Updated: Feb 21
Andrew C. Kolbert, Ph.D., M.T.M.
Despite over 200 years of silver dollar collecting, the fact that some Flowing Hair dollars had a silver plug inserted in their centers had escaped notice until the early 1980’s. Even specialists that had seen virtually every die variety such as J.W. Haseltine and M.H. Bolender completely missed the variety in their comprehensive reviews of the series. Early theories included the possibility that the silver plug could have been a fineness adjustment, however X-ray spectroscopy on multiple samples was unable to detect any differences of the fineness of the silver alloy in the plug versus the surrounding planchet, to within measurement error. Ken Bressett at the October 1993 meeting of the American Numismatic Society concluded a plug of the same composition as the planchets had been added to bring underweight planchets up to specifications, and this explanation has been accepted by numismatic scholars since. Certainly the technology existed as the mint had prepared copper pattern cents in 1792, for example the silver centered cent of Judd-1 to bring the intrinsic value of the large cent up to a cent. A small hole was struck in the center of the coin with a sharp tool and a silver dowel was inserted. The coin would be struck on this modified planchet and result in an 8mm circular silver plug in the center of the coin (See Figure 1).
Figure 1: B-1 (courtesy of Heritage Auctions)
In the past 25 years approximately 100 – 130 silver plugged coins have been discovered, most of them 1795 dollars. A single 1794 dollar has been discovered as well as a unique double plugged 1795 dollar and 2 varieties of half dollars.
Q. David Bowers did a comprehensive review of the silver plugged dollars by die variety in 1993, using the plugged die varieties to determine the rough order of minting of the coins dated 1795. Bowers with Mark Borckardt poured through hundreds of auction catalogs from 1950 on forward to catalog the die varieties present. Though they attempted to eliminate duplication and misattributions, most coins were not certified back then, some were not photographed in the early catalogs, and many of the catalogs were no longer extant.
We reviewed the databases of Heritage Auctions and Stacks/Bowers, as well as auction reports on sightings at Goldberg and David Lawrence Rare Coins back to 1996 in an attempt to make a more comprehensive and current review. Most coins in these databases were certified so it was possible to eliminate duplicates. Coins that were raw were entered only once for the grade to avoid duplication. We reviewed photographs when available to eliminate crack-outs and resubmissions. The results are that we have captured 92 unique silver plugged dollars of 1795 by date, grade, variety, and certification, representing 75-90% of the entire identified population. The summary by variety follows:
# of variety
% of total
The average grade is 31.5, PCGS has certified 55, NGC 20 with others NCS, ICG or raw. 63 are straight graded and 29 details.
As the silver plug was something that was used in early 1795, perhaps as early as May and ceased in October, 1795 when the first Draped Bust Small Eagle dies were used, it is possible to gain some insight into the order of minting of the different die varieties. As Bowers discusses, B-3, B-11, B-9, and B-4 can be assigned to the first striking period due to the obverse style being more primitive. These obverse dies labeled 1 and 2 by Reiver, have similarities to the head of 1794, noteably the neckline being more rounded. The reverse pairings, dies labeled A, B, and C4 have an early style reverse with 2 leaves and a simpler wreath (See Figure 2).
Figure 2: B-3 courtesy of PCGS CoinFacts
Further, examples of B-4 struck over a 1794 dollar are known, so B-4 would be one of the earlier strikings. Reiver labeled all the obverse dies with numbers and the reverse dies with letters, facilitating the elucidation of the die chain which makes the emission sequence of the various die pairings clear. As dies were generally used until one of them failed, it is possible to trace the die chain and establish the emission sequence of varieties. Reiver connects the die chain with obverse 1 being used to strike B-3 (likely the first 1795 dollar) then being paired with reverse B for B-11, and reverse C for B-9. B-9 has been seen with clash marks which B-3 and B-11 do not have so it is the final use of reverse C. Obverse 2 is then paired with reverse C to make B-4. All these die varieties are represented in the silver plug population, except for B-11 which is an overall R-6. The overall rarities of the die marriages must be taken into account as high rarity pairings from either obverse or reverse dies breaking early will result in lower populations of silver plugs. An R-6 of 13-30 known examples may well have no surviving silver plugged examples.
Figure 3: B-7 (courtesy of PCGS CoinFacts)
The analysis gets trickier when we start to consider dies from striking period 2 and later. Reiver’s analysis of Bolender’s die marriages shows the following die chain. Obverse 3 was paired with reverse D to make B-8. When obverse 3 failed, reverse D was paired with obverse 4 (B-20). When D failed, reverse E was paired with obverse 4 (B-18). After E, reverse F was paired with obverse 4 (B-7). As 38% of the silver plug population is B-7, how is one to explain the complete lack of B-8 B20, and B-18 amongst the silver plug population? The answer is again in the overall rarity of these die varieties, all being R-8 (2-3 known), while B-7 is an R-4 with 76-200 examples. Continuing the die chain, when obverse 4 failed, F was paired with obverse 5 to make B-19 which despite being an R-8 has a single example of a silver plug known.
Obverse 5 was then paired with reverse G to make B-2 which is an R1. When obverse 5 was replaced with obverse 6, we have B-1. How can we understand that 33.7% of the silver plug population is B-1 while a plugged B-2 is unknown? One explanation is that B-1 was minted prior to B-2. It is possible that following B-19, the dies were removed for a changeover. The mint also had the responsibility of making $10 gold pieces, and on the same machinery. When reverse F failed, obverse 5 was removed for the changeover. Following, obverse 6 and reverse G were used to make B-1. The problem with this theory is that it requires another event to replace obverse 6 with 5 to make B-2 and then a third to bring obverse 6 back into service to make B-10 and B-16. A simpler and more likely correct explanation is that B-2 was minted with a planchet run that was in tolerance, with a minimum of plugging needed.
The lone variety out of sequence is the late stage B-5, the most common of all 1795 die varieties. There are three obverse and three reverse dies that had to be gone through in order to get from B-1 to B-5, none of which resulted in die marriages that have a known silver plug. The die sequence following B-1 includes B10, B-16, B-21 all of which are all R-7 to R-8. Then follows B-6, an R-3 with 201-500 survivors then B-5, R-1 with > 1,250 survivors. The sheer number of examples of an R-1 variety has resulted in a number of examples of a plugging process which by the end of 1795 would have been infrequent at best. Still, it is possible some examples of B-6 may be discovered.
The plugging process appeared to have been one that started early, but picked up in earnest in the middle of production, falling off late in the year once the planchet preparation process had improved. Finally, if I may conclude with a bold prediction. The planchet preparation process appeared to have improved rather quickly, but it is difficult to believe a problem that was identified (underweight planchets) and a solution (silver plugs) would be abandoned after only 6 months. There were likely some Draped Bust dollars (B-14 and B-15s) that were silver plugged and it is possible a survivor will come to light in the future.
 John W. Haseltine, Catalogue of John. W. Haseltine Tyoe Table – Us Dollars, Half Dollars, and Quarter Dollars, Bavis and Pennypacker, Philadelphia, PA (1881).  M.H. Boldender, The United States Early Silver Dollars from 1794 – 1803, Krause Publications, Iola, WI (1950).  Q. David Bowers, Silver Dollars and Trade Dollars of the United States, A Complete Encyclopedia, Volume 1, Bowers and Merena Galleries, Wolfeboro, NH (1993).  Jules Reiver, The United States Early Silver Dollars 1794-1803, Krause Publications, Iola, WI (1999).