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Silver Plug Center Coinage


By Mary Sauvain
Mary Sauvain Numismatic Services

1795 $1 B-3, BB-11, with Silver Plug Center. NGC AU50. Currently in private collection. Ex. Starr-Perkins. Earlier Floyd Starr Collection (Stack’s, 1992), Lot 570. Where description read “Subdued mint lustre and a splash of toning, mostly in the central portion on each side. A small rim nick on the reverse.” (No mention of silver plug at time of Stack’s sale.)

Mention a “plugged” coin and “damaged”, “undesirable” or “ungradeable” might be what comes to mind. Over the last comparatively few years, however, “plugged” has an entirely different meaning for some early U.S. coinage. Primarily Flowing Hair dollars. This is thanks to some dedicated—and inquisitive—hobbyists in our numismatic field.

Although the U.S. Mint has officially been striking coins since 1793, a silver plug in the center of a coin was not mentioned by any noted dollar specialist such as M.H. Bolender or John W. Haseltine in their studies or in any books or articles for almost 200 years.

Then in a 1993 book by Q. David Bowers, SILVER DOLLARS & TRADE DOLLARS OF THE UNITED STATES A Complete Encyclopedia[1], and in the March, 1993, issue of The Numismatist, noted author, Kenneth E. Bressett talks quite succinctly of the silver plug center dollars in his article, “The Baffling Case of the Plugged Dollars”. Bressett gave a presentation on the same subject at the October, 1993, American Numismatic Society (ANS) Coinage of the America’s Conference (COAC).

Referencing those period articles and presentation, Bressett tells of knowledge in the numismatic community over the previous decade of plugged 1795 Flowing Hair dollars but of no one having been able to explain the reasoning for this alteration. He then goes forward stating Mint facts, adding speculation and deducting that the silver plug was imbedded in the center of the planchet before the coin was struck with regular dies. After much sleuthing, the author, with the aid of other well-respected individuals, came to the conclusion the plug had been placed there to assure weight of the planchet fell within accepted tolerance for U.S. Mint standards. This explanation as to why the silver plug is placed in some of the early U.S. coinage is accepted still today.

Precedence for such plugging of U. S. coinage can be seen with the pattern coinage of 1792. Copper pattern cents of 1792 have a silver plug center. This was derived by having a dowel inserted prior to striking in order to raise the intrinsic value of the copper to full face value.

To bring us current, since publication of that article in the early 1990’s, other discoveries have come to light. Not only are 1795 Flowing Hair dollars known to have a silver plug center, but a 1794 Flowing Hair dollar, Bolender-1, has been discovered, as well as Flowing Hair half dollars. Plus, a new variety has entered the 1795 Flowing Hair dollar silver plug center club – B-19.

The one 1794 Flowing Hair dollar with a silver plug center known to exist is the Neil-Carter, Bolender-1, specimen which is currently certified by PCGS as “Specimen-66”. Credit for discovery of this silver plug is given to F. Michael Fazzari when he was employed by Numismatic Conservation Services as a conservator back in early 2003.

Currently there are three Flowing Hair half dollars known to exist with the silver plugs: Overton-102 and O-130. The first half dollar was discovered in 1997, with the second shortly after. Now that people are assured they do exist, it is reasonable to assume others should be appearing as collectors scrutinize early halves even more carefully.

The 1795 B-19 with silver plug center was discovered when silver dollar specialist, David Perkins, was examining the coin in early 2005 while reviewing the Frank Stirling Collection. The variety itself is exceedingly rare—possibly unique.

Inquiries and reviews of other varieties, specifically B-10 and B-11, for consideration of a silver plug center are known to exist. However, nothing definitive or positive has been determined to date.

A 1795 B-5 variety has also been known to have questioningly been encapsulated by a third-party grading service as a silver plug center in years past.

Confirmed varieties with silver plug centers today are both two-leaf and three-leaf varieties. They are: Bolender-1 (Bowers-Borchardt-21), B-3 (BB-11), B-4 (BB-14), B-7 (BB-18), B-9 (BB-13) and B-19 (BB-19). Bolender-4 seems to be the most frequently encountered; B-19 is possibly unique, with only one known to specialists today.

While doing my research and confirming the known varieties stated in the above paragraph matched the varieties with silver plugs stated in Bowers’ book SILVER DOLLARS & TRADE DOLLARS OF THE UNITED STATES, there was no problem with the first five varieties mentioned (B-19, BB-19 had not yet been discovered). However, I puzzled over footnote #2 at the bottom of page 185. It mentioned BB-12 as a specimen with a silver plug, and my research had not given any indication of any B-11, BB-12 present with a silver plug center. Following through with this search, it was determined a simple typographical error had taken place and it should have read “BB-21” rather than “BB-12”. Problem solved—no BB-12 to date with a silver plug center.

Due to the fact the plug was added to the planchet prior to striking, the design actually flows over and through the plug and onto the surrounding areas. With no roughness to call attention to the difference of the addition of the silver plug in these planchets from those without silver plug centers, it is easy to miss the subtle difference. It takes careful examination to reveal that a plug has been added to the planchet.

When toning starts to occur, detection of the silver plug can become somewhat easier. For unknown reasons, even with both the plug and planchet being made of the same alloy, the silver plug tends to tone somewhat differently than the surrounding coin. For that reason, quite often in years past, coins with silver plug centers were described simply as having a touch of heavier toning in the center portion of the coin with no mention of the silver plug itself.

At other times, what had been observed as a silver plug center simply disappeared when the coin was “dipped” and traces of toning were removed from the coin. Apparently toning had given the appearance of a silver plug, but upon removing the toning it became obvious there was no silver plug on the coin.

If you refer to A Guide Book of United States Coins[2] (Red Book) you will note both the 1794 and 1795 Flowing Hair silver plug dollars have their own line listings. The 1795 silver plug dollar has prices by grade. The 1795 silver plug dollar was first listed in the Red Book in 1994. The 1795 Flowing Hair silver plug half dollars are referenced in Red Book but to date do not have their own line listing.

An anecdote I thoroughly enjoyed by early dollar enthusiast John Haugh, deceased, was about a “coin doctor” –and long since retired. Seems the “coin doctor” confided in John that when he attempted to improve the appearance of a silver plugged center coin, a “circle” would sometimes pop out after heating. He would have to gently tap the popout back into the coin! Obviously, the coin doctor kept this information close to his chest rather than reporting his find to the news media and taking credit for the discovery of the silver plug center coin!

There is no exact number of silver plug center early dollars or half dollars known, and the number changes as new examples are discovered. Some authorities estimate 50-90 are known today.

It can be difficult to place an accurate value on any item. As a good friend once told me, value depends on three things: condition, quantity and demand. With today’s economy, demand might be slightly skewed. However, silver plug center coins always bring more than a silver non-plugged coin. Going to the website of Professional Coin Grading Service, they place roughly a 250% to 285% premium over non-plugged coins. The Red Book lists them with a premium as well.

Special thanks to David Perkins, Ken Bressett and Jim Matthews who so willingly opened their files and memories in helping me with the information on this article.

Mary Sauvain
Mary Sauvain Numismatic Services

[1] Published by Bowers and Merena Galleries, Inc., Wolfeboro, NH, 1993, p. 185-186

[2] Published by Whitman Publishing, LLC, Atlanta, GA

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