It’s technically the Illinois Centennial half dollar but it is Abraham Lincoln who dominates the design and is known to many as the Lincoln-Illinois Centennial half dollar. The fact that the Illinois Centennial half dollar was dated 1918 should give some clue as to its real original intent as 1918 was the centennial of the admission of the state of Illinois to the Union.
Back in 1918, well before the glut of commemoratives, the Illinois Centennial half dollar might have seemed unusual. There had been a commemorative half dollar as part of the Panama-Pacific program in 1915 but the last time a half dollar had been in a program alone had been the first Columbian Exposition half dollars in 1892 and 1893.
As he has a way of doing, Lincoln would be the dominant figure on the Illinois Centennial half dollar. The obverse of Lincoln was prepared by George T. Morgan of the Morgan dollar fame while the reverse would be by J.R. Sinnock. The Lincoln was taken from the Andrew O'Connor statue located in Springfield while the reverse is the Illinois State Seal.
The mintage of the Illinois Centennial half dollar is put at 100,058, which reflects that commemoratives were still novel at the time and could produce large sales like the Columbian Exposition half dollars, which were 950,000 for the 1892 and about 1.5 million for the 1893.
All of the large mintage did not sell. According to Q. David Bowers in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards, a bank in Springfield, Illinois ended up with about 30,000 pieces, which were later sold or even circulated in the Great Depression.
In the period around 1919, banks were having trouble getting half dollars and, according to Bowers, one bank in Iowa City, Iowa, got a $1,000 bag of half dollars in 1919 and the all turned out to be Illinois Centennial half dollars. As Bowers explained, “the bank tried to use these, but none of its customers wanted the strange looking pieces.”
Of that group, 100 were set aside and when later examined they turned out to be heavily bagmarked, suggesting they may have been shipped to other banks before ending up in Iowa. As it turned out, it appears the Illinois Centennial half dollars were floating around the Midwest for some time before finally disappearing around 1936.
Bowers even recounts several hundred pieces that appeared in the 1980s, all of which proves that the initial mintage, while high, was potentially misleading as many of the coins did not find their way to collectors originally, but rather ended up in hoards and other large groups.
Today, the Lincoln-Illinois Centennial half dollar lists at $135 in AU-50, $150 in MS-60 and $565 in MS-65. Those prices suggest it is available in MS-65. In other grades, you have to be demanding as there are a lot of bagmarked examples, having traveled the country in bags.
Whatever grade you select, the Illinois Centennial half dollar is still an interesting coin. It’s also an historic commemorative as it opened the doors in terms of using half dollars in commemorative coin programs.