Proof coinage dates back to English coinage of the 18th century, struck specifically for royalty (although special presentation pieces were struck long before that). Proof coins are struck on special presses with high pressure using highly polished dies on polished planchets. Using this method the special Proof coins show highly polished fields, full detail and excellent eye-appeal, bringing out the coin design as it was meant when it was created. These pieces were handled with much more caution than the circulation strike coins, which are generally thrown in bins and eventually end up in circulation.
Proof production in the United States started sometime in the 1830’s when restrikes where made of older coinage as well as proof strikes of the contemporary coinage. The 1834 King of Siam set with an 1804 Silver Dollar and 1804 Liberty Eagle is a well-known example. These Proof coins, like in England, were mostly meant for dignitaries and were unavailable to collectors. Sales to the latter group would not start until the late 1850’s after coin collecting had become much more popular, and proof coins were regularly produced and sold at a premium.
By the time the Morgan Dollars came around, in 1878, Proof coinage generally saw mintages of around a thousand pieces for the minor coins, and perhaps several dozen for the higher gold denominations (which were too expensive for all but the wealthiest collectors). Throughout the new series of silver dollars, proof coins would be struck for collectors. Mintage varied but in most years fluctuated somewhere around 800 coins, although some years saw production numbers in excess of 1,250 pieces. Most of these went into complete Proof sets of the minor coins, although collectors could also order the dollar denomination individually.
All Proof Morgan Dollars were minted at the Philadelphia Mint and sold to collectors out of that building, although a few so-called branch Mint proofs have been identified from the other Mints as well. By 1878 quality of the Proofs had much increased compared to earlier Proof strikes. Most now featured full strikes, with reflective fields and outstanding eye-appeal. Most of the devices are noticeably frosted, a feature that stands out and can be quite appealing on the design of the Morgan Dollar. Depending on the extent of the contrast between the design elements and the fields, the major grading services can either certify a Proof Morgan Dollar as Cameo or Deep-Cameo (PCGS), or Cameo or Ultra-Cameo (NGC). For some years cameos are considered to be rare such as the later years from 1902-1904 when the dies were fully polished.
Even though the average Proof Morgan Dollar is well produced, there are still examples that do not have fully frosted devices. In addition to that some were produced with the dies too far apart from each other, resulting in weakness usually noted in the central part of the design above Liberty’s ear on the obverse and the eagle’s breast on the reverse. Other than that, many coins have been mishandled over the last century, resulting in many small scratches in the fields (hairlines), hits from contact with other coins, or even wear from circulation, as many proof dollars were spent in commerce during hard times.
The most famous Proof Morgan Dollar is without a doubt the 1895. Even though Mint records indicate that 12,000 circulation strikes were made at the Philadelphia Mint none are known to exist, leaving the numismatic community with the extremely limited number of 880 proof pieces that were produced. This is neither an extremely high or low number among proofs, however because of the lack of business strikes, demand and premiums for the proof coins are high, especially for pieces that show pristine fields and cameo contrast. Once again there are also a number of circulated pieces known, which are still recognized as Proofs no matter what grade simply because no circulation strike has ever been identified of this date.
The last date of the series, 1921 is a special case when it comes to Proofs, as none were recorded as having been struck at the Philadelphia Mint that year. Production of Proof coins had ceased after diminishing sales during the past decade, and would not resume until 1936, by which time the Morgan Dollar design was long gone. Yet, many pieces are available on the marketplace as Proofs. The first type, called Zerbe Proofs, were made for Philadelphia coin dealer Farran Zerbe, who requested them. Although these pieces display prooflike fields, they are simply nothing more than coins struck from regular dies that had been polished, produced under the same conditions as circulation strikes and thus often lacking eye-appeal and having bagmarks. These pieces are still in demand as the “next best thing” after the Chapman Proofs, named after coin dealer Henry Chapman. These are virtually identical to earlier Proofs (there is a Mint invoice known dated 1921 selling ten 1921 Proof Dollars to Chapman). These are generally recognized as Proofs although their true history is unknown. It seems likely that Henry Chapman had them made on his request with the sole purpose of selling them to the numismatic community. Mintages of both types are unknown, although mintages close to 200 for the Zerbe Proofs and 30 for the Chapman Proofs both seem to be a reasonable number.
In addition to the Proofs struck at the Philadelphia Mint there are also a few branch-Mint Proofs known to exist. Most have mintages of less than a dozen and are extremely rare. While not up to the Philadelphia standards (because of the inexperience with Proofs at the other Mints) they are generally easily identifiable as Proofs because of their high detail and reflective fields. It appears that often the Proofs were considered to be showpieces which were created with the utmost care by the Mint employees proud of their work. Dates that are known in Proof format include the 1879-O, 1883-O, 1884-CC-, 1884-O and 1893-CC, although other dates no doubt were struck as well (1921-S Proofs are reported to have been struck but none have been seen).