The best source of information on this date is the book “The Flowing Hair Silver Dollars of 1794 – An Historical and Population Census Study” by Martin A. Logies. Mr. Logies documented the appearances of over 125 different 1794 Silver Dollars along with their auction pedigrees and other pertinent information. This information is crucial to anyone contemplating the purchase of a 1794 Silver Dollar, since many of the coins are impaired and/or or repaired.
A single pair of dies accounts for all known examples of this date. Many examples show adjustment marks on one or both sides, where excess metal was filed from the planchet before striking. At least one example shows both adjustment marks plus traces of a silver plug (which was added to the center of the coin to raise the weight of the planchet to the statutory requirement).
At some point in the striking process, the dies shifted and their faces were no longer parallel to each other. This resulted in weakness on the left side of the obverse and the corresponding area of the reverse. Only a very few 1794 Silver Dollars exhibit what can be called anywhere near a full strike.
Two copper patterns exist of this date, both unique. The first pattern shows all of the design elements except for the obverse stars (Judd 18). The second (Judd 19) is a well-struck die trial (presently in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution). Judd 18 and Judd 19 have different obverse dies, but share a common reverse. Both the obverse and reverse dies of Judd 19 were later used to make the regular 1794 Silver Dollars.
Dollars authorized: The Mint Act of April 2, 1792 authorized the production of silver dollars of 416 grains weight, with silver content of 371.25 grains, equivalent to .89243 fine. The remaining metal was to be copper, added for strength. Such coins were intended to circulate at par with Mexican and other Spanish-American silver” dollars” (of the eight reales denomination) which were common in the states at the time. Indeed, earlier the Continental Congress had denominated its paper currency in Spanish milled dollars. The framers of the Mint Act of 1792, mindful of Alexander Hamilton’s Report of January 28, 1791, chose the gross weight of 416 grains and the pure silver content of 371-1/4 grains for the silver dollar, and other silver coins in preparation, to match the average weight of Carolus dollars then in circulation, and to exceed the middle fineness Hamilton had specified. (Hamilton had specified pure silver content as ranging from 374 grains to 371 to 368, corresponding to 899, .8918 and .8846 Fine.) No one knew the official Spanish fineness (65/72=902-7/9 or .90278), but the actual Spanish dollars were not then coined in that quality.
A problem with the weight: Albion Cox, Mint assayer who was well versed in coinage (and who earlier produced New Jersey coppers), found that the statutory fineness of .89243 was difficult to attain, and he proposed adjusting it to the point at which the silver content of the dollar was 371.25 grains (thus achieving the amount of silver Congress wanted), but with the copper content lowered to 41 grains, thus yielding a 412.25-grain coin of .900456 fine silver (which was close to what Congress authorized over 40 years later under the Act of March 31; 1837). Congress did not agree with the Cox plan.
Mint Director David Rittenhouse then proposed to increase the silver content from 371.25 grains to 374.74, for a total coin weight of 416 grains, resulting in .90084 silver fineness. Under this proposal, unauthorized by Congress, all 1794 dollars and, it is believed, most if not all 1795 Flowing Hair dollars were minted. Each had 3.49 grains of extra silver, above the Mint Act’s limit of 1/144 deviation (2.578-1/8 grains) in weight of fine silver. Depositors receiving silver dollars in exchange for bullion were thus short about 1 % in value for each dollar received (see Additional Information below).
Concerning the copper with which to alloy the silver, R.W. Julian noted this: (Letter to the author, December 7, 1992)
“It is my opinion, based on the fact that I have yet to find in the Mint records any purchases of scrap copper after 1792, that the source of 99% of the copper alloy for the dollars of 1794-1804 was the copper coinage, either in misstruck half cents and cents or in the scissel (the remainder of the flattened copper ingot after the planchets had been punched out). Depositors usually had to wait several weeks for their coins, and very rarely obtained them within a month. For example, years later when silver coinage was heavy and regular in 18l4, the delays were sometimes for several months.”
Dies made: The dies for the 1794 dollar are almost certainly the work of Robert Scot, a medalist and die sinker. He had begun his career in England as a watchmaker, and had come to America, where he engaged in engraving plates for money and bills of exchange during the Revolutionary War, scales used in the office of financier Robert Morris, and plates illustrating architectural items for Dobson’s Encyclopedia, among numerous other commissions. In 1780 he produced an Indian peace medal, “Happy When United,” for the state of Virginia. In 1781 his workshop was located in Philadelphia on the west side of Front Street, near the corner of Vine.
Following the death from yellow fever in the summer of 1793 of Joseph Wright, a talented artist of whom many fine things were expected, the Mint sought to add a full-time engraver to the staff. Wright had worked on and off for the Mint, and today is credited with designing the 1792 eagle-on-globe patterns and the 1793 Liberty Cap cent, both beautiful works of art.
On November 23, 1793, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was in charge of the affairs of the Mint, wrote to Robert Scot and sent him a commission to be engraver at the Mint. To Scot fell the task of cutting the dies for coinage, including the 1794 Flowing Hair dollar. In November 1794, John Smith Gardner was hired as his assistant, but by this time the initial delivery of silver dollars had been accomplished, Probably, Gardner worked on some of the 1795 and later dies.
Planchet preparation: Silver was obtained by the Mint from various depositors, who primarily brought foreign silver coins, but often furnished silver utensils and other wrought items as well. The silver was received by the Mint, and in due course, dollars or other coins were made from the metal and paid out. Unfortunately, the Mint did not have a bullion fund, or house account, to provide for the purchase of silver and the immediate payment in kind from earlier-minted coins on hand. Under the procedure in effect during the era of the 1794-1803 silver dollars, depositors often had to wait several days or more for their coins.
After receipt, the silver would be melted, refined, cast into ingots, rolled into bars, and then rolled and drawn into sheets the thickness of the desired planchets. Great difficulties were experienced during these processes, especially with the rolling mills, as the rollers tended to deteriorate and produce strips of metal with uneven thickness. At one time, the Mint operations almost shut down because of rolling mill problems.
From the finished strip of the proper thickness, a small punch and die would cut out planchets one at a time, By this point in time, a great deal of effort and expense had been invested in creating each planchet. However, there was more to be done.
Adjustment marks: At the time the Mint did not have elaborate quality-control procedures in place, and it was difficult to produce planchets precisely of the required weight. Accordingly, the typical planchet was made slightly heavier than needed, and the weight was adjusted by hand filing to the correct level. Underweight planchets would have been useless, as their weight could not have been increased, and they instead were discarded, to go through the entire process of melting, conversion to ingots, rolling the strip, and punching planchets again. (In 1795, the problem of underweight planchets may have been solved by plugging; see description under 1795.)
Evidence of the hand filing is seen today in the form of parallel or criss-cross grooves known as adjustment marks. The majority of 1794 dollars show these marks, usually at the lower left obverse and the corresponding part of the reverse, where metal flow was not as great (due to non-parallel die alignment; in this area the dies were too far apart, little metal movement occurred, and adjustment marks on the original planchet were less likely to be obliterated).
Edge lettering: To prevent filing and clipping by the public to reduce a minted coin’s weight, it was desired to ornament the edge. In this way, the removal of silver could be detected. For the silver dollar, lettering was applied by a machine which rolled the finished planchet between two parallel steel bars, upon each of which was half of the edge lettering inscription: HUNDRED CENTS ONE DOLLAR OR UNIT and ornamentation between words.
These steel bars compressed the letters incuse into the edge of each planchet, and at the same time raised a rim around the border of each side of the planchet. Apparently, the height of the rim varied over a period of time, for some 1794-1803 dollars are known with rims that are almost flat, and others have rims that are quite high.
The raised rim did several things:
1. During the striking process, the metal could flow more easily into the toothlike notches at the edge of each die, to create denticles around the border.
2. The raised rim would protect the coin’s surface from wear, and it would last longer in circulation. Coins with low rims wore quickly; those with high rims preserved their details for a greater length of time.
3. The coins would stack better, a convenience to banks, merchants, and counting houses.
In later years (beginning with the 1836 Gobrecht issues), the Mint would raise the rims on silver dollars by means of an upsetting machine; the closed collar equalized diameters. However, in the 1790s, whatever rim was to be raised was a by-product of the process of squeezing the edge of the coin during the lettering process.
Dollars struck: In 1793 and 1794, the largest press at the Mint was intended for striking no coins larger than a half dollar. Surviving documents indicate that Mint officials lamented the lack of a press suitable for coining silver dollars and medals. It was not until spring 1795 that one was installed.
In the meantime, a screw press suitable for coining cents and half dollars was put into service to make silver dollars. The initial coinage of the new denomination was accomplished in the first part of October 1794. The effort was not completely successful, as evidenced by surviving coins which show areas of weak striking. Apparently, just one blow of the press was used (as evidenced by the lack of double struck features on surviving pieces).
Known silver dollars dated 1794 are from a single pair of dies and are believed to have been made to the extent of, perhaps, 2,000 coins (Walter H. Breen’s estimate), of which 1,758 pieces were considered to be satisfactory delivered by the coiner on October 15, 1794. The remaining impressions, possibly amounting to 242 coins, rejected as being too weak, probably were kept on hand for later use as planchets. Supporting this theory is the existence of at least one 1795 silver dollar (BB-14) plainly overstruck on a 1794 dollar.
As several die states exist, the striking could not have been continuous, but was interrupted by the removal of the dies from the press for resurfacing (relapping) after clash marks were sustained early in their life (see Die States below). The silver for striking these came from ingot deposits made by Director Rittenhouse and Charles Gilchrist [Ron Guth: researchers David Finkelstein, Joel Orosz, and Len Augsburger proved in 2017 that the silver for the 1,758 1794 Dollars came solely from David Rittenhouse, with no contributions from Gilchrist]. …Rittenhouse personally received all the first coinage of dollars. (Certain information in this paragraph is from R.W.Julian, letter to the author, December 7,1992)
The obverse and reverse die faces were not parallel, with the result that on almost all pieces surviving today the lower left obverse side appears weaker than the upper right obverse side, with corresponding weakness and strength on the opposite areas of the reverse. As the die faces remained out of parallel after having been removed from the press for resurfacing and removal of clash marks, and reinserted in the press, the cause of the maladjustment must have been that the face of one die (or, less likely, both) was not perpendicular to its shank.
After the effort at coining dollars, the project was abandoned as a bad job, and a large supply of silver dollar planchets was put into chests for storage until a larger, satisfactory press could be installed.
Thus, the mintage of 1794 dollars was much smaller than had been intended.
Reception of the dollars: So far as is known, the new 1794 silver dollars slipped into circulation and immediately began doing their duty in the channels of commerce. Despite all good intentions, when the first 1794-dated United States silver dollars reached merchants and bankers, and when their successors dated 1795, 1796, etc., did also, the Spanish-American dollars, or eight-reales pieces, were preferred over the native American product. The old eight-reales coins were worth slightly more on the market than were the sparkling new United States coins with the head of Miss Liberty on one side and an eagle on the other.
The reason is that the citizenry was familiar with the eight-reales coins, and especially in the export trade they were welcomed worldwide. Although the new United States dollars might test properly by weight or analysis, most business was done at sight, and the new coins had yet to prove their status.
By early December 1794, a few of the new dollars had traveled north to the Granite State, where the New Hampshire Gazette reported the following on December 2nd:
Some of the dollars now coining at the Mint of the United States have found their way to this town. A correspondent put one into the editor’s hands yesterday. Its weight is equal to that of the Spanish dollar but the metal appears finer. One side bears a head, with flowing tresses, encircled by Fifteen Stars, and has the word “LIBERTY” at the top, and the date, 1794, at the bottom. On the reverse, is the Bald Eagle, enclosed in an Olive Branch, round which are the words “One Dollar, or Unit, Hundred Cents.” The tout ensemble has a pleasing effect to a connoisseur; but the touches of the graver are too delicate, and there is a want of that boldness of execution which is necessary to durability and currency.
Numismatic historian Don Taxay viewed the 1794 dollar as unsatisfactory, noted that engraver Robert Scot’s “talents, never marked, show a rapid decline.” (U.S. Mint and Coinage, p. 106). He took the position that Mint Director Rittenhouse’s successor (after June 1795), William DeSaussure, did not like Scot’s work, and, apparently, not his assistant Gardner’s either, and in September 1795 went over the heads of Scot and Gardner to enlist an outside artist, John Eckstein, to redesign the dollar and replace the Flowing Hair motif with the Draped Bust obverse, Small Eagle reverse, type.
I, for one, disagree with Don Taxay and find the Scot and or Gardner work on 1794-1795 Flowing Hair coins to be very attractive, not only on the early dollars, but on half cents, large cents, half dimes, and half dollars as well. Unfortunately, very few contemporary accounts survive to tell us of the contemporary public reception of the newly minted 1794 silver dollars and their use in commerce. Coins were taken for granted, and relatively little notice was taken in print concerning them.
All too often, historians judge by today’s standards what happened two centuries ago. In 1794, the almighty Spanish-American dollar, showing “that boldness of execution which is necessary to durability and currency,” had little in the way of aesthetic appeal. Depicting the kings of Spain and, earlier, the Pillars of Hercules and two globes, these coins had virtually no fine detailing. The dies were made quickly, and crudely. By contrast, we have it on the word of an unnamed editor of a New Hampshire newspaper that the new 1794 United States silver dollar had “a pleasing effect to a connoisseur.” What more could be asked for?
Desirability of the 1794 dollar: Today, the 1794 dollar is recognized as a great classic, not only because it is rare, but because it stands as the first silver dollar produced by the fledgling Philadelphia Mint. From the inception of coin auction sales on a large scale in the 1860s, to the present day, the appearance of a 1794 silver dollar in an auction usually has provided the opportunity for the cataloguer to provide an extended comment. Similarly, 1794 dollars have occupied the spotlight in numerous dealers’ fixed-price lists over the years.
Charles Steigerwalt, in The Coin Journal, September 1880, commented as follows concerning the 1794 dollar:
The number of pieces coined in this year was not large and they have become very rare. Good specimens bring about 50 dollars. The dies of the dollars and half dollars of this year were not sharp and the impressions are generally weak; good specimens being difficult to obtain.
When Ebenezer Locke Mason wrote Rare American Coins: Their Description, and Past and Present Fictitious Values, in 1887, he focused upon this coin and noted the following:
The 1794 United States silver dollar, which occupies the centre of the group in our illustration [a collage of coins at the top of the page], was authorized by an act of Congress, April 2, 1792, and was struck at the old Mint, opposite Filbert Street, in Seventh Street, Philadelphia, and is still standing. This dollar, which is considered very rare, commanded a premium of about $25 in 1860, and has steadily advanced in fictitious value from year to year, and commanded, in every condition, in 1885, the sum of three hundred dollars.
It is said that but few of the 1794 dollars were struck, and the earliest from the dies equaled Proof pieces in their glistening splendor. The British Museum contains the best known specimen of the 1794 dollar, and probably received it as a gift from our government the year it was coined. (In a conversation with the author, August 6, 1992, Jack Collins stated that in the course of his research involving 1794 dollars he had learned that the specimen in the British Museum had been cleaned to the extent that it now shows extensive hairlines. Also, this was not a gift from any government, but came from the estate of Sara Sophia Banks who bought it from Captain Hawkins Whitshed in 1796.)
Population of 1794 dollars. The number of 1794 silver dollars known is subject to conjecture. Many pieces offered in nineteenth and early twentieth Century catalogues were not illustrated, making it difficult to trace their pedigrees with certainty today. Jack Collins, who has made a detailed study of this date, suggests 120 to 130 possibly survive.
Mint State grades: Over the years several different specimens of the 1794 dollar have been designated as Uncirculated by various cataloguers. Today, fewer than 10 coins are believed to be MS-60 or finer by current grading interpretations.
Circulated grades: Nearly all 1794 dollars seen today are in lower grades ranging from Good to Fine. Not many make the VF grade, and perhaps fewer than 15 totally are EF or better. Population report data are not particularly useful in determining the number of EF 1794 dollars known, as a number marked “EF” (or the curious “XF”) are, in my opinion, only VF. There seems to have been a grade escalation in regard to this particular date.
Caveat emptor: It is apparent that possibly two dozen or more 1794 silver dollars in numismatic hands today, ostensibly normal coins exhibiting varying degrees of wear, were at one time holed, plugged, initialed, or otherwise damaged. Over the years numerous of these have been expertly repaired so as to almost defy detection. Jack Collins, in the course of his research. on dollars of this date, has found numerous instances of damaged pieces being described as such in auction catalogues, and then later reappearing as “undamaged” coins. The inescapable conclusion is that they were cleverly repaired in the meantime. Purchasers of 1794 dollars are urged to check carefully for signs of repair.
One explanation for the survival of so many impaired coins is probably that bullion dealers and others were alerted to the rare 1794 dollars by coin collectors when the hobby was in its infancy in the 1840s and 1850s. While holed and damaged dollars of other dates, such as 1795, were even more common, the bullion dealers did not extract these as they passed through their hands. However, any dollar dated 1794 was saved, no matter what the damage was. Accordingly, a higher proportion of this date survived in damaged condition in numismatic hands than any other early dollar issue of either the Flowing Hair or Draped Bust types.