There is no doubt that the 1892 and 1893 Columbian Exposition commemorative half dollar has a unique place in numismatic history.
Room exists for discussion on its title as the first United States commemorative coin. Certainly the 1848 “CAL” quarter eagle was a commemorative, but it did not follow the official process of required Congressional approval. Nor was it sold like other issues. So it is still safe to rank the Columbian Exposition half dollar as the first official U.S. commemorative.
The coin was intended to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World and also to raise money for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Selling for $1 each, the idea was somewhat new to the nation’s collectors.
Its design was the idea of Olin Lewis Warner, with the obverse bust design engraved by Chief Mint Engraver Charles Barber. Its reverse, showing Columbus’ flagship Santa Maria and two hemispheres, was engraved by George Morgan of Morgan dollar fame.
Although plans behind the coin were actually pretty clever, they were not aided by the fact that coin collecting was in a slow cycle at the time. It was also hard for many to go to the World’s Columbian Exposition and pay $1 for an example.
It must be remembered that commemorative coins were a new idea in 1892. Things were also slightly confused by the fact that when the first of the coin’s two years of production was being released, so too were new Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars.
Mintage for the 1892 Columbian Exposition half dollar ultimately reached 950,000, while the 1893 total was 1,550,405. There were also approximately 100 proofs struck for each of the dates Today, in MS-60 condition, an 1892 lists for $45 while an 1893 is $25. Moving up to MS-65, however, the 1892 is $375 while the 1893 is $385.
What happened to Columbian Exposition half dollars? The answer might well be anything and everything.
The idea was to have collectors and others buy the coin and not to have it circulate. That could not be avoided, however, as there were simply far too many examples. They ended up in the banking system and began to circulate.
There were some who looked for them. Their big use was apparently as Christmas presents, with the Boston Transcript reporting, “the demand is slight, but it is expected that by Christmastime the business firms will want to give them out as a sort of advertisement,” although the same article noted that the 1892 was selling for a premium.
There was another side as well. A 1904 article suggested that some people felt the coins brought bad luck and that “anyone finding a Columbian half dollar is urged to throw it in the river.”
Hoards were also assembled along the way. Researcher Q. David Bowers notes “The writer knows of no original hoards of Mint State coins” in his American Coin Treasures and Hoards. He does, however, know of circulated coin hoards, including one of over 600 pieces purchased in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage in 1992. That probably helps to explain why both the 1892 and 1893 are priced at less than $25 in AU-50.
Even today, the Columbian Exposition half dollar is a novelty. It is, however, a very historic novelty and one that includes many fascinating stories from Americans who were trying to make sense of the first U.S. commemorative coin.
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More Collecting Resources
• The 1800s were a time of change for many, including in coin production. See how coin designs grew during the time period in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900 .
• When it comes to specialized world paper money issues, nothing can top the Standard Catalog of World Paper Money, Specialized Issues .