Have you ever found an old silver dollar in the back of your mother’s jewelry box, hidden under the necklaces that were passed down to her from her grandmother? Chances are it’s a Morgan dollar. The U.S. Mint’s 1878-1921 Morgan dollar remains undoubtedly the most famous and collected classic silver dollar worldwide. How did this masterpiece of American minting emerge?
The Morgan silver dollar was, during its time of circulation, considered the standard for monetary value across the globe and widely viewed as a symbol of strength. Interestingly enough, the coin was born during a period of great financial instability in America. The Long Depression began with the Panic of 1873 and continued until 1879, the year after the Morgan dollar’s introduction.
When I first held a Morgan dollar, my response was, “wow, this is a big coin!” The Morgan silver dollar was constructed at such a large size to compare with the Spanish Eight Reale, which was the standard of value during the American colonial era. The Eight Reale coin – informally known as the Spanish Pieces of Eight – was the foundation of our silver coinage system (“two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar”). The U.S. dollar sign ($) is believed to derive from the scroll-effect Herculean pillars of the reverse side.
The Morgan dollar was originally designed by George T. Morgan at the Philadelphia Mint. George Morgan was a former pupil of William Wyon of the Royal Mint in London. The coin was being designed just as the Bland-Allison Act passed on February 28th, 1878. The act required the treasury to purchase silver at market levels, between two and four million troy ounces of bullion per month, to be coined into dollars. This then amounted to massive subsidy, coming at a time when the dollar’s face value exceeded its intrinsic worth by nearly ten percent. It is not far-fetched to assume that this act was incredibly politically motivated.
The Morgan dollar was often considered an inconvenience because of its size and most of its use occurred in the western states. One reason that has been suggested for its unpopularity is that unlike the Eight Reale, it could not be cut into pieces and used as such in commerce. Money during the colonial period was much different than when commerce moved towards money only representing face value, rather than literally embodying it. This is an important piece of history for American silver dollars; the Eight Reale was more efficient. Instead of continually trading larger denominations of coins for smaller denominations, the Eight Reale (and early colonial American dollars) were divided into eight pieces, to be used as such. Although the Morgan was of a similar size and weight to the Spanish Eight Reale, it did not adhere to this practice.
During the Morgan’s inception, the American public expected their money to actually be worth more than its face value. This was true throughout most of history in the United States and initially for the Morgan dollar. Today’s dollar is worth significantly less than the Morgan. The Morgan contained silver; our current dollar does not.
One of the biggest fascinations of old American dollars, and especially the Morgan dollar, is the purchasing power compared to our modern dollar. In Chicago, which “…struck visitors as the ‘purest kind of commercial city’…”(Moberg, 1990), many workers in industrial factories worked an estimated 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week (Moberg, 1990), for only a dollar a day. According to CPI (consumer price index), a Morgan dollar would have approximately the purchasing power of $22 in 2013. This still didn’t leave much room for those who worked for such low wages to live comfortably, but given the immigration influx during this era, many were expected to work for less, to “earn their keep,” as the saying went.
Henry Ward Beecher is even famous for his attack on railroad workers for their “inability” to live off the dollar a day: “It is said that a dollar a day is not enough for a wife and five or six children. No, not if that man smokes or drinks beer. It is not enough if they are to live as he would be glad to have them live…But is not a dollar a day enough to buy bread with? Water costs nothing; and a man who cannot live on bread is not fit to live. What is the use of civilization that simply makes men incompetent to live under the conditions which exist?” (Brauer, 1965) Beecher was a famous clergyman from Brooklyn who was raised in a strict Puritan household in Massachusetts as the eighth of ten children. Beecher was a man who believed that a family could live on simply bread and water, that they should be happy to live in any condition, no matter how poor. It is tragic to think of families struggling to survive on only bread and water, yet this was how poor families were often treated.
The American Morgan dollar was considered a standard of value and it was also often a day’s pay. Although sometimes this concept is misunderstood as a larger amount of money, it’s clear that a single dollar a day was considered a low wage, especially for the exceptionally unsafe conditions that railroad workers, iron workers, and other industrial workers were exposed to. All of that said, though, the Morgan silver dollar still held a vastly larger amount of purchasing power than our current American dollar; a testament to inflation and the ups and downs of economy.
The Morgan dollar embodies a diverse and changing time in history, which means it also holds the stories of countless Americans and their families. In owning a Morgan, you can pass the history of our early nation and the stories of the individuals who lived here onto younger generations. You can help preserve the coin, and in the process, also preserve the generous history of the United States.
Amanda Paulger-Foran, for ICCoin.com
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Brauer, J. (1965). Protestantism in America: A Narrative History. Retrieved from
Moberg,D. (1990). Encyclopedia of Chicago. “Work.” Retrieved from