The 1886 Morgan dollar, known more officially as the Liberty Head dollar, is a silver coin that was struck at the United States Mint in Philadelphia. Nearly 20 million 1886 Morgan dollars were made, and while the vast majority were ultimately melted, enough survive today to satisfy general collector demands. The Morgan dollar, as collectors long dubbed the series of United States dollar coins struck from 1878 through 1904 (and then once more in 1921), is named for Mint engraver George T. Morgan.
Morgan was born in England and began working for the United States Mint soon after his arrival in the United States in 1876. Morgan was brought on as an assistant engraver at the Mint in October 1876 and worked under then-Chief Engraver William Barber. In addition to the Liberty Head dollar, Morgan has several coin design credits to his name, including the Columbian half dollar of 1892 and 1893, and an array of pattern coins designed during the late 19th century, most notable of these being the never-released $100 Gold Union coin.
The 1886 Morgan dollar is a coin that most hobbyists classify as common in all but the higher uncirculated grades. A relatively tiny number of just 886 specimens of the 1886 Morgan dollar were also struck in Proof. Many of these still survive, some as gorgeous cameo or deep cameo proofs with mirror-like surfaces. 1886 proof Morgan dollars with brilliant, mirror-like surfaces and cameo effects score much higher premiums than 1886 proof Morgan dollars with dull surfaces and little to no cameo frosting on the lettering and devices.
The obverse of the 1886 Morgan dollar exhibits the characteristic left-facing Liberty Head motif seen on all issues of this classic dollar series. The central Liberty bust wears a Phrygian cap encircled with a ribbon adorned with the inscription LIBERTY. Miss Liberty also wears a crown of wheat and cotton, which were two of the nation’s most lucrative natural agricultural assets in the 19th century.
The phrase E PLURIBUS UNUM is inscribed along the upper half of the obverse rim, and the date 1886 is centered at the bottom of the obverse adjacent to the rim. Seven stars appear between the left side of the date and the inscription E PLURIBUS UNUM, while six stars fill the gap between the date and motto on the lower right side of the coin. In total, the 13 stars symbolize the 13 colonies that combined to form the original Union of the United States. At the base of Liberty’s neck is the “M” monogram representing Morgan’s initial.
Morgan designed the Liberty head bust after the likeness of Anna Willess Williams, a Philadelphia schoolteacher who modeled for the coin. Williams received significant public recognition after her face appeared on the Morgan dollar, but she rejected the attention that was heaped upon her. She refused offers for acting roles and apparently had turned down an offer for marriage following her engagement to an unknown suitor. Before dying at the age of 68 in 1926, Williams, who sat for Morgan on the sworn condition of anonymity, rebuffed her single stint as a coin design model as little more than an “incident of my youth”.
The reverse of the 1886 Morgan dollar is dominated by a heraldic eagle, its wings spread across the upper half of the coin. Between the upper tips of the eagle’s wings appears the motto IN GOD WE TRUST. The eagle clutches an olive branch in its right claw representing peace and in its left claw are three arrows symbolizing the nation’s ability to defend itself. The central eagle design is partly encircled by a laurel wreath.
Along the rim of the upper two-thirds of the reverse is the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, with the tip of the eagle’s left wings, which virtually touch the coin’s rim, interrupting the space between UNITED and STATES; the right wing visually divides the words OF and AMERICA. The words ONE DOLLAR, seen at the bottom center of the reverse, are flanked by a single, six-sided star on either side of the denomination inscription.
The edge of the 1886 Morgan dollar is reeded.
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