A Guide to Collecting the Early U.S. Silver Dollars by Date and Major Design Type

Discussion in 'US Coins Forum' started by johnmilton, Dec 28, 2020.

  1. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    The Early U.S. silver dollars have long been collector favorites. These large, impressive coins were one of the two flagship products (the $10 gold piece or “eagle” was the second) for the first United States Mint. They were exported to Europe, Asia and the Caribbean in the late 1790s and early 1800s. The export of those dollars prompted President Thomas Jefferson to suspend the coinage of the silver dollar in 1804 which brought a premature end to the series.

    Pillar Dollar.jpg

    The Spanish Milled Dollar or "piece of eight" was the inspiration for the early U.S. silver dollar.

    The early U.S. dollars were inspired by the Spanish Milled Dollar or pieces of eight. Those Spanish colonial coins, which were minted in Mexico and South America, were a world currency. Many of those coins were a principle form of money in the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War. They would continue to be one of the mainstays for domestic and world commerce after the United States won its independence. It was therefore not surprising that the first U.S. dollars were about the same size as the Spanish coin. The Spanish dollar would have legal tender status in the U.S. until 1857, almost until the outbreak of the American Civil War.

    Like all of the early American Mint coinage, the silver dollar was authorized by the Coinage Act of 1792. That law specified that the dollar contained 371.25 grains of pure silver. This number was based upon a survey that treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, conducted of Spanish silver coins that were circulating in the United States in 1791. Hamilton set the total weight of the dollar at 416 grains.

    The Coinage Act of 1792 required chief coiner, Henry Viogt, and assayer, Albion Cox, post bonds of $10,000 each. That was a huge sum at the time, and neither man was able to raise it, which delayed the coinage a silver and gold coins. The mint only issued copper coinage in 1793 and much of 1794. Ultimately Thomas Jefferson convinced Congress to lower the bonds and made arrangements for those two key mint officials to receive the necessary financial backing from wealthy individuals. Finally, the mint was able to issue the first American silver dollars in October 1794.

    The First Mint Scandal

    Hamilton recommended and Congress agreed to set the composition alloy for the silver coinage at .8924 silver and .1076 copper. In the spring of 1794, before the mint had issued any silver coins, Chief Assayer, Albian Cox, asked Mint Director, David Rittenhouse, to allow him to increase the silver fineness to .900. This change would Cox’s job easier since the standard would be a round number. Cox absurdly argued that the silver coins produced with the slightly lower fineness would quickly turn black while in circulation. Surprisingly Rittenhouse bought into this point and agreed to this illegal change in the standards. It would result the mint’s first major scandal.

    Since the weight of the silver coins was reduced to reflect the higher percentage of silver, the resulting coins contained more silver than the law required. Therefore, those who deposited silver at the mint for coinage were routinely short changed with fewer coins that they should have received. My calculations indicate that depositors were shorted one dollar for every 118 dollars they received, in round numbers.

    This illegal practice continued while David Rittenhouse and his temporary replacement, William de Saussure, were the Directors of the Mint. Neither Edmond Randolph, who had replaced Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state,[1] nor President George Washington knew about the illegal mint policy. When Elias Boudinot took over as Mint Director on October 28, 1795, he was informed about the illegal .900 silver coin standard. He ordered an immediate halt to the practice and re-instated the legal standard.

    When those who had deposited silver for coinage during this period learned about the scandal, they demanded redress. Chief among them was Philadelphia Merchant, John Vaughn, who claimed that he had been shorted $2,300, which was a considerable sum at the time.

    The Treasury Department dragged its feet on compensating the depositors. Mint Director Boudinot made the argument that Vaughn had received all of his silver, which was true, but the director ignored that fact that Vaughn had gotten back fewer dollars than he was entitled to receive. Finally, Congress voted to compensate Vaughn in 1800. The Congress did not get around to changing the standard to the more reasonable .900 silver, .100 copper alloy until 1837.

    1794 Dollar.jpg

    Although this 1794 silver dollar grades Very Fine, there is weakness in the date and the legend on the reverse. The press that was used to strike this coin was too small and could exert enough pressure to bring up all of the details without a special effort. Fully struck 1794 dollars are known, included a piece that is graded SP-66, but those coins are quite rare.

    Photo courtesy Harry Laibstain Rare Coins

    The 1794 Silver Dollar

    The 1794 silver dollar is one of the premier classic coins in the United States series. It was the first dollar struck at the Philadelphia Mint after it officially opened for business in February 1793. A great many collectors have had a strong interest in this piece for more than 150 years. According to Q. David Bowers[1], the value of a 1794 dollar in 1860 ranged from $13 in VG to $200 in Mint State. Those values have increased over the insuring decades. A piece graded SP-66 (Specimen or special strike) holds the record price paid for a single coin of $10,016,875.00. Each of the other certified Mint State examples have sold for more than a million dollars in recent years.

    The obverse design features a bust of Ms. Liberty with her hair swept back from her face. The design is similar to the Pole to Cap design that appears on the early half cents and large cents without the liberty cap. The date is below the bust of Ms. Liberty and the word “LIBERTY” appears above her head. At the sides are 15 stars which corresponded with the number of states that were in the union at the time. Eight stars are on left and seven are on the right.

    The reverse features a skinny eagle surrounded by a wreath. I have compared the appearance of this eagle with a pterodactyl or winged dinosaur. The legend, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,” appears around the wreath.

    There is no indication of the face value of the coin on the obverse or reverse. The only mark of value is around the edge. It reads, “hundred cents one dollar or unit.” All of the early dollars are valued in this way. The world “DOLLAR” would not appear on the face of the dollar coin until the series was resumed in 1836.

    The reported mintage for the 1794 dollar was 1,758 pieces which were delivered in October of that year. Today there are an estimated 150 survivors. That makes the 1794 dollar a very scarce coin, R-4, according to the Sheldon rarity scale (estimated 76 to 200 pieces known), but not a rare piece. Collectors who have the funds, and who are willing to pay the price, can be assured of having opportunities to purchase a 1794 dollar.

    Many of the survivors are impaired, and a large number of pieces without problems are poorly struck. The largest coin press that was available at the first mint in the fall of 1794 and early 1795 was built to strike coins no larger than a half dollar. Almost all 1794 dollars show strike weaknesses on the left side of the obverse. Some coins are weakly stuck in other areas on both sides of the piece. Naturally these coins lost more sharpness as they were worn down in circulation.

    Since 2015, auction prices for 1794 dollars have ranged from $129,250 in Fine, $146,875 in VF, $270,250 in EF, $910,625 in Ch AU and $2,820,000 in MS-64. Obviously the 1794 dollar is beyond the means of most collectors. As such most of us must be content to leave that spot in our date sets open.

    1795 Flowing Hair Dol.jpg

    A 1795 Flowing Hair Type Silver Dollar

    1795 Draped Bust Dol.jpg

    A 1795 Draped Bust, Small Eagle Silver Dollar

    The 1795 Dollars

    The 1795 dollars were made in two design types, the Flowing Hair and Draped Bust designs. The Flowing Hair coins were quite similar, but not identical to the 1794 dollars. In these years considerable hand work went into the making of coinage dies. Therefore the placement of the date, lettering and some minor design details, like the number of leaves in the wreath, varied. Major devices, such as the bust of Liberty and the eagle and wreath on the reverse were standardized to a point but were frequent adjusted and replaced in the early years of the mint.

    The need for a new, larger coin press delayed the production of the silver dollar until May 1795. During the interim period, the mint concentrated upon the half dime and half dollar, making those two issues fairly common compared to other early U.S. silver coins. No copper coins were struck because Congress was pressuring the mint to get silver and gold coins into circulation. Finally, on May 6, the first delivery of silver dollars, 3,810 pieces, was made. Deliveries continued through out the summer and into the fall.

    The mint introduced the Draped Bust design in the fall of 1795, probably in the urging of the new Mint Director, Elias Boudinot . This image of Ms. Liberty features an elegant bust of a lady with her dress draped over her shoulder. Her hair is tied back with a bow which gives it a stylish, well-kept appearance compared with the Flowing Hair design which looked more casual. The date, “LIBERTY” and stars are configured in the same way as Flowing Hair type. The eagle on the reverse appears to be young bird that just emerging into the world, much like the new United States of America.

    Mintages and Rarity

    According to “The Red Book,” the mintage for the 1795 Flowing Hair dollar was 160,295 pieces. “Coin Facts,” a numismatic information site that the PCGS grading service maintains, estimates that there are 10,250 surviving examples. That calculates to a survival percentage of 6.4%, which seems too high.

    David Bowers addressed the annual mintage issue in his two volume Silver Dollar encyclopedia. Bowers agrees that the total mintage for all years of 1,446,106 is accurate. The questions concern the reported annual mintages. The mintages reported in “The Red Book” are based upon the total deliveries of coins reported in a calendar year. Although the delivery numbers are accurate, the issue is, what were the dates on the coins when they were delivered? During the early days of the mint, budgets were low and the cost of making dies was high. Therefore, a change in the calendar year did not prompt the summary discarding of perfectly good coinage dies despite the fact that the law called for the date on a coin to match its year of issue.

    In view of this, Bowers theorizes that the dies for the Flowing Hair dollars may have been used as late as 1798. None of this can be proven, and the mintage adjustment estimates are no more than educated guesses. As we shall see later, there are ongoing issues with the “official” mintage figures that appear in “The Red Book.” Bowers estimated that the actual mintage for the Flowing Hair dollars was 280,000 which would make the survival percentage 3.7%. That is more in line with the overall survival rates for the entire early dollar series.

    Under the same assumptions, Bowers increased the mintage for the 1795 Braided Hair Dollar from 42,738 to 110,000. Given an estimate of 3,900 survivors, the survival rate falls from 9.1% to 3.5%.

    1795 Flowing Hair Adj Marks.jpg

    Adjustment Marks and Plugs

    Planchet preparation was an imprecise science in the 1790s and early 1800s. Therefore each planchet had be weighed, before it was struck, to determine if it met the legal standard. Planchets that weighed too much were lightened by running a file over the surface and catching the resulting silver fragments in an leather apron. Some of these marks were obliterated when the coins were struck, but on a fair number of early gold and silver coins, these parallel lines show on the surface of the piece. These lines are called adjustment marks. Since they are a part of the minting process, they do not reduce the technical grade of piece, but they can reduce the market value if they are significant and make the coin unattractive.

    Underweight planchets also had to be flagged. In all cases, except in 1794 and 1795, these planchets were melted and the planchet production process had to be repeated. In 1794 and 1795 a comparatively small number of silver dollars had a silver plug driven into the center of the planchet to increase the weight to the legal standard. An estimated 250, 1795 Flowing Hair dollars have a silver plug, which appears in the center of the piece. These coins command premium prices.

    1796 Dollar.jpg

    1796 Dollars

    The year 1796 was a unique one for the first Philadelphia Mint. It is only year in during which the facility struck all ten denominations that were authorized by the Coinage Act of 1792. Some of those coins, such as the half cent, half dollar and quarter eagle are rare and expensive. Still that has not discouraged several collectors from trying to form year sets or even “Proof sets” of exceptional quality 1796 coins.

    The 1796 dollars are moderately scarce with estimated surviving population of 3,200 pieces. The reported mintage is 79,920. The Bowers estimate is close to that at 75,000. There are “Red Book” varieties with small and large and letters and different star configurations in three combinations.

    The half dollar mintage fell from 299,680 in 1795 to a combined total of 3,918 pieces for the years 1796 and 1797. This was the normal mintage pattern for half dollars during the early years of the first U.S. Mint. When silver dollars were not available, the depositors asked for half dollars. When silver dollar production went back on line, the depositors order far fewer half dollars. When the coinage of the silver dollar ended in 1804, half dollar production greatly increased.

    1797 Dollar.jpg

    1797 Dollars

    With a reported mintage of 7,776 and an estimated number of surviving coins at 3,500 pieces, the official mintage for the 1797 dollars is clearly wrong. Dave Bowers has estimated that the actual mintage of 1797 dollars was 60,000. Many, if not all, of those coins were delivered in 1798.

    “Red Book” varieties of 1797 dollars include pieces with large and small reverse lettering, and coins with either the 9 (right side) X 7 (left side) or 10 X 6 obverse star configurations. The variety with 9 X 7 stars and small letters on the reverse is a scare coin with only 350 survivors.

    1798 Small Eagle Dollar.jpg

    1798 Small Eagle Dollar

    1798 Large Eagle Dollar.jpg

    1798 Heraldic Eagle Dollar

    1798 Dollars

    There were two reverse designs issued in 1798. At the beginning of the year, the Small Eagle, introduced in 1795, appeared on the reverse. Later in the year, a Heraldic Eagle, similar to the one in the Great Seal of the United States, replaced it. “The Red Book” only provides a combined mintage for the two types of 327,536 coins. Dave Bowers has estimated that the combined mintage was lower and split the total at 35,000 for the Small Eagle reverse and 200,000 for the Heraldic Eagle coins.

    The Small Eagle variety is a scarce coin with an estimated 1,350 survivors. There are two die varieties, one with 13 stars on the obverse and second with 15 stars.[1] The 15 star coin with an estimated 500 survivors is scarcer.

    There are number of varieties of the Heraldic Eagle type. There are “9”s with and without a knob on the point of the figure. There are differences in the number vertical stripes in the vertical lines on the shield on the reverse. Some of these sub varieties are very scarce, but there are plenty of examples of the common varieties to provide date collectors with a reasonably priced coin. Adding up all of the varieties listed in “Coin Facts,” the estimated number of survivors is 6,905.

    1799 Dollar.jpg

    1799 Dollars

    The 1799 Bust Dollar is the most common date in the early dollar set. This is not surprising because the reports show that the dollar was the only silver coin the mint issued that year. David Bowers has lowered the mintage estimate from 423,515 to 395,000. Although there are a couple of scarce to rare varieties, there are many “generic” examples available for date collectors.

    This marks the first year that mint created an overdate date, 1799 over 8, in the early dollar series. It must be assumed that those coins were struck in 1799. Mint procedures indicate that overdate dies are almost always those that had not been hardened or used to strike coins previously. Pre-hardened dies were still in the die preparation process, and therefore could be modified.

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  3. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    1800 Dollar.jpg

    1800 Dollars

    The 1800 Dollar mintage marked the last time that the early dollar mintage reached 100,000. By this time the melt value of the silver was beginning exceed the face value of the coin, and the incentives for depositing silver at the mint was going away. Although the 1800 dollars are scarcer than the 1798 and 1799 pieces, they sell for roughly the same price. The official 1800 mintage is 220,920, but David Bowers has pared that back to 100,00 coins that have the 1800 date on them.

    In the early 1800s, a trade was developing between the Caribbean islands and The United States. Traders took American silver dollars to the islands and exchanged them for Spanish milled dollars. Back in the United States, the traders deposited the Spanish dollars at the mint and converted them into U.S. dollars. Since the Spanish dollars contained more silver than the U.S. coins, they got back more coins in return thereby turning a profit. They then took the U.S. dollars back to the islands to repeat the process.

    1801 Dollar.jpg

    1801 Dollars

    The 1801 Bust Dollar might be considered to be a key date in the series, with a “Bowers mintage” of 35,000 and an estimated survival of 2,000 pieces. Since much of the demand for Bust Dollars comes from type collectors, the price premiums, if any, are modest. That is not say that won’t take you longer to find “the right piece” for you date collection. The official mintage for the 1801 dollar was 54,454.

    1802 Dollar.jpg

    1802 Dollars

    Although the official mintage for the 1802 Bust Dollar is 41,650, Dave Bowers has increased that to 80,000. Part of high estimate is fueled by the die variety he lists as BB-241. According to Bowers it is the most common die variety among all of the Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle dollars minted from 1798 to 1803 with an estimated population of from 1,500 to 2,750 pieces. There is an overdate variety, an 1802 over 1, which was minted from four different obverse dies. Given the prolific nature of the 1802, BB-241 variety, the 1802 Bust Dollar is fairly easy to find.

    1803 Dollar.jpg

    1803 Dollars

    The official mintage for the 1803 Bust Dollars is 85,634, which includes the 19,570 dollars that were delivered in 1804. This delivery was cited as part of the “mystery” surrounding the famous 1804 dollars. Was virtually the entire mintage lost when a mysterious ship that sank? Where are all of those coins? The answer, of course, is that all of those dollars were dated 1803. The dollars dated 1804 were first made in 1834 for two or more Proof sets that were prepared for diplomatic purposes. The mint struck additional 1804 over the next two plus decades to satisfy collector demand.

    There are two “Red Book” varieties of 1803 Bust Dollars, small 3 and large 3. According to “Coin Facts,” there an estimated 1,800 Small 3 and 1,200 Large 3 surviving examples. The 1803 dollar is the second scarcest date among the Heraldic Eagle Bust Dollars. It offers only a moderate challenge for the date collector.


    Given their popularity, forming the date and major type set that I have covered here is a significant financial undertaking for many collectors. As late as the early 1990s, common date Bust dollars (e.g. a common variety 1799 dollar) in prime collector grades such as VF and EF were selling for $750 and $1,300 respectively. Prices began to move for the early dollars in 2000s. Today the Coindealer Newsletter (“Greysheet”) prices have escalated to $2,300 and $4,000 in the same grades. Although the coin market has become “soft” in recent years, the declines in value for these coins have not been large.

    These coins might seem to be pricey on the surface, but there is another way to look at the market for early dollars. Many dates in a Bust dollar collection are scarcer or almost equally as scarce as many of the key date coins that collectors regard as “rare.” Here are some examples taken from “Coin Facts:”

    Date, Mint Mark and Denomination

    Estimated Number of Survivors

    1877 Indian Cent


    1909-S-VDB Lincoln Cent


    1916-D Mercury Dime


    1901-S Barber Quarter


    1916 Standing Liberty Quarter


    1893-S Morgan Dollar


    1895-P Proof Morgan Dollar


    Rarest Early Dollar – 1794


    Most common early dollar – 1795 Flowing Hair


    Least common Bust Dollar – 1798 Small Eagle


    Most common Bust Dollar – 1799


    Least common post 1800 Bust Dollar – 1801


    In this context, one could say that the early dollars are not really over-priced, but one must remember than many collectors give scant consideration to forming date or variety sets of these coins. There is far more interest in more modern series like the Lincoln Cents, Mercury Dimes and Morgan Dollars.


    [1] The secretary of state had cabinet level responsibility for the mint during this period.

    [2] Silver Dollars and Trade Dollars of the United States, A Complete Encyclopedia p. 171

    [3] The number of stars that appeared on the obverse of U.S. silver and gold coinage varied. At first the idea was to add a star whenever a new state was admitted to the union. After Tennessee joined the union in 1796, mint offices realized that there was hardly enough room for 16 stars and no room for any more. The decision was made to only have 13 stars for the original states, but that did not end the appearance of unusual numbers, like the 1798, 15 star dollar.

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  4. GoldFinger1969

    GoldFinger1969 Well-Known Member

    Outstanding, thanks JM. :D
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  5. COOPER12

    COOPER12 Well-Known Member

    WOW Nice thanks for that , some cool history.
    johnmilton likes this.
  6. SchwaVB57

    SchwaVB57 Well-Known Member

    Very nicely done. A lot of information presented for the layman to understand! Exceptional!
    johnmilton likes this.
  7. Insider

    Insider Talent on loan from...

    I've heard much of the same said about Seated Dollars. Many have very low survival rates. The Osburn/Cushing reference seems to have stirred up more interest in the series.
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  8. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    I am sure that there are lot of "sleeper date and mint mark combinations" in the Seated Dollar series in addition the pieces that get all of the attention like the 1858-P, 1870-S and the Carson City coins. The trouble is very few collectors go for the set, unless, of course you would like the counterfeit set from China in the counterfeit Dansco holder. :vomit:
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  9. furham

    furham Good Ole Boy

    More outstanding articles. I wish I had 1/10th of the knowledge you possess. Thanks
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2020
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  10. wxcoin

    wxcoin Getting no respect since I was a baby

  11. DBDc80

    DBDc80 Numismatist

    Indeed, these are true beauties, and in my opinion, sleeping gems of early american numismatics. I have been slowly working on my vf set since 2012....they are a work in progress....but each time i add to the set i get a thrill that ive not experienced with any other series. I love seeing the dates, and wondering just who may have touched and or used the coins...true pieces of a bygone age of American history!
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