The Challenging Seated Dollar
Unbeknownst to many collectors and historians, the one-dollar coin was not always the dominant silver denomination. Indeed, for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Half Dollar boasted the highest production levels of all silver coins. Until mining interests began influencing the federal government in the 1870s, the U.S. Mint focused on producing the Half Dollar and smaller denominations instead of the bulky Silver Dollar. Furthermore, the Silver Dollar had competition from the Gold Dollar from 1849 through 1889. Many citizens preferred the compact Gold Dollar over its sizeable silver cousin.
The net result is that Seated Liberty Silver Dollars from the 1830s through the 1870s are actually very scarce. The series began in the mid-late 1830s with the introduction of the Gobrecht Dollar, a coin that fits both the characteristics of a pattern and a business strike. Like a pattern, the Gobrecht Dollar was produced in small quantities and in proof format. It was one of the first coins to feature the Seated Liberty design, which suggests that it was created as a prototype or pattern. Yet, it is clear that the Gobrecht dollars were pushed into circulation (as evidenced by the large number of heavily worn specimens).
Officially, the Seated Liberty Silver Dollar was first issued in 1840. By this point the Gobrecht Dollar’s design has been modified slightly and finalized for regular production. Mintages started out strong, but would soon dwindle to anemic numbers by the 1850s. Production levels increased to some degree in 1859 and 1860, but would return back to miniscule amounts when the Civil War began. A tremendous number of pre-Civil War Seated Dollars were melted, as their bullion content exceeded their face value. Since a Seated Dollar was worth more dead than alive, countless pieces found their way to the melting pot.
Following the Civil War, the U.S. Mint returned to its policy of favoring smaller silver coins over bulkier dollar pieces. Mintages for Half Dimes, Dimes, Quarters and Half Dollars were strong, but Silver Dollars were being issued in relatively modest quantities. Finally the Seated Liberty denomination was discontinued after 1873. If not for the discovery of Nevada silver that decade—and considerable pressure from the mining lobby—the U.S. Mint probably would have abandoned the Silver Dollar indefinitely.
For collectors, assembling a set of Seated Liberty Dollars is a major challenge. There are numerous prohibitively rare dates that carry five and six figure price tags. Perhaps the best approach is to buy a single type coin rather than attempt to collect the series by date. A two-coin collection containing an Uncirculated business trike and a proof would also make for a nice but affordable set.