What is a silver dollar made of? Silver dollars hold an important place in American history and numismatics. But what exactly are these iconic coins made of? If you don’t have time for a deep dive, here’s the quick answer: Most older silver dollars dated 1964 or earlier comprise 90% silver and 10% copper.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the complete composition breakdown of the changing silver dollar over the years. You’ll learn about the different metals used, silver content percentages, and reasons behind silver dollar specification shifts.

Early Silver Dollars (1794-1964) Composition

90% silver, 10% copper

The early silver dollars minted from 1794 to 1964 consisted of 90% silver and 10% copper. This composition gave the coins a bright, lustrous shine and substantial heft. The high silver content also imparted considerable intrinsic value.

The 90% silver alloy proved durable enough for over a century of circulation. The coins resisted tarnishing and retained their fine details. Collectors today still cherish early silver dollars for both their beauty and precious metal content.

Authorized by the Coinage Act of 1792

The composition specifications for silver dollars originated with the Coinage Act of 1792. This legislation authorized the newly formed Philadelphia Mint to produce silver coins, including the silver dollar.

The Act stipulated that silver dollars must contain 371.25 grains (24.1 grams) of pure silver. It also set the allowable tolerance range for silver at between 206 and 210 grains. Congress chose the 90% silver formula to fit within this silver range.

Weigh 26.73 Grams

Thanks to their defined silver content, early silver dollars had a uniform weight of 26.73 grams. This helped ensure each coin contained close to one troy ounce of silver (31.1 grams).

The uniform weights also enabled easy use in commerce. People could quickly count out an amount of silver dollars according to their actual silver value.

Silver Content 90%
Copper Content 10%
Total Weight 26.73 grams

Over 170 million 90% silver dollars entered circulation in America between 1794 and 1964. The coins served as an essential monetary building block for the developing nation.

Modern “Silver” Dollars (1971-Present)

Made from copper and nickel – contains 0% silver

Modern United States silver dollars minted since 1971 do not actually contain any silver. After the Coinage Act of 1965, the composition of the dollar coin changed from 90% silver and 10% copper to a new combination of 75% copper and 25% nickel with zero silver content.

This switch to cheaper metals allowed the U.S. Mint to produce many more dollar coins to meet demand without being limited by silver supply.

The lack of precious metal content is why modern dollar coins have very little intrinsic value and are worth only face value. However, despite having no silver, the dollar coin remains an important part of U.S. currency. The copper-nickel-clad coins offer durability and efficiency over paper money.

Weigh 26.73 grams

The post-1971 dollar coins are distinctive with their golden color and smooth edges. They maintain the physical dimensions of their silver predecessors, with a diameter of 1.043 inches (26.5 mm) and a thickness of .079 inches (2 mm).

This gives the modern dollars a total weight of 8.1 grams, equal to 0.26 ounces.

For easy identification, dollar coins have lettered edges indicating the mint that produced them – P for Philadelphia, D for Denver, S for San Francisco, and W for West Point. Some coins included special edge-incused inscriptions for the nation’s Bicentennial anniversary in 1976.

Cheaper metals allow higher mintage today

The switch from silver to other metals allowed the U.S. Mint to produce dollar coins in much greater numbers without worrying about silver supply constraints or rising costs. Mint facilities in Philadelphia and Denver now churn out millions of dollar coins per year.

However, most dollar coins minted end up sitting unused in government vaults due to a lack of public demand. The Government Accountability Office estimates there is now a surplus of $1.4 billion worth of $1 coins sitting idle, demonstrating the difference cheaper metals can make in production capacity.

Why the Change from 90% Silver?

There were several key reasons the United States switched silver dollar compositions from 90% silver to other metals like cupronickel over time. Understanding the story behind this change gives insight into the history of silver dollars and US currency in general.

Silver prices impacted the composition

For most of US history, silver dollars contained 90% silver. This valuable composition meant the coins had an intrinsic value close to their $1 face value. However, in the mid-20th century, rising silver prices meant the coins were worth more melted down for their silver than their stated denomination.

By 1964, this discrepancy grew too large, with a silver dollar containing approximately $1.29 worth of silver at 1960’s prices. Consequently, the US Mint had to change compositions moving forward.

Switched to cupronickel in 1965

In 1965, silver was removed from circulating coinage, including dollar coins. Instead, the United States switched to cupronickel-clad coins coins with a core of copper and nickel, sandwiched between layers of 75% copper and 25% nickel.

This cheaper cupronickel composition meant the coins had no intrinsic value beyond their $1 face value. The US Mint has continued using cupronickel for dollar coins up to the present day in coins like the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea dollars.

Exceptions: some special editions .999 silver

While circulating US dollar coins today contain no silver, there have been some exceptions with special collector editions containing .999 pure silver:

  • The American Silver Eagle 1 oz bullion coins have been produced since 1986 containing 1 troy ounce of .999 fine silver.
  • Various modern commemorative dollar coins have also been struck in 90% or .999 fine silver compositions.
1976-Present American Silver Eagle Bullion .999 silver
1983-1984 Los Angeles XXIII Olympics Silver Dollar 90% silver
1986 Statue of Liberty Centennial Silver Dollar .999 silver

So while circulated US dollars today are generally cupronickel, special collector editions continue to contain valuable silver compositions.

Collectible Value of 90% Silver Dollars

Higher intrinsic value with silver content

The silver content in 90% silver dollars gives them a baseline intrinsic value that is higher than face value. These coins contain 0.77344 troy ounces of pure silver. With the current silver spot price around $23 per troy ounce, the silver value is approximately $17.80 for one of these classic US dollar coins.

That is already an increase of 1,580% above the original $1 face value at which the coins circulated. Dealers typically pay a premium above the melt value when purchasing 90% silver US coins to account for refining and transaction fees.

Condition is key for numismatic premium

On top of their silver content, 90% silver dollars also carry a numismatic premium based on date, mintmark, condition, and other factors. While the silver melt value sets the base level, the condition is key for commanding maximum collector value.

Coins graded MS-65 or higher by third-party grading services like PCGS or NGC tend to bring strong premiums. The difference in value between an AU-58 and MS-63 coin can be massive even though they might look similar to an untrained eye.

Silver dollars with unique histories can fetch high prices

Some silver dollars and other US coins have unique histories that compel wealthy collectors to pay enormous sums at auction. For example, an 1804 Draped Bust Silver Dollar sold in 2021 for over $7.6 million.

While that is an extreme example, many other coins with special backstories have realized 5, 6, and 7-figure auction records. Some examples that have topped $100k in Heritage Auctions events include:

As you can see, the most desirable rare US silver dollars can be extremely valuable to wealthy coin collectors. Even common-date specimens in top condition carry sizable premiums over the intrinsic silver value.

What Is A Silver Dollar Made Of – Conclusion

While all silver dollars have a rich history, their composition has evolved significantly from the original 90% silver spec. Lower-cost metals allow the mint to produce more coins today, even if silver content is gone.

For collectors and stackers, early 90% silver dollar coins hold higher intrinsic value, making them more appealing than their modern counterparts.

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