Production of the standard silver dollar had ceased in 1873, but the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 mandated large purchases of silver specifically for the coining of this denomination. The designs of Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan were selected for the silver dollar of 1878 over those of the more senior chief engraver, William Barber - thus giving the coin its now-universal eponym, Morgan Dollar. This type features a laureate bust of Liberty on the obverse, her hair adorned with wheat, cotton and tobacco. The Morgan silver dollar's reverse is dominated by a heraldic eagle within a laurel wreath.
Aside from the annual series of proofs, Morgan Dollars found little favor among collectors in their own time. Some interest developed in the early decades of the 20th Century, but collectors had little incentive to save coins of such high face value that remained readily available from banks and the Treasury in uncirculated condition. It was not until formerly rare issues began to turn up in Treasury vaults that the collecting of Morgan Dollars by date and mint gained a widespread following. Suspension of silver dollar payments by the Treasury in 1964 only fueled this growing demand. Today, the Morgan Dollar series is perhaps the most popular in American numismatics, the general availability of many dates in high grades now furnishing an incentive to collect them. While a handful of dates are scarce and moderately expensive, and the 1895 Philadelphia issue is known only in proof, the series is otherwise easy to complete by date and mint.
The first Morgan Dollar die variety reference was published in 1964 but went largely ignored. The appearance of a comprehensive Morgan Dollar die variety book by Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis in 1971 created a market for certain die varieties that later appeared in the Red Book, and the VAM varieties book (an acronym for Van Allen/Mallis) has gone through several later editions. Supplemental Morgan Dollar die variety books by Jeff Oxman in partnership with either Michael Fey or Les Hartnett have isolated the more popular varieties and made their attribution much more exact. In addition to the eight-tailfeather and seven-over-eight tailfeather Morgan Dollar die varieties of 1878, the most highly sought die varieties are divided into two groups known respectively as the Top-100 and the Hot-50. Other useful Morgan Dollar die variety attribution references will be found below.
VAM varieties start anew with each date/mint combination, VAM-1 typically denoting a coin from "normal" dies. Recognizable varieties are then numbered sequentially for that particular date and mint (VAM-2, VAM-3), though certain minor varieties and die states have been labeled as VAM-1A, VAM-1B, etc.