Silver Dollars

The dollar is the currency of the United States, and is one of the major types of money to be found in the world. Those who have visited Eastern Europe and other “second world” economies will know that it is used more widely by the ordinary people of the world than even the stronger Euro. The dollar is viewed as a rock of value by tens of millions of people who speak no word of English and have never visited the nation of the “Stars and Stripes”.

Silver dollars have a long history, one which continues today with the dollar-denominated silver bullion coins issued by the U.S. Mint. Though these coins are no longer the main legal tender of the United States, they are still prized by collectors both within America’s borders and elsewhere in the world.

Several issues of American coins have had the dubious distinction of having less than 99.9% purity – being, in fact, only 90% pure silver, putting them roughly on a par with the early, poor quality Silver Pandas of China. That is scarcely the numismatic company that most governments would like to cultivate, but this appears to be a thing of the past, and modern Silver Eagles are the standard 1 troy ounce of .999 millesimal fineness silver.

Early History of the Silver Dollar

The silver dollar first entered the North American colonies in the form of silver Spanish dollars, which were an extremely common medium of exchange and trade in the early, unformed days of the nation. These silver coins were in higher circulation than the British pounds which were the theoretical official monetary units of the Colonies. For this reason, Americans became accustomed to calling their currency “dollars”, and after independence, it was only natural that the currency should bear the same name.

The amount of silver that a dollar was worth was first set by reference to the Spanish silver dollar. Early silver dollars therefore weighed slightly more than ¾ of a troy ounce (24 grams as opposed to 31.1 grams), simply based on the arbitrary size that the Spanish authorities used for minting their own silver coins. Early silver dollars therefore weigh about 25% less than a modern Silver Eagle, and possibly less if they are heavily worn.

The first production of American silver dollars began in 1794, and was, unfortunately, bungled to some extent. The coins were made lighter than Spanish dollars, which resulted in most of them being sent overseas to purchase Spanish dollars, ensuring that the Spanish money continued to circulate for decades as the main currency of the United States.

More Errors Create Collectible Rarities

Luckily for coin enthusiasts and collectors, the United States Treasury continued to foul up its silver coin production appallingly for decades, creating large numbers of rare and unusual coins through their mistakes. The bizarre striking errors of many early silver dollars, including mis-struck coins, those with cracks and unusual markings, and so on, create a multitude of variants, each of which seems to be rarer than the last.

The 1804 silver dollar is probably the planet’s rarest known silver coin. There had been a thirty year gap in silver production between 1804 and 1834, when the coin was actually struck, so the Treasury decided to strike dollars with the older date as though production had never been interrupted. Only a tiny number were minted, and only eight survive, each with a numismatic premium in the millions of dollars.

Interestingly, the coins were recognized as valuable within a decade or two of their production, and a mint employee counterfeited a number in the 1850s to sell to collectors for an already large profit. How many were made was unknown, but only 9 are known to survive today, making them practically as valuable as the originally, officially sanctioned mintage.

Silver Dollars from the 1870s to the 1970s

A succession of silver dollars continued to be minted by the United States government from the years immediately following the Civil War through the end of the silver standard in the early 1970s.

The Seated Liberty Dollars and Trade Dollars of the later 19th century caused immense trouble in their own day, due to the fact that their nominal face value ($1) was higher than the actual spot value of their constituent silver at the time. This led to a number of scams, problems, and unscrupulous practices carried out by large American businesses, which, as usual, caused ordinary workers to be defrauded of their already low wages almost entirely.

Though laden with scandal and the more destructive aspects of greed in their own day, these silver dollars are highly collectible today. The succeeding Morgan Dollars were minted in vast numbers, and though the government melted over 80% of them at the end of World War I, there are millions of examples surviving and the numismatic premium of these coins over spot price is very low.

Peace Dollars are another mid 20th century silver dollar, which are now illegal and would be confiscated if someone possessed one of these and brought it to public attention within the territory of the United States. Within the United States, therefore, its value can be said to be zero dollars, since it will be seized without compensation as soon as it becomes visible to officialdom.

Silver Eisenhower Dollars were minted in the 1970s, though non-silver dollars of precisely the same appearance were also minted in vast numbers. The silver content of these coins was catastrophically low, at only 40% pure silver – a mere trace compared to high quality modern silver bullion dollars.

The Silver Eagles of Today

The silver dollar of the modern age is the American Silver Eagle, a one troy ounce silver bullion coin with a nominal face value of $1. Of course, these coins are worth far more than a single dollar – their spot value alone is over $30 at current market prices for silver. However, they are made to the excellent standards which makes them just as collectible as Canadian Silver Maple Leaves, Chinese Silver Fans, or Vatican silver Euros. Thanks to the modern era’s avid thirst for silver bullion coins, the silver dollar is alive and well in the age of the computer, DNA, and spacecraft.

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