Between 1878 and 1935 nearly 850 million silver dollars were struck by the U.S. Mint. The Morgan silver dollar series, minted from 1878-1921 encompasses 28 different dates and almost 100 separate issues. With outputs as high as 20 million for some specimens, almost 657 million coins were produced. Another 190,577,279 Peace silver dollars were struck during the 1920s and 1930s. That’s a lot of big, 90% silver coins!
With those sizable mintage numbers, it seems that these numismatic treasures should be reasonably available at a moderate cost. But as most collectors know that is not the case. Far, far fewer of these popular issues currently remain and that has brought up costs on all specimens.
Today only about 17% of original Morgan mintages are estimated to survive in any condition. Although numbers for Peace dollars are less available, we do know that melts have had drastic consequences on that series as well. Where did all those silver dollars go over the past century?
Once silver was discovered in the Western U.S., political pressure led to vastly more Morgan dollars produced than were needed in commerce. Large hordes of these coins were placed in government vaults and left for years and even decades. By the early 1900s the country was facing a silver shortage and the Treasury was paying to store hundreds of millions of silver Morgans. At the same time World War I was heating up and our ally Great Britain needed silver bullion.
To adress with both concerns Congress passed the Pittman Act in 1918 and a large segment of those stored Morgans were melted — equal to about half the mintage of the entire series! A provision of the Pittman Act also required the government to purchase more silver, thus in 1921 the Morgan dollar was briefly resurrected until the new Peace silver dollar was introduced.
But those new coins were not safe either. During World War II silver was again needed for subsidiary coinage and defense purposes. Many millions more silver dollars were melted as per the Silver Act of 1942. But melting pressures did not end after the war. In the 1960s silver prices were on the rise and the precious metal value in coinage exceeded its face value. At that time government stored Morgan and Peace dollars were still available at face value and many were lost to private melts along with countless dimes, quarters and half dollars. In the 1980s silver again spiked up and many more classic coins were sold for melt value.
All these melts have dramatically decreased the number of surviving classic silver dollars. As any collector knows, the value of a coin is often determined by the number of specimens currently available and the loss of such a large percentage of classic silver dollars has forever changed the hobby of coin collecting. Due to both official and private melts, published mintage numbers are completely unreliable for both the Morgan and Peace series. In fact, the randomness of the melts caused some once-common date coins to become hard to find.
On the bright side, those silver dollars specimens that managed to escape the melting pot have become more valuable today — and not just for their intrinsic metal content, but for their numismatic and historical value as well.