The most famous of U.S. silver dollars, the Morgan dollar immediately sparked a controversy when it was released in 1878. The issue was quickly resolved but did lead to three fascinating varieties for collectors.
Creating the Engraving:
The talented young engraver George T. Morgan was hired by the Philadelphia Mint to create the silver dollar that would become the world’s most collected. In designing the eagle reverse, Morgan used the Mint’s stuffed bald eagle as a model and carefully researched anatomy elsewhere.
His first prototype displayed seven tailfeathers on the eagle, but the Mint Director suggested a fuller look and Morgan obliged with an added feather. Thus the first Morgan silver dollar, released exclusively by the principal Philadelphia Mint in March of 1878, showed EIGHT tailfeathers on the eagle reverse.
Outcry at Release:
The new American silver dollar was generally praised for its classical proportions and artful detailing. But an ornithologist objected that bald eagles invariably have an odd number of feathers — so eight would be inaccurate. The Mint Director stopped the presses and ordered a SEVEN-tailfeather design.
Merely 750,000 eight-tailfeather 1878 Morgans had been issued up to that point. That eight-tailfeather type amounted to just 3% of all 1878 first-year Morgans! And a large proportion was eventually lost in government melts making it a desirable variety for collectors.
Correction and More Correction:
Later in 1878 the Philadelphia and two branch mints (San Francisco and Denver) produced a total of 9.8 million “corrected” seven-tailfeather Morgans in two varieties.
Morgan had quickly prepared master dies with SEVEN tailfeathers, corresponding to his original conception. But the first seven-tailfeather type was actually short-lived — because its “flat-breast” eagle was quickly changed to an 1878 “convex- breast” eagle, which became the standard in the series.
Mint Error Adds to the Varieties:
When the original eight-tailfeather eagle Morgan dollar type ceased to be minted, a limited number of dies were filed down in that area and overprinted with seven tailfeathers. But in some cases the eight-tailfeather design could still be partially seen beneath the new version, creating the first overlapping die error in the series, the “seven over eight” variety.
How Many Feathers Do Eagles Really Have?
Today it’s disputed whether the eight-tailfeather Morgan silver dollar should have been changed to seven tailfeathers. Experts say that most birds in the eagle family actually have an even number of tailfeathers — generally ten or twelve! Whether done right or wrong, the 1878 varieties are among the most popular and coveted in all of American numismatics.
Where to Go From Here:
A big part of the fun of collecting is learning the background of a coin series. These Morgan dollar tailfeather varieties are a wonderful addition to any Morgan collection. Be sure to get out your magnifier and see the differences for yourself!
Happy coin hunting!