberty with a symbolical group of agricultural products; in his cleverly concealing "M" on the truncation of the bust (obverse), also on the bowknot around the wreath (reverse); and by his reducing the number of feathers in the eagle's tail from eight to seven during the first year of issue. The Great Seal contained nine feathers, its adaptation to the 1798 dollar contained nineteen. Gobrecht carefully avoided this 'momentous question' by tucking the tail feathers underneath the contents of the talons. This Morgan shift in feathers caused a most surprising rise in this dollar's catalog prices. For no obvious reason the legend E Pluribus Unum was moved from the reverse to the obverse.

During the era of this dollar there were struck about 569 million before its interesting and important coinage came to an end in 1904—which also marked the actual economic end of the silver dollar.

1921–1928 and 1934–1935

The resumption of dollar coinage in 1921 was an obvious attempt to force upon a newly risen generation a coin that never had been anything more than a monetary mistake. By this time the dollar was more of a tradition than a necessity.

Two types appeared during 1921. The first was a revival of the well-known Morgan coinage; and the second was designed and struck to commemorate the Peace Treaties signed after the 1914–1918 World War—the first time in the World's history that a coin was struck to celebrate a Peace. (See Plate.)

Anthony de Francisci was commissioned to prepare the final designs of this Peace dollar, and is considered to have done an outstandingly fine work. There are some who hold that there is a startled or frightened expression on the face of the figure.

Coinage of silver dollars during this ten-year period totalled about 277 million pieces; yet there are already marked shortages of certain dates. Peculiarly, many of the 1928 dollars show a bevel on the milling at the edge, making the coin seem thinner than other of our dollar coinages. In 1928 coinage stopped; only to be resumed again in 1934 and 1935 but not at all mints. Thus the dollar was coined during only eighty-two of the one hundred forty-seven years since its first issue in 1794.

TABLE Size, Weight and Fineness of the Various United States Dollars
Date Size* Weight Fine Silver Alloy Fineness
1794 24½ 416 grains 371.25 gr. 44.75 gr. 893/1000
1798 25 416 grains 371.25 gr. 44.75 gr. 893/1000
1840 24 412½ grains 371.25 gr. 41.25 gr. 900/1000
End Notes
Size is in sixteenths of an inch.
The "8+7" star variety.

End Notes

Excluding Trade Dollars, Proofs, Patterns, different Mint Marks, and Commemoratives.


Generally, a free people can be depended upon to work out most of its own economic problems—if it is allowed to remain free—and the solutions to these problems become, automatically, economic laws. When a people is not free it takes much longer to make economic adjustments, and the process is more painful.

It may be considered a commonplace now-a-days to refer to the early colonists in America in connection with their practices of exchanging furs, tobacco, bullets, grains, etc., for other of their needs. This was but a step in the solution of their economic problems. This "Barter and Trade" became inadequate very soon. So failed also the make-shift use of foreign currencies brought in through trade. Coinages of the several Crown Colonies had varying values in neighboring colonies thus crippling inter-colony trade.

The War for our Independence was fought largely to secure economic freedom for the Colonies. Consequently, because of a series of acute economic needs, we were enabled to solve some of our problems by establishing a national mint and a national coinage, thus giving to a united people its first medium of exchange that would pass at par in every one of the thirteen political groups that comprised the United States.

It is true that for thousands of years other peoples had been attempting solutions of similar problems. Their contemporary currencies did not reach the Colonies in adequate quantities or on a workable basis of exchange. For eight hundred years China had been experimenting with paper money—at times quite disastrously to the state of her finances.

Many theories and experiments, principles and practices had been recorded for study by the men who were conscientiously groping for a true basis of a national monetary plan even while a unified nation was little more than a great hope. These were the recorded experiences that enabled Robert Morris to evolve his amazing plan for a national metallic currency when required to do so by the Congress of the Confederation on January 7, 1782. He produced the plan in eight days.

Had this Morris program been adopted in its entirety it might have saved our nation endless monetary woes. Morris conceived of a decimal coinage in denominations comparable with the English system (pounds, shillings and pence) as well as with the Spanish system. The coinage proposed by Morris would make it an easy matter for our people to think of both the English and the Spanish monies in terms of our coins. This ease of conversion would tend to drive out of circulation all foreign coins, leaving only our own. Morris wanted a dollar, or unit, in silver; but, was opposed to coining it, having seen how the Spanish silver dollar was cut into sections of halves, quarters and eighths to provide small change. True enough, his smallest coin was entirely too small for practical use (1/1440 of a dollar); but, later on, our half-cent, two-cent, three-cent and twenty-cent pieces also proved impracticable.

However, his reasoning was far below its usual excellence when he recommended a silver standard. As a student of history and a keen observer of current movements, he should have perceived that a gold standard was the only one adequate for a commercial nation such as we were becoming. He should have seen that gold had always held a deep fascination for mankind and this, plus its ductility, natural alloying with other metals, and virtual indestructibility as a metal, were qualities that assured its use as money during all the many hundreds of years there had been commerce among human society.

Jefferson favored a gold standard; and Hamilton also leaned in that direction, although his plan to the National Government recommended coinage of both gold and silver as legal tender, thus opening the way to our domestic currency confusion that is not removed even today. In 1873 we were nominally forced to demonetize silver and become a "Gold Standard" nation. The Acts of both 1834 and 1853 are credited with leading toward this demonetization, if not actually accomplishing it.

Economic law worked to the disadvantage of our new double-standard currency almost from the first. By the end of 1800 there had been coined about one million dollars in gold eagles, half-eagles and quarter-eagles (10's, 5's and 2.50's) and about one and a half million in silver—mostly in dollars. Very little of either coinage remained in circulation. Investigation showed that money brokers were buying our money and that it was being exported in coin or melted into bullion for the reason that both the gold and the silver coins were worth more as metals than their face values. Because of this traffic in our money, coinage of eagles was stopped in 1803 and dollars in 1804 by Secretary Madison, and later by order of President Jefferson.

This same sort of undervaluation of our coins occurred again and again; the remedy in all cases was to reduce either the gold or the silver content. This was never the final solution because no amount of legislative tinkering could make the gold coinage and the silver coinage stay in the relative values originally planned—15 to 1 at first, then finally legalized at 16 to 1; but, at times reaching 35 to 1. An economic law formulated two hundred years before proved itself time after time ... where two metals were circulating together as legal tender, one metal would always be changing its value in relation to the other, so either creditors or debtors would always be suffering. Even Congress could not repeal a fundamental economic law.

A glance at mint coinage records during those early years would have shown anybody that gold was the preferred metal of commerce while silver halves and small coins were necessary only for minor domestic transactions and might better be subsidiary to gold, thus leaving us only a single monetary standard—Gold.

Morris, Jefferson and Hamilton could not have foreseen the increases in the world supply of gold resulting from discoveries of the metal in North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Africa, Australia, California and Alaska; otherwise they might have committed us to the Gold Standard without hesitation. Neither could they have foreseen the tremendous production of silver in seven of our states, providing not only the metal but providing also fourteen Senators and many Representatives who saw to it that the National Treasury was kept well supplied with the precious metal.

In such a situation almost anything could happen—and did. Paper money began to take the place of both gold and silver in our banking and in our domestic commerce. Paper money had been tried before; but, so much of it was worthless that all of it was always under suspicion. Franklin printed some bills for use by the Colonies and remarked, "... it was a very profitable job and a great help to me." Years later he argued that it (paper) was a good thing, "but I now think there are limits beyond which the quantity may be hurtful." Poor Richard was not without a sense of humor.

Paper money had been printed for use in the Colonies during the Confederation. It was really a form of "Printing Press" money—not backed by adequate authority to tax or by other forms of reserves. It soon became "not worth a Continental" and its low redemption value kept down its acceptance by the people. However, in the first year of the War of the Rebellion—1861—(before the plethora of silver), the prices of gold and silver rose to such heights that coins all but disappeared from sight. As the war continued, so did the government expenses until finally the Treasury was virtually empty; a dilemma that was met by issues of paper money. Soon it was issued in denominations of less than one dollar ... 50 cents, 25, 15, 10, 5, and even 3 cents—all known as Fractional Currency or, popularly, as "Shinplasters."

The convenience of paper money was at once apparent to all who used it; and once the people had confidence that the paper was amply backed by reserves of gold—and that they could go to almost any bank and convert the paper into metal coins—paper became more and more widely accepted. Finally, paper largely supplanted the use of high-denomination metal in the ordinary daily domestic purchases. This is among the main reasons why the silver dollar may not be coined again.

Another strange political manipulation in silver occurred in 1918. Following the war an acute shortage of silver developed in India causing the British Government to come to us for silver. This shortage in silver advanced the price so that the silver content of our dollar was worth practically one dollar; thus providing a splendid opportunity for our Treasury to retire a vast number of silver dollars and defray the costs of their coinage—generally a loss to the Nation.

But, this was too good an opportunity for the legislators from silver states to overlook. Instead of selling their silver as bullion at a fair profit, they forced through a bill turning "not more than 350 million dollars" into bullion for India at "a price of not less than $1.00 per fine ounce"—then included an obligation for our National Treasury to purchase a like amount of silver, at a price of $1.00 per ounce, from American mine owners and the coining of the same number of pieces that had been sold. The price of $1.00 was much higher than the prevailing price here for foreign silver. Public taxation again had protected (subsidized) a private industry. Silver dollars to the number of 260 million were converted into bullion under this Act, thus causing a shortage in many dates that is naturally reflected in premium prices in the numismatic market.

Some collectors, fortunately, are possessed of specimens of the Bryan "Wagonwheels" which were privately struck to demonstrate his "16 to 1" political creed. It is just as well, perhaps, that he never attained to a position where he could put into practice his pet monetary theories.

Much more could be written on the economic and political phases of silver bullion and the silver dollar particularly pertaining to legislation within the past several years; but, this does not relate numismatically to the silver dollar.

Stating it briefly: New laws affecting our currency have been passed on an average of one every eight years since the original Act of April 2, 1792 ... The fine carrying convenience and relative monetary stability of our paper money have probably forced the silver dollar out of coinage ... yet, the high cost of printing one dollar silver certificates (one dollar bills) was the reason advanced by Secretary Mellon for recoining the dollar in 1921 ... It has been principally the political functioning of organized minorities that has given numismatists a coin of almost unlimited possibilities as an item for collecting—economic law would have forced it out of coinage perhaps as early as 1804.

It has been said quite fittingly, "History teaches that we do not profit from the teachings of History."


It is doubtful whether any other coins—even some much rarer ones—have been surrounded by more romance, or more general interest, than that which attaches to the "original" 1804 dollars. The mystery of the disappearance of practically the entire coinage only adds to the fascination—and to the extremely high valuations—of this coin. There have been paid prices of one thousand, two thousand, three thousand six hundred and even four thousand, two hundred and fifty dollars for one of these rarities. Offers of five thousand dollars for a specimen have been refused.

Mint records show that 19,570 silver dollars were coined in 1804. The entire number was produced between January 7, and March 28, 1804—nor is there any authenticated evidence up to this time to dispute this figure. Seven of them were reserved for assay. Today there are only six of the coinage known to be in existence; plus at least seven additional ones dated 1804 with a different reverse and edge, giving weight to the belief that these were struck at a later date, probably 1858. The dies were not finally destroyed until the winter of 1868–69. (See Plate.)

There are many opinions and conjectures about the balance of the coinage, of which the following are frequently mentioned:

  • They were immediately exported as bullion or as coin—maybe through connivance of an employee of the government ...
  • All were lost at sea on a China-bound vessel ...
  • All were melted at the mint...
  • All were exported to the Far East ...
  • All were paid as tribute to the Barbary pirates ...
  • All were captured by the British ...
  • They were stolen and now lie buried ...
  • None was coined in 1804.

Those known to be in existence are gems prized almost above price by their owners. Attempts have been made to make casts of the coin. The writer has seen several altered dates of the 1801 dollar in which the second figure 1 of the date was converted by some means into a figure 4; but, a strong magnifying glass generally reveals the fraud even if there be no other distinctive characteristics whereby a genuine 1804 can be distinguished.

Captain John W. Haseltine, the Philadelphia dealer, who in 1881 published his Type Table minutely describing many varieties of early U. S. silver pieces, thus described an 1804 dollar: "No. 1; the upper left star is distant from the L in 'Liberty,' the upper right star has two points almost touching the Y (this is one of the best indications of a genuine 1804 dollar, as it occurs in but very few of the dollars of other dates); the lower left star points to the center of the curl protruding farther to the rear; the mouth of Liberty open; the 1 in the date is very close, almost touching, the curl; the 4 is also very near the bust; the horizontal part of the 4 has no crossbar to it; rev., the eagle's beak closes exactly on the point of the star; the leaf in olive branch points to the part of the lower stand of the I nearest to R in AMERICA; 13 arrows in eagle's claw; the star in eagle's beak also touches scroll between the letters B and U in 'PLURIBUS.'"

Although Captain Haseltine does not mention it, the edges were lettered "ONE HUNDRED CENTS, ONE DOLLAR, OR UNIT" as were all our dollars from 1794 to 1804. Perhaps Haseltine wrote his description from memory, or from notes, rather than from an actual 1804 dollar for he omitted probably the most distinguishing feature of the originals—the legends on the reverse. The spacing of the letters "STATES OF" above the ring of clouds in the originals is such as to center the "O" and "F" over adjacent clouds; but, in most of the restrikes the "O" is directly over a notch between two clouds, and the "F" is noticeably closer to the wing tip; although there are specimens of these restrikes with the "original" reverse. (See Plate.)

When the restrikes were made, the original obverse was used but seems to have been recut so that the stars and other details are sharper. The original "edge dies" or "collars" were not preserved complete, consequently the edges of these restrikes are either plain or contain repeated parts of the edge dies in order to fill the edge. Three of these restrikes were with difficulty recovered by the mint; two were destroyed and the third was placed in the mint collection where there was already one of the originals. Other "restrikes" have remained in the hands of collectors.

One of the very interesting phases of these 1804 dollars is their pedigrees—their individual histories that not only help establish authenticity, but constitute as well "abstracts of title" tracing the coin from its original owner much as a piece of land is "abstracted."

Of this practice, the so-called "Dexter Dollar" is an excellent example: It was discovered in the collection of Adolph Weyl, a Berlin (Germany) dealer, by the Chapman Brothers (Philadelphia dealers) who bought it from him in October 1884 and offered it in their auction sale May 14, and 15, 1885. Here it was bought by Mr. J. W. Scott (another dealer) for Mr. J. V. Dexter of Denver, Colorado, at a price of one thousand dollars, and it remained in his possession until 1902. Hudson and Henry Chapman started the pedigree of this dollar because there is now no evidence that Weyl possessed any history of its ownership from 1804 to 1884. The Chapmans submitted their Berlin purchase to the U. S. Mint authorities in Philadelphia who, after comparing it with the known original in the "Mint Cabinet of Coins," pronounced it genuine in their judgment. This judgment was certified to in 1887 in affidavits made by A. Loudon Snowden, Superintendent of the Mint; by Jacob B. Eckfeldt, Assayer, and R. A. McClure, Curator of the Cabinet Collection; and by Patterson DuBois, one time assistant assayer.

In settling Mr. Dexter's estate, the Trust Company disposed of this coin in 1903 to Mr. H. G. Brown of Portland, Oregon, who was supplied with the affidavits plus a letter from Mr. R. G. Parvin, secretary of the Trust Company, certifying that the dollar was the one owned by Mr. Dexter. The price paid was eighteen hundred dollars. In 1904 Mr. Brown disposed of his collection and the dollar was bought for the account of Mr. Wm. F. Dunham of Chicago, at a price reported to be eleven hundred dollars. Mr. Dunham received, and preserved, all the pedigree documents. The Dunham collection was auctioned by B. Max Mehl on June 3, 1941; and the "Dexter" Dollar was sold for a reported price of four thousand two hundred fifty dollars. (See Plate.)

The "Dexter" was placed No. 4 on the list of 1804 dollars compiled by the Chapman Brothers when they cataloged their sale in 1885. It would contribute considerable of value to numismatic history if equally complete biographies could be prepared on the other five originals. In the hope that this may be achieved at some future time, the following histories, incomplete as the writer knows them to be, are offered as a basis.

The Mint Cabinet Specimen, No. 1

On January 1, 1912 there was submitted to the Director of the Mint, Washington, D. C., a "Catalogue of the Coins, Tokens and Medals in the Numismatic Collection of the Mint of the United States at Philadelphia." In this authoritative work T. L. Comparette, the Curator, describes this 1804 original coin as similar to the 1798 dollar "but with a beading around the borders" and, "The edge ... is very faintly struck, the legend being only legible, while the condition of the specimen is otherwise 'uncirculated.'" This beading is merely a variant of that common to all dollars, starting with the 1794 type.

Just where this Mint Collection dollar came from is not clear. It may have come from the seven put aside for assay; or, it may have been bought back from the regular coinage. The Mint Collection is the growth from a nucleus gathered by Adam Eckfeldt whose name appears on Mint payrolls of 1795 as "Die Forger and Turner." It was his grandson who made affidavit about the "Dexter" in 1887 at the same time Mr. Snowden certified that the Mint specimen had been in the Collection for more than forty years and had always been considered an original. Adam Eckfeldt's son, Jacob R., wrote a complete and scholarly book on processes and procedures at the U. S. Mints, published in 1842 (see Bibliography), in which he cataloged the Mint Collection and illustrated an 1804 dollar; yet he did not specifically mention it in the text! Why did he not refer to it as of great rarity? Was there then only the specimen he illustrated? Did he know there was a quantity of them in the Mint vaults? These are questions which, after one hundred years, still intrigue us.

The "Mickley" Dollar, No. 2

This "1804 original" first appeared in 1867 when Mr. Joseph J. Mickley sold it to Mr. W. A. Lilliendahl for seven hundred fifty dollars. Mr. Mickley stated that he secured the coin many years before from the Bank of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. It does not seem to have a "name;" so for convenience the writer attaches the name of its first recorded owner. Mr. Lilliendahl disposed of it to Edward Cogan who sold it in 1868 to Mr. W. S. Appleton, a New England collector. Since 1905 the dollar has been in the Appleton Collection in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Mass. The meager records of this dollar indicate few prices during the transfers of ownership.

The "Parmelee" Dollar, No. 3

This might be designated also as the "Aged Lady" dollar, because a person thus described secured it at the Philadelphia Mint many years before she disposed of it in 1868 for an unnamed sum to E. H. Sanford. It changed hands again in 1874 when L. G. Parmelee paid seven hundred dollars to secure it from the Sanford collection. Mr. Byron Reed bought it in 1892 from Parmelee for five hundred seventy dollars; and now it is in the "Byron Reed" Collection at the City Museum, Omaha, Nebraska.

The "Dexter" Dollar, No. 4

Heretofore described, pp. 28 ff.

The "Manning" Dollar, No. 5

This has had a most active career since first it came to public notice in 1875 in possession of Colonel M. I. Cohen. No less than eight people have possessed it for longer or shorter periods. Another of the mysteries of the 1804 dollars is that they remained in obscurity for as long as three-quarters of a century before making an appearance—and then generally only to be offered for sale.

Where Col. Cohen got his specimen is not evident in the records. According to his own statement, he had located it in possession of a resident of Richmond, Virginia, and finally purchased it. He sold it in 1875 to H. S. Adams for a reported price of five hundred dollars. In 1876, the Adams Collection passed into the hands of L. G. Parmelee who sold this dollar to W. B. Wetmore in 1878 for six hundred dollars. Some years later, in 1906, it became the property of James H. Manning; then was owned by Elmer S. Sears from whose collection it was obtained by B. Max Mehl, who sold it in 1921 to Mr. Lammot du Pont who, it is believed, still has it in his collection.

The "Stickney" Dollar, No. 6

This dollar is unique in several particulars. Where it came from and how it was first secured by a private individual are both matters of definite record. It has changed hands fewer times than any other original. It remained in possession of one collector longer than any of the others; and it brought a price that stood as a record high for a dollar until 1941. (See Plate.)

Matthew A. Stickney was among the first of those whom we may justifiably term "great collectors." His keen appreciation for real and potential rarities is evident in the catalog of his collection.

Mr. Stickney secured the dollar which bears his name at the U. S. Mint in Philadelphia on May 9, 1843, giving in exchange for this Mint duplicate several coins including the unique and priceless 1785 gold "Immune Columbia"—struck over the George III guinea of 1775. Because it came from the Mint Collection in 1843, this dollar should stand as No. 2 on the Chapman list, which list, however, is not "official" in any sense of the word and evidently was made by them for their own use.

The dollar remained in the Stickney Collection for nearly 65 years until in 1907 it was sold by S. Hudson and Henry Chapman to Colonel J. W. Ellsworth for the reported price of three thousand six hundred dollars. The next change of ownership occurred in 1923 when the coin became part of the Wm. C. Atwater Collection. It seems more than a coincidence that Mr. Atwater secured this famous coin. He was truly a collector at heart and as a young man had formed a collection of American minor coins. As he grew older he gradually added choice pieces of all denominations, climaxing his long career as a collector and student of numismatics when he bought the "Stickney" Dollar. Later, Mr. Atwater gave his entire collection to his three sons.

One cannot but be amazed that such a small handful of silver dollars could represent so much value ... sentimental at least in part ... and rouse so much possessive instinct; it is all the more astounding when one recalls that the silver content was never worth more than one dollar and ten cents and is worth now only about twenty-three cents. One splendid example of the law of supply and demand.

In 1804 the equipment at the U. S. Mint was inadequate for the tasks imposed upon it. The technique of coining was not yet fully developed; in consequence, many of the early dollars are not struck evenly. This is particularly true of the 1804 dollars for none is a fully struck piece, there being also considerable variation in weight from the legal standard of 416 grains. The Mint Collection specimen weighs 415.9 grains; the Dexter, 415.307 grains; the Manning, 410.75 grains; the Stickney, 415.307 grains; and others as low as 411 grains. One of the restrikes weighs only 381.5 grains.

It is almost one hundred years since Matthew A. Stickney secured from the U. S. Mint the 1804 dollar which ever since has borne his name. Time has but made keener the interest in these notable coins. Collectors and dealers have travelled thousands of miles—have crossed oceans and continents—in efforts to secure these pieces.

In passing the 1804 dollars from owners to owners, probably more money has changed hands than over any similar number of coins in the World's history. Yet, there are today collectors who hope the rest of that 19,570 coinage will turn up so that each collector of U. S. silver dollars may have an original 1804 in his cabinet.

End Notes

Note: The writer purposely omits the condition of these dollars, believing that to be a negligible factor in view of the importance of the group as a whole.



Adams, Edgar H. and Woodin, Wm. H. U. S. Pattern, Triai and Experimental Pieces. New York, 1913.
American Journal of Numismatics, 1907.
Carothers, Neil . Fractional Money. New York, 1930.
Coffin, Joseph . Our American Money. New York, 1940.
Eckfeldt, Jacob R. and DuBois, W. E. A Manual of Gold and Silver Coins of All Nations. Philadelphia, 1842. Second and Third Editions, New York, 1850, 1852.
Evans, George G. Illustrated History of the United States Mint. Philadelphia, 1885.
Haseltine, John W. Catalogue of John W. Haseltine's Type Table of U. S. Dollars, Half Dollars and Quarter Dollars. Philadelphia, 1881. (Reprinted by B. Max Mehl, Fort Worth, 1927.)
Hepburn, A. Barton . A History of Currency in United States. New York, 1915.
Hickcox, John H. An Historical Account of American Coinage. Albany, 1858.
Kemmerer, Edwin W. Kemmerer on Money. Philadelphia, 1934.
——Money. New York, 1935.
Secretary of the Treasury. Annual Report on the State of the Finances. Washington, June, 1940.
Stewart, Frank H. History of the First U. S. Mint. Philadelphia, 1924.
Sumner, W. G. History of American Coinage. New York, 1875.
U. S. MINT Catalogue of Coins, Tokens and Medals in the Numismatic Collection of the Mint of the United States at Philadelphia. Washington, 1912, 1913, 1914.
Watson, David K. History of American Coinage. New York, 1899.
Woodin, Wm. H. and Adams, Edgar H. See Adams, Edgar H.


  • First Silver Dollar Designed—Struck in 1794.
  • The 1795 Fillet Head—The second major design.
  • The Heraldic Eagle Reverse of 1798—The third major design.
  • The 1840 Dollar—Designed by Christian Gobrecht.
  • Great Seal of The United States—Designed in 1782.
  • The 1866 Dollar—First to bear the legend "IN GOD WE TRUST."
  • The "Bland" Dollar of 1878—Designed by George T. Morgan.
  • The "Peace" Dollar of 1921—Designed by Anthony de Francisci.
  • The splendid 1836 Pattern Dollar—Designed by Gobrecht.
  • The "Stickney" 1804 Dollar. Photograph by courtesy of Wayte Raymond
  • The "Dexter" 1804 Dollar. Photograph by courtesy of B. Max Mehl
  • 12. The "Rosenthal" 1804 Restrike. Photograph by courtesy of The Chase National Bank