Our Total Collection
Coins by Grade
Coins by VAM
The Aging VAM 1D
Devolving VAM 5
1881 The Mint & NO
One and Done
Two and Through
Basic Date Issues
While this discussion might go down in the "Minutia Hall of Fame", we decided that a beneficial study would be the date numerals on the 1881-O. Specifically we can take a look at these items.
Maybe we can shed some light on these issues and maybe not, but fun to think about. One thing to our advantage is good old Photoshop and the ability to overlay, flip, and otherwise compare numerals in ways that would not have been possible in years past.
Date Positioning Variation
One advantage with the 1881-O is that so far no date positioning VAMs have been identified. In other words there seem to be no near versus far, nor high versus low date varieties. This can be the result of several mint decisions, but most likely is that the control over the date addition was tight, and early enough in die creation to avoid variation.
Also, there are no variations that might produce "sub-varieties" such as the 18 always being positioned the same, but the 81 not always being aligned the same. So the 1881-O is a good one to examine because the variables are manageable.
In the 1881-O series there is a lot of date doubling. In fact almost all identified varieties have date doubling in some fashion. If you study Morgan Dollars you know that the date doubling often comes from multiple strikes of the punch in trying to get a complete impression into the die. The annealing of the die blank could also have played a role, as well as the repeated annealing and tempering to produce the finished working die.
Because date doubling is so important, this makes purchasing coins over the Internet difficult since images are rarely of sufficient quality to pick out the date details. It is often necessary to understand the other markers on coins when buying this way. But understand all the markers on a variety is just good practice so nothing is lost in the effort.
Adding the Date
Dates were added to dies by using a hardened steel punch in a device known as a jig. The jig is nothing more than a device for ensuring the proper alignment of the die before adding features. Since the date, stars, and other obverse features seem to be properly aligned on all dies, the use of a jig seems almost assured. However, the actual punching was done by hand and date doubling occurred when the mint employee felt that more than one blow was needed to make a deep enough impression into the working die. Any change in positioning from vibration or other factors would cause what we know as doubling or tripling of a coin feature.
Adding to all this is the sequence of date additions. According to George Mallis and Leroy Van Allen the 18 in the date was added to the master die, making those usable for subsequent years. Then the 81 was added to the working die making those dies specific to a year.
The most complete discussion of this process we have encountered is in the book "From Mine to Mint" by Roger W. Burdette. This book is readily available at Wizard Coin Supply. His book is the definitive work on Morgan Dollar production and is a must read for all VAMers.
Who added the date?
Since there are no date positioning varieties, it confirms that in 1881 the date on all dies were added in Philadelphia. It also suggests that if there was more than one master die then they were created in close time proximity, and perhaps that the date punch(es) were added by the same mint employee. This could have been an engraver, assistant engraver, die sinker, or some other skilled employee familiar with the process.
There is further evidence of this since the date on dies for the Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Carson City share common characteristics. So far as we can determine dates were never added beyond Philadelphia. The consistency in the working dies may in fact indicate that only one master die needed in 1881.
Was it a punch or punches?
As discussed in the Basic Date Issues column, the date was added using a punch. But was it a single punch for each numeral or did they make a gang punch with all the numerals?
As it turns out it was probably neither. We know that the 18 was added to the master die and the 81 to the working dies. The date punches had to be different because they are shaped differently and have some notable differences.
But date doubling was caused by the same physical process, multiple striking of the die by the punch to insure there was a complete impression. Doubling on the 18 occurred on the master die and doubling of the 81 on the working die.
The 1881-O coin used in this analysis was selected because it is an MS65 with no real distractions in the date area of the coin. It is a VAM 37, PCGS 15541903.
1880, 1881, 1882 Punches
We were having trouble with the spacing and trying to figure out the punch versus gang punch issue when something dawned on us that was right in front of our eyes the whole time.
If you look at this image of the 1880, 1881, and 1882 dates all lined up there is an answer. When we created this image we sized the dates to be exactly the same by overlaying the 18. The 18 does in fact always line up the same for all three years. The position of the last digit has to be the same every year and it seems to be.
There has to be symmetry to the date and that symmetry is the starting point from the neck, the placement of the first 1, the height and distance of the last digit, and the curvature of the whole date sequence to match the rim. But 0, 1, and 2 are different widths. So we believe they adjusted the placement of the second 8 to accommodate that width difference. This process would have worked for the 1890s just as easily.
This leads us to conclude that at least the 18 was a gang punch since it is always the same and always in the same placement. The last two digits could also have been a gang punch for each year and the two joined or held in place very accurately since there are no near or far date issues for these series.
The 8s are different punches because we know one eventually has an internal spike and the other an external notch.
The Spiked First 8
The Spike in 8 for the first 8 has also been a source of mystery to us. Maybe we think about it too much, but our pondering has been about “Is it coming or going?”. Our conclusion is that it is coming or growing.
For the 1881-O the Spike in 8 appears in three stages or phases: no spike, a tiny spike, and a large spike. For all coins the placement of the spike is the same, so it came from a common source before the working dies were created. Since positive features can only be introduced at the die level that only leaves the master die as a possibility for the spike in the first 8.
(This chart will get another revision when we can pull actual coins. The tiny spike and no spike can get lost in photographs.)
Our best thought is that early in the production of the working hubs the master die was inspected and looked fine. As working hubs were made, a small fracture developed in the master die that started to be transferred to the working hub. Since the spike is down at the field level it could easily appear with striking of the hubs. With wear the fracture opened more and created an even larger gap that became the spike. This might also tell us that the lower numbered dies have no chip and the higher numbered dies have the larger chip. This assumes that dies were numbered as produced, and that is not a certainty
There is a second possibility that we would rate as lower. There could have been a small bit of protruding metal on the first 8 punch higher up than the face. Depending on the strength (depth) of the strike this could have been transferred to the master die with more or less clarity. We ruled this one out because we think inspection of the die or punch would have found this error and there would have had to be multiple master dies with the same feature.
The Notched Second 8
This one makes your head hurt because it is the opposite of the Spike. The notch most likely was created by failure of the punch. A failure or loss of any metal on the punch would result in an impression on the die that was less than full.
The notch could only be added to the die from a void on the punch, so that would seem to be the source. Our best guess here is that the punch was fine in the beginning and with use began to wear away on the outer edge. At some point a small chip was created that left the void to be filled. We also believe this can be verified because often accompanying the notch is a wearing away of the outer loop surrounding the notch.
There are notched varieties for other Mints in 1881, so this is not unique to New Orleans. How many is difficult to verify because the other Mints are not as well documented with photographs on VAMworld.
Reuse of Punches
Reuse of the 18 punch seems logical and they do seem to line up from year to year. But there is a problem with this scenario. The Spike in 8 varieties and Notched 8 do not appear either before or after 1881.
The punches could have been used in 1880 and then fatigue caused the failure, but they could not have been used in 1882. We think it is more likely that punches were not used again and new ones created each year.
Having the same size and typeface for them would not have been difficult, and there were probably many on hand.
First and Last 1s
The first and last 1s give us some added knowledge about the punches used on the dies. They are different, and that says a lot to us. We believe it is unlikely that anyone would have four punches lined up and pick each one up in sequence and stamp them into the die when there are only two different numbers.
Instead it would be more likely that they would in turn pick up their 1, then their 8, then their 1 again, and finally their 8 for a second usage. Only two punches would be needed to complete the date.
But the 1s are decidedly different in a number of ways. The most obvious difference is in the base. On the first 1 the left side of the base is always rounded, while on the second 1 it is more squarish. At the top of the 1s the first 1 has a more rounded flag that seems to be filled in at the top. The second 1 has a flatter, more circular appearance. In general the first 1 has a rounded appearance while the second one is flat.
This image shows the outline of the second 1 overlaid on the image of the first. The size is almost identical, but the thickness of the vertical shaft is somewhat different and the overall shape differences show. They are not pronounced but the more you work with them the more you realize they are just different.
If there is a doubling of anything on the first 1 it is almost always the vertical shaft. The doubling creates a broader shaft and it is easily identified. We would also postulate that assuming some form of gang punch was used, the numeral faces were not perfectly square or flat. This would lead to re-striking the punch to get a complete impression, and thus various date numeral doubling.
There is an old woodworking trick to check the alignment of a table saw. All you need to do is cut a board, flip it lengthwise and make the same cut again. If on the second pass the saw cuts nothing then the blade and fence are aligned correctly.
And so it goes with 8s. If you flip a copy of the image horizontally or vertically and superimpose it on the original it should match if the 8 is symmetrical. We will argue the same for vertical flipping, but we have no documentation that the 8 numeral was intended to be symmetrical for the top and bottom.
The image above is of the first 8 that has been flipped horizontally and superimposed over itself. The 8 is symmetrical and when flipped it is very nearly the same shape.
When flipped vertically it is also very nearly symmetrical. So we might conclude that the 8s are designed to be symmetrical horizontally and vertically.
But when you flip the second 8 you don't get the same answer. The holes are not distributed evenly from side to side. This immediately tells up that different punches were used for each 8. The second 8 is also notched on the left side of the lower loop, a feature missing from the first 8.
You get a similar answer when the 8 is flipped vertically. The holes are not in alignment in a way that is anything like symmetrical further confirming the second punch thoughts.
The second 8 has always had a "scrunched" look to us where the top and bottom loops visually seemed to be tilted toward each other on the left. But it is difficult to verify until you do this type look at the 8 with no distractions.
The Two 8s
So then the question becomes "How different are the two 8s, since they appear to have differences?". We can do the same overlay and find out. We will use the first 8 as the "visible" element and the second 8 as the outline.
Here we see that the difference is subtle, but there. The openings on the second 8 are shifted slightly left and the top opening is tilted just slightly left. You know they are both 8s, but subconsciously your mind knows that there is just something that is not the same.
And then there is the last definitive item. The second 8 is notched and the first 8 not. They have to be two different punches, leading to further evidence that some or all was a gang punch.
The Aging 1D
New Orleans and the Mint in 1881
The Devolving 5
One and Done
Two and Through
The Devolving 27