The history of silver as money goes back many thousands and thousands of years. Silver coinage first appeared around 600 BC in current day Turkey, and from there it has been used in every major empire, from the Greeks & Romans to the Spanish and current day United States.
I’d like to take a look at the history of US silver coins that have been used as money since our nation begun. It’s amazing how few people even realize that for the first ~ 175 years of the US, silver was used in everyday coins and circulated throughout the economy as common money up until the year 1964, when they stopped making silver coins.
Even though many coins overlap in dates, I organized the events in a timeline to view it in chronological order. I also included the dates of the various Coinage Acts and how they affected silver coinage. Take some time to look at the coins’ designs and appreciate the artwork.
- Silver Mandated as Legal Tender
1789It begins. The Constitution goes into effect after the 1st Congress convened on March 4, 1789, replacing the Articles of Confederation. The power to coin money was given to Congress, and no state shall ... make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts. Article I Section 10.
- First US Mint Established
1792 The Coinage Act of 1792 establishes the First Mint in Philadelphia, PA and that the silver dollar would be the unit of Money in the US. From this Act would eventually come the following silver coins, the Silver Dollar, half dollar, quarter dollar, dime, and half dime.
Also, the ratio of 1 gold unit would equal 15 silver units of given proportion. Oh, and for anyone caught debasing (replacing the silver with other metals) or making fake silver coins, the death penalty! How times have changed.
- Flowing Hair Half-Dime (1794 - 1795)
1794Considered to be the first coin ever minted, the Flowing Hair Half Dime was struck for just 2 years from 1794-1795. Coin was designed by Robert Scot and contains approximately 89.2% silver and 10.8% copper weighing only about 1.35 grams and containing roughly 0.0434 ounces of silver. There is an estimated 86,425 coins in circulation, so these coins will sell for a good 5 figures in the right condition.
- Flowing Hair Half Dollar (1794 - 1795)
1794Continuing in the Flowing Hair series is the Flowing Hair Half Dollar, or the standard fifty-cent piece. Although the dollar was the standard, the half dollar quickly became more common in everyday transactions due to its mass circulation and lighter weight. Plus, with .434 troy ounces of silver at 89.2% with the remaining balance in copper, a single half dollar was sometimes more than a day's wages in 1795. A total of 323,144 flowing hair half dollars were minted.
- Flowing Hair Dollar (1794 - 1795)
1794 The Flowing Hair Dollar is one of the most unique and prized silver dollar coin in the US mintage history. Interestingly is that this coin was based on the weight and size of the Spanish Dollar, which was very prevalent at the time. A recent 1794 Flowing Hair Dollar sold for over $10 million dollars! A total of 162,053 coins were struck, about half that of the Half Dollar.
- Draped Bust Dollar (1795 - 1804)
1795 Quickly ending the Flowing Hair design, the Draped Bust Dollar began circulating in 1795 up until 1804. It was rumored that the new mint director, Henry William de Saussure appointed in 1795, was responsible for the abrupt change in design. The 1804 Draped Bust Dollar is notorious for its rarity & prestige. It was requested by President Andrew Jackson to be back-minted for trade missions and is often titled the "King of Coins".
- Draped Bust Half Dime (1796 - 1805)
1796 The draped bust half dime began circulation in 1795 only to end 2 years later in 1797. The series continued in 1800 - 1805. There were 2 obverse designs, the small eagle and a large heraldic eagle with outstretched wings (shown). All the coins were minted in Philadelphia with no mintmark and a total of 179,027 half dimes were struck, with only 3,060 coins in the year 1802.
- Draped Bust Dime (1796 - 1807)
1796The Draped Bust Dime was the first dime to appear in the US. With no indication of its denomination, the coin's obverse featured 15 stars to represent each of the states in the Union. When Tennessee entered in 1797, 16 stars were included, but was changed back to the original 13 by Elias Boudinot to prevent clutter with new states being added. Over 469,406 Draped Bust dimes were struck and included 31 different varieties of dimes.
- Draped Bust Quarter (1796 - 1807)
1796 The Draped Bust Quarter was the first quarter to appear in the US. Interesting to note, how common the quarter is today, yet the half-dime, half-dollar, and silver dollar were all minted earlier. After just 1 year of minting, the Draped Bust quarter was halted and only resumed in 1804 again with the heraldic eagle on the obverse. A total of 561,045 coins were minted, with the 1796 Draped Bust Quarter being the rarest.
- Draped Bust Half Dollar (1796 - 1807)
1796The end of the Draped Bust series, the Draped Bust Half Dollar again features lady Liberty with flowing hair tied in a ribbon that extends into the draped bust. Rumor has it that Ann Willing Bingham was the lady featured on the Draped Bust series, drawn by artist Gilbert Stuart. Over 1,604,705 coins were struck with only 3,918 coins for the years 1796-1797.
- Capped Bust Half Dollar (1807 - 1839)
1807Moving on from the Draped Bust, the next design in American silver coinage was the Capped Bust. For the Capped Bust Half Dollar it was struck from 1807 - 1839. This design shows Liberty wearing a cloth cap on her head instead of the flowing free hair in previous designs. The denomination is noted with a 50 Cents or Half Dol. With this series, a significant ramp up in production of coins appears, with around 91,088,096 Capped Bust Half Dollars struck.
- Capped Bust Dime (1809 - 1837)
1809Capped Bust Dime featuring Lady Liberty wearing a Phrygian or Freedom Cap, this was often used as a symbol of the American Revolutionary War. This design was by German born, John Reich who replaced Robert Scot's earlier designs. Denomination is noted by 10 C. for 10 cents. Total coins minted are 71,690,392 Capped Bust Dimes with 123 known varieties.
- Capped Bust Quarter (1815 - 1838)
1815Capped Bust Quarters enter the scene in the year 1815 til 1838 with a pause from 1828 - 1831. With new machinery and equipment the US Mint would continue production. Denomination of this coin is marked by a 25 C. Proofs also exist with this coin, but are extremely rare with immense value. Total circulation strikes of this coin are 5,328,984 Capped Bust Quarters.
- Capped Bust Half Dime (1829 - 1837)
1829Concluding the Capped Bust series is the Capped Bust Half Dime which began circulation in 1829 after a 24 year hiatus. The same date that coincided with the inauguration of the second Philadelphia Mint which would eventually open in 1833. The total number of Capped bust Half Dimes struck were 13,058,700, with just under 10-20 proofs per year.
- Coinage Act of 1834
1834 The Coinage Act of 1834 was responsible for raising the silver-to-gold ratio from 15:1 since 1792 to 16:1. This put a 1 ounce gold coin at $20.67. The history behind its passage lies with President Andrew Jackson and his fight against a Central Bank. President Jackson feared a Central Bank would use its power to exploit the country (How right he was!).
- Gobrecht Dollar (1836 - 1839)
1836The Gobrecht Dollar was the first silver dollar produced since the halt of minting silver dollars in 1805. Designed by Christian Gobrecht, his name is prominently displayed on the coin just above the year. This design would ultimately make way for the next major series in American Coinage, the Seated Liberty. A restrike of the coin in 1837 led to the standard 90% silver 10% copper composition instead of the 89.2% and 10.8% of previous years. An estimated 1900 were produced making them very rare and valuable. It was also the
- Seated Liberty Half Dime (1837 - 1873)
1837The Seated Liberty Half Dime was the last half dime ever minted. In this design, taking from Gobrecht, we have Lady Liberty seated holding a shield looking over her shoulder. The reverse features the inscription United States of America with the denomination "Half Dime". A total of 84,828,478 coins were struck at the New Orleans, San Francisco, and Philadelphia Mints.
- Seated Liberty Dime (1837 - 1891)
1837The Seated Liberty Dime not much different than the half dime, features Liberty sitting on a rock holding a staff. She also dons a Liberty cap with the Liberty shield in her right hand. There are many varieties of this series; large vs. small date, partial drapery vs. no drapery, closed bud vs. open bud, and short flag vs. long flag to name a few. Total circulation strikes are 247,477,444.
- Seated Liberty Quarter (1838 - 1891)
1838The Seated Liberty Quarter was debuted in 1838 and continued production until 1891. Several years feature the Carson City Mint Mark or CC from 1870 - 1878. These are a very sought after coin as they are very rare fetching extremely high prices. The total coins struck were 155,910,955.
- Seated Liberty Half Dollar (1839 - 1891)
1839The Seated Liberty Half Dollar continues the series with Lady Liberty on the obverse and the heraldic eagle on the reverse, which was taken from earlier designs by John Reich. This coin was struck at 4 different mints: New Orleans, San Francisco, Carson City, and Philadelphia which minted a majority of the coins. In total over 155,215,816 half dollars were struck in circulation.
- Seated Liberty Dollar (1840 - 1873)
1840 The Seated Liberty Silver Dollar started up production in 1840 after demand again began requesting the silver dollar again for circulation. However, soon after the California Gold Rush began which pushed the price of silver up relative to gold. This urged people to keep the coins as bullion or export them overseas to foreign investors. The Civil War from 1861 - 1865, also limited coins being struck as well as entering circulation due to the presence of inflationary greenbacks. The Coinage Act of 1873 finally ended minting of the silver dollar.
- 3 Cent Silver Piece (1851 - 1873)
1851 The 3 cent silver piece was a one of a kind coin, that was minted from 1851 – 1873. This denomination was requested because at the time the postage stamps were 3 cents. 1851 – 1853, the coin was 75% silver and 25% copper, until in 1854 the coin changed to 90% silver and 10% copper to promote use. These coins were called 'fishscales' because of their small size and ease of discolor. One of main reasons for removal was the confusion with the silver dime which was similar in diameter. Over 42,718,300 3 cent silver pieces were minted for circulation.
- Coinage Act of 1864
1864 The Coinage Act of 1864 authorized Congress and the US Mint to place the phrase "In God We Trust" on all silver coins. The phrase would later replace E Plubris Unum as the national Motto. For a more in depth look, read a History of 'In God We Trust', on the Treasury.gov website. This Act also authorized the minting of the 2 cent copper piece.
- Coinage Act of 1873
1873The Coinage Act of 1873, also known as the Crime of 1873, was the Act that put the US on the Gold Standard, thus demonetizing silver. As a result of this Act, it stopped the production of the silver dollar (Seated Liberty) but allowed the minting of a Trade Dollar for foreign commerce. It also stopped production of the 3 cent piece and the half dime. The Free Silver Movement would spring forth as miners and other silver proponents fought to bring silver back.
- Trade Dollar (1873 - 1885)
1873-01The short-lived US Trade Dollar has a unique history. It was specifically made for foreign use and international trade. With the Coinage Act of 1873 that demonetized silver, the Trade Dollar was a way to continue using silver dollars. The designer of this coin was William Barber who was the fifth Chief Engraver at the US Mint. A majority of the coins were sent to the Far East, specifically China and Hong Kong for commerce to compete with the Spanish Silver Dollar. Business strikes were minted up until 1878, with proof strikes lasting until 1885 when the coin ceased being struck. A total of 35,965,939 coins were struck.
- Twenty Cent Piece (1875 - 1878)
1875The US Twenty Cent Piece had a short life of only 3 years. The failure of this coin to take off was it resembled too much in similarity and size to the quarter, so people often confused the two. Banks were reluctant to be buying silver twenty cent pieces so demand was also absent. The design is very similar to the Seated Liberty series on the obverse and contains the full denomination "Twenty Cents" on the reverse. 1,349,930 coins were minted for circulation.
- Morgan Dollar (1878 - 1921)
1878Resuming production of the silver dollar since the Coinage Act of 1873 is the Morgan Dollar. This coin features Lady Liberty's side profile on the obverse with a heraldic eagle and outstretched wings on the reverse. The Act that jump started production again was the Bland-Allison Act which stated the Mint would purchase said amount of silver per month and strike them into coins. Production continued until 1904 when it stopped and resumed again only for 1 year in 1921, when the Peace Dollar took over. 656,930,590 total coins were minted.
- Barber dime (1892 - 1921)
1892The Barber dime is the next in American coinage series featured on the dime, quarter, and half dollar. Designed by Chief Engraver, Charles Barber, the dime features Liberty on the obverse wearing a wreath and headband with the words Liberty. The highlight in this series is the 1894-S Barber dime, which is a highly coveted coin in the numismatic world comparable to the 1804 Draped Bust Silver Dollar. One recently sold for over $2 million dollars! Total coins in circulation is 504,515,051.
- Barber Quarter (1892 - 1916)
1892Barber Quarters came into circulation in 1892. The head of Liberty is a purely classical rendition of a Roman style portrait and is also referenced to the French 'Ceres' coinage in the late 19th century. The reverse differs from the Barber dime by featuring a heraldic eagle representing the Great Seal of the US. 2 key dates with low minting making the coin value rare and high are 1901-S and the 1913-S strikes. A total of 264,670,792 coins were struck.
- Barber Half Dollar (1892 - 1915)
18921892 was a busy year, the first basketball game was played in Massachusetts, General Electric is formed, University of Chicago opens, and the 1892 Barber Half Dollar is struck! This coin was struck at all 4 mints Philadelphia, Denver, New Orleans, and the San Francisco Mint. The 1892-O and the 1914 Half Dollars can fetch high prices due to their rarity. A total of 135,898,329 coins were minted.
- Mercury Dime (1916 - 1945)
1916 The Winged Liberty Head or "Mercury" Dime, is sometimes said to be the most beautiful coin ever minted! Breaking away from Barber's design, the obverse figure is Goddess Liberty, not the Greek mythological one, wearing a Phrygian cap with wings to the side of its head symbolizing freedom of thought. On the reverse is a fasces or bundle of rods with a blade to the left side. Mintages of this coin soared with a total of 2,676,523,880 coins.
- Standing Liberty Quarter (1916 - 1930)
1916Following the Barber Quarter is the Standing Liberty Quarter. This new design by Hermon MacNeil, depicts Liberty standing facing to the viewer's right with shield in her left and an olive branch in her right hand as she walks through a gate with the inscription "In God We Trust". Doris Doscher, a silent movie actor, posed as Lady Liberty for MacNeil. A flying eagle is on the reverse. A total of 226,770,400 quarters were minted.
- Walking Liberty Half Dollar (1916 - 1947)
1916The Walking Liberty Half Dollar design was a result of a Fine Arts competition that the Mint Director Robert Woolley held. The obverse features Lady Liberty walking towards a dawning sun holding branches with the US flag over her shoulder. The reverse depicts an eagle perched on a branch in a heraldic pose. The Walking Liberty design would later be borrowed to mint the ever popular American Silver Eagle. 485,320,340 half dollars were produced.
- Peace Dollar (1921 - 1935)
1921The Peace Dollar is the last silver dollar to be struck for circulation. The design was to represent "Peace" memorializing the end and peace after World War I. The initial design was that of a broken sword, but was immediately rejected as it conjured up thoughts of defeat. The obverse features Liberty's side portrait with the reverse an eagle at rest with an olive branch in its grip. Production ceased in 1935. In 1964, trial production of the Peace Dollar began again, only to be stopped as political pressure was applied about the hoarding of coins. This would eventually lead to the Coinage Act of 1965. In total, 190,577,270 coins were minted.
- Washington Quarter (1932 - 1964)
1932The Washington Quarter was struck to honor and celebrate the bicentennial birth of the first president George Washington. There was actual intention of a Washington Half Dollar but later was changed to the quarter, due to waning demand from the Depression. The obverse of the coin depicts Washington's head facing left, the reverse features a bald eagle outstretched on a bundle of arrows and two olive branches below. 90% silver quarters would cease in 1965 with the Coinage Act, but the Washington quarter would continue being struck until 1998 in 75% copper and 25% nickel. A total of 3,776,126,601 silver quarters were struck.
- Jefferson "Wartime" Nickel 1942 - 1945
1942The Jefferson 'Wartime' Nickel was initially minted beginning in 1938, but for a brief period from 1942-1945 it was struck in 35% silver and 56% copper with the remains in manganese. The reason for the change was because during World War II, nickel was in high demand and a critical metal, so the Mint adjusted the composition. Wartime nickels had their Mintmarks above the Monticello on the reverse, while all other nickels had theirs positioned to the right. A total of 869,896,100 nickels were struck during this period.
- Roosevelt Dime (1946 - 1964)
1946Following Franklin D. Roosevelt's death in 1945, Congress soon pushed for replacing the Mercury dime with Roosevelt's image. This was also to honor his work with the March of Dimes, which raised donations to fight polio and infantile paralysis. John R. Sinnock was the chief engraver at the time and responsible for the current design. Silver content was removed in 1965, however, this coin and its design continues to this day. A total of 6,595,617,673 silver dimes were put in circulation.
- Franklin Half Dollar (1948 - 1963)
1948The Franklin Half Dollar features Benjamin Franklin on the obverse and a cracked Liberty bell on the reverse. Many critics complained the crack featured on the bell would be ridiculed, but the Mint continued anyway. It also features a small eagle next to the bell, to satisfy the legal requirement that all Half Dollars must depict an eagle. The Mint Director at the time, Nellie Tayloe Ross, wanted to honor Franklin and his famous quote of "A penny saved is a penny earned". A total of 465,814,455 Franklin half dollars were minted.
- Kennedy Half Dollar (1964 - 1970)
1964With the death of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, there was immediate discussion to put Kennedy on a coin as a memorial. Jacqueline Kennedy preferred the half dollar as she did not want to replace Washington on the quarter. In March 1964 the Kennedy Half Dollar began production. The majority of these coins were never circulated due to collectors. Starting in 1965, the silver content was reduced from 90% down to 40% to encourage circulation but the coin was still kept in individual's hands. In 1971, silver was completely eliminated from the coin, yet the half dollar had been so long out of circulation banks & the population expressed little interest in using it. A total of 848,895,006 Kennedy Half dollars with silver were struck.
- Coinage Act of 1965
1965This act completely eliminated silver from dimes and quarters, and reduced the silver content from 90% to 40% in the Kennedy Half Dollars. This act was brought about because of coin shortages from people hoarding silver as the price rose relative to the USD. Prseident LBJ who signed the act into Law commented,
"When I have signed this bill before me, we will have made the first fundamental change in our coinage in 173 years. The Coinage Act of 1965 supersedes the act of 1792. And that act had the title: An Act Establishing a Mint and Regulating the Coinage of the United States. "
In an ironic sense, he goes on to state,
"If anybody has any idea of hoarding our silver coins, let me say this. Treasury has a lot of silver on hand, and it can be, and it will be used to keep the price of silver in line with its value in our present silver coin. There will be no profit in holding them out of circulation for the value of their silver content. "
You can read President Lyndon B. Johnson's full remarks on signing the act.
I can honestly say while I was researching this topic, I began to really enjoy the artwork and craftsmanship of each coin, and can begin to appreciate why numismatic coin collectors do what they do. Silver coins have a fascinating history used as money here in the US, and hope you enjoyed this as much as I did.
The one question that remains is:
When will the Coinage Act that reintroduces silver into our Monetary system be signed into effect?
Images courtesy of Jhon E. Cash CCF Numismatics Heritage Auction Galleries