The Origin of the Peace Dollar

America's Last Circulating Silver Dollar

By the early 20th Century, it appeared that the era of the silver dollar in the U.S. had come to an end. By this time, most Americans preferred to use paper money instead of carrying around heavy silver dollars. In fact, silver dollars circulated widely only in the sparsely populated West and South. In the rest of the country, silver dollars were stockpiled in banks and U.S. Treasury Department vaults.

In 1918, Congress passed the Pittman Act to replenish the government’s reserves of silver bullion by officially melting millions of the Morgan Dollars in the Treasury vaults. As a result, more than 270 million Morgans were lost to the melting pots — a number that reflected almost half the mintage of Morgans from 1878 to 1904. The Pittman Act also required the government to create a new silver dollar to be struck with silver purchased from the powerful mine owners in the West. With World War I having just ended, thoughts of commemorating world peace following the war’s massive bloodshed and destruction fit the mood of most Americans.

Commemorating World Peace

The idea of a silver dollar commemorating world peace was first put forward at the 1920 American Numismatic Association convention in Chicago by influential coin collector Farran Zerbe. The ANA supported the idea and created a committee to present the request to Congress. On May 9, 1921, the Peace Dollar bill was introduced in Congress. On the very same day, though, it seemed the idea of creating a new silver dollar would be delayed because the U.S. Mint started striking Morgan Silver Dollars again, in compliance to provisions of the Pittman Act. However, the Treasury Department liked the idea of a new silver dollar and announced a design competition for the new coin.

What the ANA had failed to realize was that because the Morgan Silver Dollar had been in use for over 25 years, Congressional approval was not required for a design change. The idea of a competition for the coin’s design was very popular at the time because it allowed the nation’s most experienced artists and sculptors to compete against one another. With such fierce competition, it is not surprising that some of America’s most beautiful coins were created in the first decades of the 20th Century — Mercury Dimes, Standing Liberty Quarters, Washington Quarters, Walking Liberty Half Dollars and Silver Peace Dollars.

Creator of the Peace Silver Dollar

In November 1921, eight of the nation’s leading sculptors were invited to submit designs for a new silver dollar to replace the Morgan Dollar that had been in circulation since 1878. A 33-year-old Italian immigrant by the name of Anthony De Francisci won the competition and the $1,500 first-place prize. He defeated such experienced coin designs as Victor D. Brenner (designer of the Lincoln Cent), Herman A. MacNeil (designer of the Standing Liberty Quarter) and Adolph A. Weinman (designer of the Mercury Dime and Walking Liberty Half Dollar). De Francisci’s design portrayed his wife, Teresa Cafarelli, as Lady Liberty wearing a crown of rays modeled after that on the Statue of Liberty.

Both De Francisci and his wife were Italian immigrants and were fascinated by the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Appropriately for a coin issued in honor of peace, the reverse design shows an eagle holding only the olive branches of peace rather than the usual olive branches and arrows of war. The coin’s original design showed the eagle breaking a sword to symbolize disarmament at the end of the war. Mint officials were concerned that this would be interpreted as a symbol of defeat. Assistant engraver George T. Morgan altered De Francisci’s design at the last minute.

First Peace Dollars 

The first Peace Dollars were struck at the Philadelphia Mint on December 26, 1921, and just over 1 million coins were struck before the end of the year. The first coin was presented to President Warren G. Harding on January 3, 1922, after which the rest of the 1921-dated coins were released into circulation. The 1921 coins are unique among Peace Dollars because they show exceptionally high relief. In fact, the relief was so high that it caused problems on the coining presses and bankers complained that they would not stack properly. George T. Morgan was called upon once more and modified the design so that the 1922 coins were of a lower relief, making the 1921 coins the only Peace Dollars with a high relief design.

End of the Peace Dollar

The Peace Silver Dollar was minted every year until 1928 when the silver originally purchased from the Western mine owners as part of the Pittman act ran out. In the nearly two decades before the Peace Dollar was first introduced, Americans had gotten used to managing without large silver dollars and had become used to paper money. Because of this, few Peace Silver Dollars actually circulated outside of the Nevada gambling casinos.

In late 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a proclamation requiring the U.S. Mint to once again strike silver dollars from newly purchased silver. Small numbers of Peace Dollars were issued in 1934 and 1935 to use up this silver. Minted at the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints, these were America's last circulating silver dollars.

Struck only for 10 years, millions of Peace Dollars met the same fate as the Morgan Dollar where the Wartime Act of 1942 caused the melting of Peace Dollars for the war effort. Untold millions more were melted in later years as the price of silver shot up to over $50 per ounce in the 1980s. No one knows for sure how many historic Peace Silver Dollars still remain today, but it is certain that they are some of the most popular and widely collected American coins in the world.

The Mysterious 1964 Peace Dollar

The Act of August 3, 1964, called for the U.S. Mint to issue 45 million silver dollars at a time when the silver content in dimes, quarters and half dollars were either being eliminated or lowered. Before the Treasury Department changed its mind and decided not to mint the coins, the Denver Mint had already struck 316,076 Peace Dollars dated 1964. They were not released into circulation, so the coins were melted — but at least seven 1964 Peace Silver Dollars are thought to have escaped destruction. These coins (if they exist) are the most elusive and talked-about silver coins of the 20th Century.