This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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There is an awful lot of history behind the classical commemorative coins of the United States that were struck starting in 1892 and ending in 1954. To collect them is fun, it is interesting and as a group they make a great collection and a great collection to study.
The idea for commemorative coins was hardly new even at the time the United States became a nation. The notion of using coins as a way of commemorating important events or of even announcing current events stretched all the way back to ancient times. In fact depicting important events on coins was reasonably commonplace. There were practical reason as any new emperor wanted his face on the coins being used to pay the troops that kept in him power. Important events would also be depicted by the imperial governments as anyone in power wanted to be sure they got the news out with their spin on the great events.
In the case of the young United States, coins did not need to play such a large role. By 1776 there were new ways of communicating and the printing press was a major tool in informing the public. Instead of hoping they had enough money to look at a coin, a simple flier could be placed on a tree and get out all the information needed. Moreover, you could get a lot more information on a page than on a small coin.
Medals and tokens throughout American history might have served a role of sorts as the equivalent of the ancient coin when it came to making political statements, but American coins intended for circulation were generally free of political messages especially after some of the public objected to the chain reverse on the 1793 cent. After all, back in 1776 that chain reverse was symbolic of unity, but by 1793 it suddenly looked like chains of oppression to some.
The objection of George Washington and the House of Representatives to putting the President’s image on coins also probably played a role in keeping ideas for using U.S. coins in the old-fashioned way of the ancient Romans from ever getting a foothold on the first coins of the United States.
For many years there was no attempt at commemorative coins. There was a practical reason as the U.S. Mint was not up to task of even producing adequate numbers of regular coins much less commemoratives. Moreover the country was way too busy simply getting established, growing and then fighting a Civil War to commemorate anything.
It can be said that there was a commemorative of sorts in 1848 when the first gold of California was used to create 1,389 quarter eagles with “CAL” stamped above the eagle on the reverse. These $2.50 commemorative of sorts delivered a political message as in the eyes of President Polk and the Secretary of War W.L. Marcy the gold in California justified the war with Mexico, which had not been popular with everyone. That idea, however, did not spread.
By 1892, however, things were very different. The United States was stable and so was the Mint. The country was rich enough and ready for something different. The 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus provided a golden opportunity. Costa Rica even named its currency after Columbus, but that was a step too far for the United States. Simple commemorative coins would suffice.
The biggest coin-related problem at the time was that the Mint was strained by the required production of too many silver dollars and the great game played by some where silver dollars were swapped for gold coins, draining the American Treasury of the precious yellow metal and resulting in the silver dollars piling up in Treasury hands waiting for some commercial use.
The idea of having a special coin to help defray the costs of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago probably seemed to most like something that could do no harm, help a worthy cause and persuade the public to keeps some silver as souvenirs and thereby keeping out of the Treasury.
As a result there was first the Columbian Exposition half dollar of 1892, which was joined in 1893 by the Isabella quarter at the request of the Board of Lady Managers of the Columbian Exposition.
The whole idea probably seemed simple enough. The Mint would make the coins, which would then be sold for face value to the sponsoring group like the Board of Lady Managers, who would in turn sell the coins to the public at a price above their face value, making a profit to use for their worthy cause. It would have been hard to find fault in that.
Of course, there was no track record on which to base decisions such as how many coins could actually be sold. There was also an immediate sign of potential problems in price as the Columbian exposition half dollar was to be sold for a dollar and that was also the price of the Isabella quarter. As there was no history no one could say having a half dollar and a quarter dollar at the same price was odd, but some could have certainly suggested that and the sale results would bear out the notion that people were seemingly much more willing to pay one dollar for a half dollar than for a quarter.
The large mintages of the Columbian Exposition half dollar, which was produced both in 1892 and 1893, probably did not help to convince collectors or anyone else at the time to pay one dollar for the coins. It would be a constant factor in the case of future commemoratives. If the entire mintage was not sold out, the coins frequently ended up selling for less than the official asking price from the group who had been allowed to do the marketing.
The Columbian Exposition half dollar was probably among the worst simply because it had such large mintages. There were 950,000 1892 coins and 1,550,405 of the 1893 pieces. These numbers look large even today.
What ended up happening was that banks and others ended up with the excess coins and they kept trickling out into circulation for years. That explains why so many Columbian Exposition half dollars now are found in circulated grades and why it took decades before the Columbian Exposition half dollar would command any sort of premium price from a collector as odds were pretty good that if you just waited and watched you could find one in circulation.
The Isabella quarter showed the potential for another outcome. The official sales total was just 24,000, but it appears that potentially half of the total ended up in the hands of just one buyer who happened to be on the Board of Lady Managers. Those coins ended up being sold in quantities sometimes for less than one-half the initial price.
The 1900 Lafayette silver dollar would follow and it had all the element
s of the first two with some ending up in circulation while others ended up in hoards selling for less than their $2 issue price and even some 14,000 coins ended up back in the Treasury where they were melted in 1945. Simply put a commemorative in the early years might well have been more likely to end up being released any number of ways other than the one expected.
For many years there was no pattern to the commemorative program. Gold dollars were to follow the Columbian half dollar, the Isabella quarter and the Lafayette silver dollar. It was as if the Treasury was trying each denomination in turn. So with gold dollars there were some novel twists, with two dollars being made for the Louisiana Purchase in 1903 with one depicting Jefferson and the other McKinley while the Lewis and Clark dollars of 1904 and 1905 had the head of each explorer on one side making it a two-headed coin.
If anything, for a time it might have appeared that gold dollars would ultimately be the most regular commemorative issues as there would be other gold dollars, including one as part of the large Panama-Pacific program of 195 as well as other gold dollars for McKinley in 1916 and 1917 and Grant in 1922. In fact, there is reason to question why the gold dollar was not continued as a regular commemorative vehicle at least until the Gold Recall Order of 1933, which would have prevented any additional gold issues, but for gold $1 commemoratives, the Grant issue was the end of the line.
The answer to why it happened this way may lie behind the sales totals. In his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards, Q. David Bowers traces some of the hoards of commemoratives over the years and he points to the fact that in the case of the 1916 and 1917 McKinley gold dollars, which had a mintage of about 30,000, the actual sales were far less. Bowers estimates that approximately 10,000 of which more than half were 1917 were melted while Fort Worth, Texas, dealer B. Max Mehl ended up with an estimated 7,000 of the 1916 and 3,000 of the 1917. Bowers suggests other dealers also ended up with smaller amounts.
It might have been even worse in the case of the Grant dollar. The numbers are not really known, but Mehl figured in again according to Bowers, having thousands of Grant dollars. In the end, Bowers concludes, “Only a few were sold to the general public, and not many were sold to numismatists at the time of issue. Most were wholesaled to dealers, who parceled them out for a long period of time thereafter.”
It was not a case where other denominations like the half dollar experienced no problems. The half dollar reappeared in 1915 with the Panama-Pacific issue. The Lincoln-Illinois Centennial half dollars of 1918 had a large mintage, but according to Bowers “a Springfield, Ill., bank retained about 30,000 pieces until the ‘Bank Holiday’ of March 1933.” In fact, it appears that it took numismatic demand until the late 1930s to finally absorb all the leftover Illinois half dollars.
The situation might well have been one where the half dollar seemed like the least likely to cause problems and to produce something on the order of decent sales. The gold dollars did not sell and there is a strong possibility that no one back in the early 1920s wanted anything to do with additional silver dollars simply because they had become something of a political football first being melted by the 1918 Pittman Act and then being replaced in an emergency mintage starting in 1921.
Under the circumstances the half dollar might have simply been seen as the least likely to cause unexpected problems while still realizing some significant sales to the public. The Gold Recall Order of 1933 would later take any notions of additional gold coins off the table and that left the half dollar as the basic denomination for a commemorative.
In addition to sales and what might generally be descried as irregular marketing practices, the other major criticism of the early commemorative program is that there were too many designs. It is hard to argue with that as by the time the last coins of the original commemorative period were made in 1954 there had been over 150 different coins when you counted different dates, mints and other features such as small numbers of 1921 Alabama and Missouri half dollar with the state’s number in joining the Union added.
Perhaps as bad as too many was the fact that in an effort to increase revenues some programs had simply been allowed to stretch out for years. The Oregon Trail half dollar is the poster child for that abuse having started in 1926, it was finally terminated when Congress took action in 1939 to not allow any programs which had started before 1939 to continue.
That action stopped not only the Oregon Trail, but other programs as well. It had simply become a case where in all probability members of Congress would not oppose a commemorative as they might want their own program later and none had the time to monitor what was really going on as they probably barely had time to simply approve all the programs being proposed.
The problems became nearly legendary although it could be said that at least they were diverse. In the case of the Rhode Island half dollar of 1936 Bowers recounts, “Well-known dealer Horace M. Grant was in the middle of the distribution of this issue, which was fraught with phony news releases, made-up stories of the pieces being sold out within six hours of being put on sale etc.” Of course years later Bowers points out hundreds of sets would appear from a couple sources.
If the sales of the Rhode Island were phony, the whole idea behind the 1936 issue marking the 50th anniversary of Cincinnati as a music center might have been phony as there was no record of anyone designating the city as a music center back in the 1880s. The use of Stephen Foster on the obverse was equally suspicious as to the best of anyone’s knowledge any connection between Foster and Cincinnati was brief and not exactly critical to the development of American music. Equally suspicious was the high $7.75 price of a three-coin set, which set a record at the time and just where the profits actually ended up is uncertain. This was during a time when $7.75 was almost half a week’s wages for many people.
Where the profits ended up is one interesting question and where the coins ended up is another. In his book Bowers traces hoards of Oregon Trail half dollars, which in many cases ended up in the inventory of dealer Wayte Raymond. Others like the San Diego half dollar ended up in large hoards and in the case of the Iowa half dollar of 1946 the state still has over 500 examples that it hopes to sell in 2046.
If the whole thing seems almost comical as one issue after another seemed to vanish into thin air, the pressures to provide commemoratives to every group wanting them were very real and we still see today how such pressure can be exerted on Congress.
The modern commemorative programs were started in 1982 with a determined effort to limit issues and limit their size, yet somehow the 1995-1996 Atlanta Olympic program stretching out a couple years and involving 32 coins snuck through. When some issues sell out, such as the American Buffalo silver dollar, there are pressures to simply forget the congressional authorizations and make more so everyone can have a coin and the groups involved can have greater profits. These pressures are real today and they were equally real in the 1930s, although eventually in 1939 the Congress was able to at least stop programs from continuing indefinitely.
As it worked out, World War II and a series of Presidential vetoes or at least threats of them would also help to curb the growth of additional programs. That said, the programs approved such as the Booker T. Washington program which was followed the Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver half dollars which l
asted until 1954 still had the old problems of running for more than one year and having few coins really sell at the issue price.
The transition to the modern program was to take 28 years. It was as though the official view of commemoratives went from one extreme to the other. Initially there was no stopping the flood of issues and then in a complete turnabout there was basically no way to get even the most worthy programs approved.
To this day there has never been an official commemorative for the space program. The landing of men on the moon was marked only with the use of the Apollo 11 patch on the back of circulating dollars. The Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence saw special reverses and dual dates on the quarter, half dollar and dollar, but everyone was very careful not to call them commemoratives.
Finally in 1982 the commemorative program returned, but at least initially everyone was very concerned that the program be kept under control to avoid the problems of the past. That has been more or less successful, although certainly the pressure remains to make more coins and make them for longer periods.
What should not be overlooked when it comes to the older commemoratives is that although there may not be rapid price movements or much attention on a regular basis from collectors, the commemoratives from before 1982 tell not only a fascinating story but they are fascinating coins.
There are some truly great designs like the Oregon Trail half dollars and a single Oregon Trail half dollar in MS-65 is currently around $200. While the Oregon Trail might be a universally popular design, almost everyone will find their own favorites as well as one or two they tend to not like. It’s a lot of fun and when you look at the mintages and prices you see that there are not many older commemoratives with a mintage of even 100,000. In fact, mintages under 50,000 are commonplace, but prices of more than $1,000 in mint state are not. The values are good, the stories are interesting and the opportunity remains to acquire a great collection at a great price. That combination makes historic commemoratives a great collection.