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Coins | 09.27.2021

The Silver Dollar Girl – Morgan’s Modest Model

The Silver Dollar Girl – Morgan’s Modest Model

Collecting coins opens our eyes to the past and offers a glimpse into our nation’s colorful history. Every coin has a story. The ones told about our most widely collected dollar coin are as fascinating as they are varied. The silver dollars produced between 1878 and 1921 are treasured by modern enthusiasts for their historic nature, their numismatic collectability and their investment potential. The long lived attraction for this series is deeply rooted in the denominations inherent beauty.  The dollar design created by George T. Morgan is one of many produced by the engraver, but is the crowning achievement of his work for the Mint and the only one that carries his name. The defining character behind this allure is his depiction of the Goddess Liberty. The story behind the obverse image is one of intrigue, secrecy, humility and everlasting beauty.

1873 Dr. Henry R. Linderman became the Director of the Mint. The Coinage Act of that year provided for the Trade Dollar, but had no provisions for a standard silver dollar coin.  The gold dollar was the circulating denomination, with the Trade Dollar used for commercial trade with the Orient. By 1876, Linderman had turned his interest to the minor silver coinage. His relationship with then engraver William Barber and his son Charles was less than agreeable and it was reported that their independent nature made it difficult for Linderman to truly implement his ideas.

Linderman began corresponding with C.W. Fremantle of the Royal Mint in London looking for suggestions of an engraver to come work with the Mint to forward his vision of redesign for circulating denominations. Fremantle suggested George T. Morgan a pupil Royal Mint engraver William Wyon.  The recommendation was enough, Linderman agreed and Morgan traveled to Philadelphia in September of 1876 and immediately began working for the Mint.

Linderman wanted to return to the female bust depiction of Lady Liberty a departure for the then circulating silver seated type coinage.  Then Chief Engraver William Barber, evidently was not pleased with the new hire. He forced Morgan to work from outside the Mint facilities claiming there was a lack of space. Morgan therefore did most of the modeling work from a private house where he rented space.

Soon after his arrival Morgan enrolled at the Academy of Arts in Philadelphia to continue his training and enrich his knowledge of America art. It was there he met the American artist Thomas Eakins. And through this acquaintance that he was introduced to a young school teacher by the name Anna Willess Williams, a woman Eakins had met through her father during her time as an art student.

At the time Williams worked for a girls’ school at the House of Refuge in Philadelphia. She was concerned the modelling work would be frowned upon but reluctantly accented to posing after an agreement that her identity would be kept strictly secret.  Morgan made sketches to work from during five sittings with Williams at Eakins studios late in 1876. Eakins is considered one of the pioneers in the photographic arts and it is rumored that Morgan also used an early photograph of Williams for his work. A copy of this daguerreotype image has never surfaced.

The early work was intended for a half dollar that bore Williams likeness as the obverse bust of Lady Liberty and in the style of the French 5 franc. Morgan completed clay models by December of 1876. These were reduced to plaster galvanos, and eventually made into pattern coinage that was submitted to Linderman for review. He was then tasked with creating a new eagle motif for the reverse of circulating gold coinage. But as the eventuality of a new silver dollar became apparent, Morgan was pressed to rework his designs for the larger denomination. William Barber was also working on new designs, but Morgan’s designs won out. And with the passing of the Bland Allison Act creating the legislation for the new dollar, Morgan’s portrait of Williams was set to grace the obverse of our nation’s circulating coinage. In March of 1878 production began on what is not called the Morgan dollar and continued until 1904, resurfacing briefly in 1921.

The secret of Morgan’s model didn’t last as long. In fact, Williams anonymity only lasted for about a year.  In 1879 a Philadelphia newspaper revealed her as the “Silver Dollar Girl.” Williams was reluctantly thrust into the public eye and the associated scrutiny. A position she feared from the beginning. She immediately received an abundance of offers for public appearances, private visits and acting jobs all of which she refused. And, whether she was fired for this notoriety or left on her own accord, soon after the revelation of her work with Morgan she left her position at the House of Refuge.

Eventually Williams did restart her career at the Philadelphia Girl’s School of Normalcy. She continued there as a teacher of kindergarten philosophy until the mid-1920’s. Throughout her life she maintained her modest reflection of the events that led her to appearing on our nation’s coinage. When pressed to comment she referred to it as “an incident of my youth.”  Williams avoided the fanfare for her entire life. She passed away quietly in 1926 of a stroke.

That shy young woman of 18, the so-called Silver Dollar Girl, whose profile Morgan referred to as “most nearly perfect” lives forever in our nation’s coinage.  Her portrait graces one of the great numismatic treasures in all U.S. numismatics. The Morgan Dollar series is one of the most widely collected issues in our nation’s history. From the earliest of stages the silver dollars were cherished as much for their beauty as their value. And this beauty was born out of the proper modesty of one Anna Willess Williams, a simple school teacher from Philadelphia.

The art of collecting is painted by the colorful stories that surround our nation’s coinage. At U.S. Coins, we carry a large selection of silver dollars and coins of all denominations.  We invite collectors and investors alike to visit our website or come into our brick and mortar location in Houston and check out our extensive inventory.  Our qualified team of professionals is ready to service everyone, from novices to most advanced collectors and investors. We pride ourselves in our outstanding wide range of inventory.  So whether you’re buying or selling, just getting started or looking for that rare example, give us a call. It’s never too soon to begin benefiting from our decades of experience and vast dealer network.

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US Coins hosted my son’s BSA Scout Troop to help them work towards earning their Coin Collecting merit badge. They were very helpful and willing to answer all of the questions that they had. My son wanted to get as much written down on his worksheet as possible before leaving, and Ms. Johns was kind enough to sit down with him and go through the remaining requirements that did not involve actually building a collection. A lot of us parents looked at buying US Mint Proof Sets for our Scouts, and their prices were very good. Thank you to US Coins for being great community members!
ANDREW WANG