George T. Morgan: United States Chief Engraver Series

The United States coin library is extensive, isn’t it? From half cents to half dollars to dollars and more. From the design processes all the way down to the metal compositions, American coinage is complex and ever-changing.

But let us ask you this question and we want you to be quick about it: when you think US coinage, what is the FIRST coin you think about? Some might answer the American Silver Eagle. Others might answer with Lincoln Cent. If we had to put betting money on it when it came to our customers as well as our employees, a large portion would say the Morgan Silver Dollar.

SilverTowne developed its foundation and backbone on the popular Morgan Silver Dollar. We have arguably bought and sold more than anyone in the business since our beginnings 70 years ago, which makes giving the designer credit where credit is due quite easy.

George T. Morgan was born on November 24, 1845, in Birmingham, England, where he grew up and attended the Birmingham School of Art. There he took on artistic skills such as modeling and sculpting that would eventually land him a scholarship to attend the South Kensington Art School. Upon graduation, he would land a job as an assistant at the British Royal Mint where his designing and engraving talents would be honed while working under the best of teachers.

US Mint Looks For New Silver Dollar Designs

During the mid-1870s, the United States was experiencing a silver boom and the supply increased exponentially. In order to increase the money supply and combat economic issues brought on by the increase in supply, the United States Mint started looking into new designs of patterns for the silver dollar. The US Mint Director at the time, Henry R. Linderman, actively looked for a new designer that would create an original design as all the new ones presented were similar to older ones.

This caused him to reach beyond US soil and seek a talented and skilled assistant in London that would accompany the US Mint on this large task. With the help of Deputy Master for the Royal Mint, C.W. Freemantle, Linderman offered the job to George T. Morgan after being taken with his work. It was in October of 1876 at the age of just 31 when Morgan moved to the United States to work at the Mint as an assistant.

It was under Chief Engraver William Barber that Morgan got his feet wet as some of his first works included designs for a $100 Gold Union Coin in 1876 although the gold coin was never created. Alongside that design, he ended up creating a number of various designs for silver half dollars in 1877. It was not until 1878 that his most famous work would step into the spotlight: the Morgan Silver Dollar.

The Morgan Silver Dollar (1878-1921)

It was the popular design of a new silver dollar that gave George T. the most recognition. Most of the attention was the design of the coin but a small shred of attention came in the form of what some would call a “scandal” as it was said that a woman by the name of Anna Willess Williams sat for the designer as she had the perfect profile for the coin. It was unheard of at the time for a coin to feature a design inspired by a real living person in such a way. While many believe that it was she whose likeness appears on the coin, many believe that George T. Morgan adapted his design with sources unrelated to the Morgan dollar as engravers have been known to do something of the sort in the past. Nevertheless, the silver dollar went on to be one of the most beautiful and highly sought after United States coins ever as the numismatic hobby still seeks its collectibility even today.

Becoming the Seventh Chief Engraver of the United States

Morgan continued on at the Mint when William Barber died and his son, Charles, took over as the sixth Chief Engraver of the US Mint in 1879. They worked together on a number of designs, perhaps most notably the 1892-1893 Columbian Exposition Half Dollar as it was the first official United States Commemorative. Barber designed the obverse while Morgan tackled the reverse as the overall idea of the coin was to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the voyage to the New World by Christopher Columbus.

Although, during Charles Barber’s tenure as chief engraver, many believed that Morgan’s talent far exceeded Barber’s and he was criticized for such. After William Barber’s death, many believed that Morgan should have been chief engraver and Charles’ reign only occurred due to being his son. It was not until 1917 when Barber passed that George T. Morgan would finally take the post as Chief Engraver of the United States Mint at 72 years old. He later passed in 1925 after becoming ill.

Morgan’s designs made quite the impact on the numismatic hobby but it is said that under Charles Barber’s tenure, many of his designs were passed up. Although the Morgan Silver Dollar is quite the lasting legacy, the potential there were for other designs to make an even bigger impression on his legacy leaves many wondering what could have been. Nevertheless, Morgan is revered and commemorated as a very skilled and talented engraver and designer as he engraved commemorative medals for United States Presidents and Secretaries of the Treasury up until he passed.

And as we approach the 100th Anniversary of the Morgan Silver Dollar in 2021, we, the collective numismatic hobby, can only hope that there will not only be a coin or anniversary set that commemorates George T. Morgan but also commemorates the most beautiful coin to have ever been produced by the United States Mint.