The Draped Bust dollar was the second silver dollar produced by the United States Mint. The design replaced the Flowing Hair dollar, which was only produced for a short time in 1794 and 1795. The Draped Bust design was part of a wholesale redesign of US coinage; all United States coins from 1795 to approximately 1807 bear a variation of this design motif. Only later would it become more common for different denominations to bear unrelated designs.
The minting technology and equipment used in the early years of the US Mint was essentially pre-industrial. Like the Flowing Hair dollars that preceded them, many Draped Bust dollars show signs of the primitive technology and poor workmanship. For example, many planchets (or “blanks,” upon which the design was pressed) were of varying weight and size. The design itself was pressed into the coins by a man-powered screw press. The dies themselves were of course produced by hand and were less durable than later dies, so many coins show signs of cracks in the dies. Other coins possess a poorly struck design due to the dies wearing out.
At this time in the Mint’s history, coins were only produced when depositors presented bullion to the Mint to be exchanged for legal tender coinage. Mintages of Draped Bust dollars were low in 1796 and 1797, but increased to a peak of 423,515 in 1799. By the turn of the century, many American silver coins were being exported to East Asia for use in trade there, and there was a resulting dearth of circulating coinage in the United States itself. Starting in 1802, Mint Director Elias Boudinot encouraged bullion depositors to accept smaller denomination coins instead of one dollar coins. The last Draped Bust dollars were produced in early 1804, though coins produced in the 1804 calendar years were dated 1803.
Production of the Draped Bust dollar was resumed some thirty years later for the purposes of a special foreign trade mission. The State Department requested that the Mint produce special proof coins which would be presented to dignitaries along the trade mission’s route. Due to a misunderstanding regarding the last date that silver dollars had been struck, these special proof coins were struck with an 1804 date. After coin collecting became more popular and collectors became interested in the 1804 dollars, additional examples were clandestinely struck during the 1850s and 1860s. The 1804 dollars are exceedingly rare and perhaps the most famous of all American coins: in 1999, a specimen sold for $4.14 million, the highest price paid for any coin to that time.