When the U.S. Mint released first-year 1878 Morgan dollars, the eagle on the reverse sported 8 tail feathers. But supposedly ornithologists stepped forward and claimed eagles had an odd number – 7 tail feathers, so the presses were halted and the design changed from 8 to 7…
Exactly how many tail feathers do Bald Eagles have?
This got me thinking… just how many tail feathers does a bald eagle have? Turns out they have 12. The tail feather story has been the stuff of numismatic lore for generations. And because generally the U.S. Mint doesn’t share their reasons for doing things, perhaps it was the way the public explained the switch from 8 tail feathers to 7 within just a few weeks of the new Morgan silver dollar’s release.
Not only do the first coins of 1878 represent the start of this popular dollar series, but the tail feather controversy also created several exciting first-year varieties. In March 1878, the Philadelphia Mint struck the first Morgan silver dollars.
Only in 1878 and only at Philadelphia
Those first Morgans are the dollars with the 8 Tail Feathers reverse, produced only in 1878 and only at the Philadelphia Mint. After striking about 750,000 Morgans with the 8 Tail Feathers reverse, Mint Director Linderman ordered new hubs for the obverse and reverse, lowering the relief and changing the tail feathers to 7 to match the number shown on other U.S. coins.
The Bland-Allison Act required the Treasury to strike millions of 90% silver dollars each month. Because preparation of new dollar dies for all of the mints would take several weeks to produce, the Philadelphia Mint simply impressed the new 7 tail feather design over the older 8 tail feather dies. This created the 2nd Philadelphia variety – the 1878 Doubled (7 Over 8) Tail Feather Morgan. (This variety, once known as 7 over 8, is now known as “Doubled Tail Feathers.”)
1878 Doubled (7 Over 8) Tail Feather Morgan.
The new 7 Tail Feather variety was the last reverse design for 1878. And yet, this last 7-feather reverse has two distinct arrow feather designs: the Parallel Arrow Feather (PAF) of April, and the Slanted Arrow Feather (SAF), May’s modification. By mid-April, the Carson City and San Francisco Mints had received their coin dies and began preparations to strike the first-year Morgans. The 7 Tail Feather reverse (with Parallel Arrow Feathers) was used at all 3 mints: Philadelphia, Carson City, and San Francisco that first year. Philadelphia also struck a number of Morgans with the Slanted Arrow Feathers.
First-year coins are always popular and especially so when they’re Morgan dollars. Little nuances like the tail feathers spark interest in the series and leads to the study of die marriages and VAMs, which further collectors’ knowledge. Certainly in our 70+ year history, anytime we’ve been able to offer the 1878 Morgan dollar Tail Feather Set, it immediately sells out, which is a testament to its popularity. It just goes to show striking 5 different reverse varieties in a matter of months was business as usual as for the U.S. Mint, but for collectors, it created a spectacular first-year Morgan dollar set that’s always in demand!