Have you ever seen 1 million silver dollars?
It was long before I began collecting coins, but the tale of the Million Silver Dollar Exhibit at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair is fascinating nonetheless.
Three Washington numismatists were behind bringing the coins to the fair. The three, who had formed Northwest Historic Medals Inc. to strike a series of medals commemorating the great water-power dams in the Pacific Northwest, had approached the Century 21 committee, organizers of the fair, with plans for producing a set of medals to promote each of the seven planned exhibits at the fair. Along with an already-authorized U.S. Mint medal, Northwest said the eight-medal set would make a great souvenir of the fair.
To cinch the deal, they had one other idea that really got the committee enthused. “If numismatics is going to take part in this Fair, the three reasoned, it ought to take part in a big way. The more money the better,” as the September 1962 issue of Coins magazine explained.
“Almost everyone dreams and talks about a million dollars, but how many people have ever seen that amount of cash in one place at one time?
"Why not have a display featuring one million silver dollars? Here, all in one, would be the most money the visitors would ever see, coupled with an intriguing chapter of American history."
Having received encouragement from the committee, the next step was to find the 1 million silver dollars.
Although the silver dollar is today well liked by collectors, high mintages and a lack of use led to bags upon bags remaining in government vaults through much of the 20th century. So getting the coins was a financial and logistical concern, but not impossible. Another concern was: If they could win approval to obtain the coins from the government, where would they store them?
The problem was solved when Northwest’s president saw an ad for steel buildings in a trade magazine and decided to approach the advertiser, Behlen Manufacturing Co., Columbus, Neb., with a promotional idea.
Northwest proposed that Behlen construct a building to be placed at the fair to house the silver dollars. “The proposal, startling at first, sounded like a winner, and, after discussing it with other company executives, Behlen went to work,” Coins reported.
“Within weeks, the idea had been cleared all the way to Miss Eva Adams, director of the Mint…and plans made to transport the coins from Philadelphia to Seattle.” The coins would earn interest for the government while they were on loan to the exhibit.
While details were being worked out on shipping the coins, and construction began on the building in which to hold them, Northwest went about designing and striking the medals, including a new one honoring the Million Silver Dollars Exhibit.
The fair’s opening date was April 21, 1962, and Behlen worked quickly to construct the corrugated steel building, while two Chevrolet diesels were employed to carry 500,000 each of the silver dollars, still in mint-sealed bags, from the Philadelphia Mint to the fair.
“Pinkerton guards rode with the trucks, state troopers and local police drove guard as the semis roared westward, following the trail cut by free-spending miners and frontiersmen who’d rather get rid of their bulky silver dollars than lug them around in their pockets,” explained Coins.
Once at the fair, 800,000 of the coins (Morgan dollars apparently, as the Coins' article notes they were in bags sealed between 1910 and 1915) were stacked in the center of a Behlen corn crib enclosed in glass. “Then over and around the bags were poured a clinking cascade of 200,000 Peace dollars: 1,000,000 silver dollars, just for looks, just sitting there gathering 167 dollars a day in interest,” Coins wrote.
“But that’s not the only kind of interest the $1,000,000 display gathers. Each day the Fair is open this summer, more than 25,000 visitors pass through the steel building and gaze wide-eyed at the most money they’ve ever seen. On busy days 40,000 pairs of eyes repeat the performance.”
In June, when the 1 millionth fair visitor walked into the exhibit, a California resident, she was presented with 100 of the silver dollars from exhibit.
Interestingly, if you wanted, besides the nine-medal set, housed in blue Whitman bookshelf album, you could also purchase silver dollars from the exhibit.
As Northwest's president explained to Coins: “‘They’re for sale. Anyone interested in picking up a Mint-sealed bag of dollars minted prior to 1910 can put down $200 and pay the balance by the 5th of October. We’ll deliver by the 22nd.’”
An advertisement on the back inside cover of the November 1962 issue of Coins offered individual silver dollars from the exhibit, “mounted in an attractive World’s Fair holder,” for $1.95 postpaid. The limit on the bags was five bags per person (at $1,500 per bag of 1,000 silver dollars), to be shipped after the exhibit closed.
Shown here are the coins in the corn crib, along with the trucks that brought them to Seattle, parked in front of the exhibit building at the Seattle World's Fair.