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Congress didnít like Peace $1 idea
By R.W. Julian
November 09, 2017

Before 1960 collectors were not all that interested in the Peace dollar. There were simply too many of them around in bank vaults and few varieties to attract attention. Beginning in the 1960s, however, this has changed to the point that high-quality specimens, as well as the scarcer pieces, are receiving their just due in the numismatic world.

As the name implies, this silver dollar honors the concept of peace. With the end of World War I there was a great hope that mankind would never again have such a conflict. The hope proved illusory, as events unfolded in the 1930s, but nevertheless the Peace dollar is a fine reminder of what might have been.

The origin of the Peace dollar can be traced to World War I when the British, in dire straights, were having problems maintaining order throughout their far-flung empire. In particular the London government was concerned about possible disturbances in India, where a looming shortage of silver coins might provoke unrest.

The British asked the United States to furnish silver for the Indian mints and President Woodrow Wilson agreed. Rather than buy silver on the open market it was decided to melt part of the vast hoard of Morgan dollars then filling several vaults under Treasury control.

In all some 270 million Morgan dollars were melted. Not all of this metal was shipped to India, however, as there was a need for silver in U.S. mints as well. The American declaration of war against the Central Powers in April 1917 meant a sudden increase in military orders to factories and an equally dramatic addition to the number of workers with money to spend. The mints responded with heavier coinages.

On the other hand the American silver-mining industry was less than happy about the large number of silver dollars being melted. Not only did it mean that less silver would be purchased by the government but the heavy increase in silver coinage would mean that these pieces would be in use for many years.

The silver industry had friends in Congress, primarily from the western states where mining was a key industry. The silver lobby managed to put through a stipulation – to the Pittman Act which authorized melting the coins – that the stockpile of coins had to be replaced after the end of the war; moreover the silver was to be purchased in the United States from freshly mined supplies.

The war ended in November 1918 but the high price of silver on international markets meant that the Treasury delayed beginning the purchases required by the Pittman Act. In early 1920, however, the price fell to about 70 cents per troy ounce and purchases began in May of that year. For reasons connected with domestic political considerations, the government set the buying price at one dollar per ounce, well above market value. By late June 1921 some 67 million ounces had been purchased.

The inflated value of the silver purchased no doubt meant an equal rise in the fraudulent papers that accompanied some of the silver sold to the Treasury. Those who bought silver on the secondary market, either in the United States or abroad, were able to make a quick profit if their papers certifying freshly mined U.S. silver withstood official scrutiny. In early March 1921 the price on the metals market temporarily dropped below 50 cents per ounce, adding to the incentives for the dishonest.

Not only was the government to purchase sufficient silver to replace that already used by Britain and the U.S., the metal had to be struck into silver dollars. The requirement ignored the fact that dollars generally circulated only in the West, their use in other parts of the country being restricted to birthdays and Christmas gifts.

With the ongoing accumulation of silver, the Treasury finally felt that it had a sufficient stockpile to resume dollar coinage in February 1921 at Philadelphia, San Francisco and Denver. To avoid unnecessary delays, the old Morgan design was ordered used, even though the original hubs had been destroyed some years before. George Morgan, chief engraver since 1917, worked on new hubs during the waning weeks of 1920 and the necessary working dies were on hand by early 1921.

Even though there was no dollar coinage in 1920, the small numismatic community in the United States had begun to make itself heard about a change in design. The man generally given credit in years past, Farran Zerbe, was not the first to speak out but was the best-known to do so. It was not long before two influential Congressmen, Albert Vestal and William Ashbrook, joined the growing list of people asking for a coin to commemorate the end of the Great War.

The drive to create the Peace dollar moved very slowly. In the fall of 1921 Vestal and Ashbrook attempted to put through Congress the necessary enabling legislation to authorize a Peace dollar but their attempt was thwarted by a few solons who did not understand the matter; this legislative technique requires unanimous approval and it was not obtained.

However, someone with the proper amount of enthusiasm managed to persuade Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon that the idea of a Peace dollar was a concept that deserved full Treasury backing. By law the Secretary had the power to change designs after 25 years (the Morgan dollar had been around for 43 years) and Mellon now decided to do just that.

The decision by Mellon was made in early November 1921 but it required discussions among Mint and Treasury officials for the details of the proposed changes to be worked out to everyone’s satisfaction. It is worth noting, however, that the formal declaration of peace with Germany, ending the Great War, was not made until Nov. 14, 1921.

Once peace had been declared, the way was now clear to proceed with all due haste in the creation of a Peace dollar. In late November 1921 a special circular on the design of the new coin was authorized by Secretary Mellon and sent to a handful of leading American sculptors. The general design features were spelled out though individual artists had room for personal expression. Drawings were due in Washington by Dec. 19 and the resulting competition was won by Anthony de Francisci (1887-1964).

Even though only drawings had been requested, de Francisci had taken the precaution of preparing plaster models in the event that one or both sides of his work was accepted by the judges. Thus, when his designs for both sides were announced as winners, he was ready with the necessary models for the Mint engraving department.

The obverse featured a profile of the artist’s wife Teresa Cafarelli (1898-1990) and has been justly acclaimed as an outstanding work of art. There were some minor grumblings about the “flapper” portrait when the coins were first issued but these remarks have long since been relegated to the numismatic dust bin.

Although the designs were formally approved by the Treasury, President Warren G. Harding was closely involved. During 1921 Harding, a strong advocate of world peace, had used diplomatic pressure against several countries, Japan in particular, to force them to disband much of their military capabilities, especially naval. Ships were scrapped and weapons destroyed, much to the irritation of the militarists.

The President liked the designs, especially the reverse which embodied the exact principles that he undertook to put into practice during 1921. In particular Harding believed in the Biblical injunction of ‘beating swords into plowshares,’ the cornerstone of his foreign policy.

Unfortunately for the President, a political controversy arose when veterans learned of the reverse design. Political opportunists – who disliked Harding on principle – as well as his enemies among the press, joined forces to sabotage the reverse design. In particular the reverse was portrayed as defeatist and an insult to the men and women who had fought and died in the war just ended. The charge was nonsense considering Harding’s commitment to a lasting peace, but the uproar effectively derailed the reverse design.

Facing unexpected protests by veterans, always important in future elections, the President changed his mind on the reverse design and ordered the Mint to prepare revised artwork. Chief Engraver George T. Morgan then used an alternate plaster submitted by de Francisci to prepare a new reverse.

The new artwork was shown to leaders of veterans’ groups and the President was able to gain quick approval from this important constituency. The disruption was over, but a superb design had been abandoned. Harding ordered the Treasury to begin coinage in 1921, no matter how difficult the task; it was normal procedure to thoroughly test the dies of any new design but the presidential mandate made this impossible.

Coinage began on Dec. 26 and by the end of the year 1,006,473 Peace silver dollars had been delivered at the Philadelphia Mint. These were released to the public in early January.

Once the 1921 coinage was finished, the engraving and coining departments took a careful look at the results and were less than pleased. It had taken 41 obverse dies to strike this relatively small coinage and even then most of the 1921 Peace dollars did not strike up well; the hair strands at the center of Liberty’s head are missing on many uncirculated specimens.

The Pittman Act mandated the striking of 180 more million silver dollars (in addition to the 90 million Morgan dollars already made) and this meant that the Mint engraving department was faced with the task of producing thousands of dies for just this one denomination. Morgan dollar dies in the 1880s had sometimes averaged more than 400,000 pieces but that for the 1921 Peace dollar obverse was less than 25,000.

Chief Engraver Morgan considered the problem and then executed a new set of hubs from which fresh dies were made. In particular changes were made to the curvature of the field around the head of Liberty as well as the reverse eagle.

Test coinage with the new dies began on Jan. 5, 1922, and continued until Jan. 22. During this time 35,401 coins were produced but the die wastage was even worse than the December coinage. Four obverse and nine reverse dies were used for this minuscule striking, not a good showing. The January 1922 test coinage was, however, struck at a slower rate and with more pressure to bring up the design.

The 35,000 business strike coins of January were not formally delivered to the Mint treasurer and thus were never considered coins in the legal sense. All of them, save perhaps a handful kept as souvenirs by Morgan or some other Mint official, were melted by the end of January. On the other hand, proofs were struck at Morgan’s direction for a small number of influential numismatists and today these are highly prized by their owners.

For a long time numismatists doubted the existence of high-relief 1922 Peace dollar proofs. The late Walter Breen was criticized when he authenticated a coin that had belonged to Lewis Moorman; it was the first to be so treated but in due course was followed by others once collectors realized that Breen was right.

It was obvious that something would have to be done to the dies if the tens of millions of silver dollars yet to be struck were to be completed within a reasonable time. The chief engraver decided that the relief had to be lowered to the point that die breakage would be no worse than was seen for the Morgan dollar. New plaster models were made and dies quickly prepared. Coinage resumed at full pace in February 1922 with several hundred thousand coins being normally obtained from a single die pair.

The dollars of 1921, with only 1 million made, have always been somewhat scarce. Many of those that grace modern collections were taken from bank rolls in the 1940s and 1950s. The 1921 Peace dollars were few and far between even then.

Once coinage had resumed in full force, very little besides dollars was coined at the three mints in 1922. Part of this was due to the fact that heavy wartime coinage had cut the need for fresh mintages but the overriding demand that the dollars be coined meant that everything else was expendable. The new dollars did not go into the marketplace, however, but rather into bags that were stored in government vaults. The benefits of this coinage to the American economy were negligible.

The pressure to coin dollars gradually diminished as the 1920s wound their way into history. By 1928 only nominal numbers of coins were being struck as the mandates of the Pittman Act were met during this year. The years 1922 through 1927 are easily found but the 1928 Philadelphia issue has long been known as scarce.

In 1934 the mints resumed striking silver dollars but this was more political in nature than anything else. The idea was to open some of the mines and put men back to work. The point of the 1934-1935 silver dollar strikings was public awareness of the politics involved.

Another 50 million silver dollars were melted during World War II, making certain dates much rarer than otherwise would be the case. Unlike World War I, however, there was no Congressional mandate to replace the melted coins. At the same time dollars were released from time to time, especially at Christmas, to provide a stock of such pieces for use as gifts to children.

The free-market price of silver began to inch up during the late 1950s and by the early 1960s had finally passed the official Treasury price of just over 90 cents per ounce. This in turn led to widespread hoarding of silver dollars, especially in bags. By the late fall of 1963 long lines were forming at the Treasury Building in Washington to buy bags of silver dollars; many of the buyers were of course hoping for rare dates.

This hoarding led Congress to pass a law in August 1964 mandating the resumption of silver dollar coinage. Mint officials were not pleased with the idea but made plans to coin the 45 million pieces stipulated in the act. In May 1965 striking began at the Denver Mint, using dies dated 1964, but the rising price of silver doomed the project and the 316,000 pieces already struck were ordered melted. These Peace dollars were never legally delivered as coinage but it has been claimed that a few escaped and may be found well hidden in certain private collections.

Today a growing number of collectors appreciate the inherent beauty of the Peace dollar and most observers believe that this trend will continue in the foreseeable future.

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