1937 Texas Centennial Half Dollar
Texas History Commemorated
Early in the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on June 15, 1933, Congress passed an act to authorize the coinage of silver half dollars "in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary in 1936 of the independence of Texas, and of the noble and heroic sacrifices of her pioneers, whose revered memory has been an inspiration to her sons and daughters during the past century." This was the first of over two dozen commemorative bills that would become reality during Roosevelt's tenure. The legislation provided that no more than one and a half million pieces be created on behalf of the American Legion Texas Centennial Committee, located in Austin in that state.
The history of the state of Texas is rich and colorful. The year 1836 was especially important, as the siege of the Alamo in San Antonio took place in that year, followed by General Sam Houston's trapping of the hostile forces of Santa Anna at the Battle of San jacinto on April 21,1836. A few months later Texas became an independent republic.
A Complicated Design
Pompeo Coppini, a Texas sculptor who had maintained a studio in New York City since 1922, was selected to prepare designs for the new coins. Coppini's obverse depicted a large eagle perched on a branch, displayed against a five-pointed star in the background, with inscriptions surrounding-a departure from standard practice, for the eagle motif was traditionally reserved for the reverse of American coinage.
The reverse of the Texas Centennial half dollar was one of the most ornate created for a commemorative coin of this period. Within the confined space available several highly detailed elements were presented including the goddess Victory, winged and draped, kneeling slightly to the observer's right, an olive branch in her right hand, and her left hand resting on a representation of the Alamo, the most famous shrine in Texas history. Above is the word LIBERTY on a scroll, behind which are six flags. Beneath the wingtips of Victory are two medallions depicting Texas heroes General Sam Houston and Stephen Austin.
Correspondence between Charles Moore of the Commission of Fine Arts and L.W. Robert of the Treasury Department indicates that in 1933 Moore disapproved of commemoratives in general and the proposed design of the Texas half dollar in particular. Addressing Robert, Moore stated:
"Can you do anything to stop the deluge of 50-cent pieces for all sorts of commemorative purposes? We have now before the Commission a Texas half dollar. The design shows the whole history of Texas and all its leading personages in a perfect hodgepodge. The heads are so small that they will disappear on a 50-cent piece, and yet it is just this conglomeration in which the Texas people are relying to sell 25 cents worth of silver done into a 50-cent piece at the price of a dollar in order to make money to build some building. It seems to me very undignified for the United States government to lend itself to such schemes. I told the representative that if he succeeded in making money out of his 50-cent piece he will do more than any of the other people have done with theirs. The coinage may use up a certain amount of silver, but otherwise I see no advantage therein."
Moore's comment that the design was a "perfect hodgepodge" was seconded years later by historians of the commemorative series. Arlie Slabaugh suggested that "on the relatively small surface of a half dollar the design appears overcrowded and indistinct" and might have been better suited for a frieze or plaque, whereas Anthony Swiatek and Walter Breen called the reverse motif a "jumble" and stated that it might have made more sense if it had been translated into a heroic sculpture, perhaps 30 feet in diameter, meant to be viewed from several hundred feet away.
Writing in Numismatic Art in America in 1971, Cornelius Vermeule gave a contrasting view of the Texas motif: "Coppini's commemorative half dollar is the classic triumph of how much can be successfully crowded on a coin. The eagle is imaginative and majestic against the Lone Star. Victory, wearing the conventional cap of liberty and crouching with the Alamo amid inscribed tondo busts of Sam Houston and Stephen Austin, is a tour de force of motion, drapery, and attributes worthy of the masterful silver denarii of the last decades of the Roman Republic. The modeling, spacing, and lettering are clear and lively, while maintaining all the minute precision necessary to fit everything onto the field. This coin has one of the greatest of the designs in the commemorative series, by an artist not otherwise widely associated with coins or even medals."
Mehl Aids the Committee
Writing in 1937 B. Max Mehl, who had lived in Texas for nearly all his life, told how he had aided the issuing committee: l "Of course, those of us who know a little about Texas history know that Texas independence was won at the Battle of San Jacinto on March 2, 1836, and not 1834. But the idea of the commemorative coins was advanced by the Texas division of the American Legion. The idea was to raise funds from the sale of these coins to build a memorial building. The bill authorized 1,500,000. In 1934, according to mint reports, 250,000 [sic; actually 205,113] coins were coined. The Texas issue is also one of `high finance,' and I am not entirely free from guilt that so many different issues of these coins were issued. The committee called on me and I gave them my idea as to how to sell more of the coins ....
"The design of the coin looked great when drawn on paper in huge size, but when reduced to actual coin size it is not so hot. The obverse bears the five-pointed star, insignia of the Lone Star State; the eagle is for decorative purposes and certainly unnecessary. Reverse: the two portraits are of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston. What the winged female figure is for I don't know. Instead of the space it occupies, more space should have been given to the reproduction of the Alamo. Forgot to mention that the six flags on the reverse represent the six countries under which Texas served: Spain, France, Mexico, Republic of Texas, Confederate States, and United States. At any rate, it is an interesting coin ...."
Celebrating the Centennial Early
The Centennial Committee intended to use the profits to help finance the 1936 Centennial Exposition, which eventually was held in Dallas on a 186-acre site at a cost of $25 million, attracting about seven million visitors. The idea of profits to be made from multiple issues was not lost on the Texas entrepreneurs. They began celebrating the centennial two years early, with the first issues produced in Philadelphia during October and November 1934 to the extent of 205,113 pieces.
Examples were offered for sale for $1 each through the Centennial Committee. Distribution, which according to advance announcements was to commence in November, began in December 1934, primarily through Texas banks. 2 At the outset sales were much lower than anticipated, and before additional varieties could be struck the Treasury Department insisted that the 1934 issue be paid for. This was not possible, so 143,650 coins were sent to the melting pot, perhaps indicating that the world did not need any more Texas Centennial half dollars.
The Centennial Committee felt differently, however, and in November 1935 10,000 coins were struck at each of the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints, plus a few additional specimens for assay purposes. The issue price was raised to $1.50 per coin, equivalent to $4.50 per set. In the meantime the Centennial Committee still had some unsold 1934 coins on hand and offered them at a slightly raised price of $1.15 each.
Exploring Possibilities for Profit
In correspondence with dealer Walter P. Nichols, dated October 12, 1935, A. Garland Adair, chairman of the American Legion Texas Centennial Committee, gave the appearance of having nothing but the highest altruistic motives and noted in part:
"It has all along been a source of concern to me to keep our program on such a plane that we would have the cooperation and friendship of our citizens who are interested in collecting commemoratives. Unfortunately, when we secured the passage of our bill in Congress we pledged every cent of the premium of 50 cents on each coin for the Texas Memorial Museum. This left us without funds with which to publicize our campaign orfor any other expenses in connection therewith.
"To meet this problem, it has been my idea that we secure a very limited number from now on, so that their value would become more apparent even to people who are not collectors. It was further in my mind that we charge $1.50 for the coins bearing the 1935 date and that we would enable us to have a fund with which to do business the rest of the campaign. We are committed to the program of not allowing any of the coins to go into circulation and that we will send all that are unsold back to the Mint for remelting.
"There is a heavy demand for the 1935 coins at $1.50, and I feel sure that they will all be taken up in one week after we have them from the mints. I have not yet been informed by the Mint as to just when the 1935 issue will be ready for us. The growth of the Texas Centennial idea with the development of plans for the Exposition at Dallas and other celebrations over the state also have stimulated interest in Texas coins. They are on sale in over 300 Texas banks."
Nichols, who was very active in buying and selling half dollars in the numismatic market and who in 1936 would become the distributor of the York County (Maine) half dollars, wrote back to Adair with some marketing suggestions, to which Adair replied:
"Indeed happy am I to have your most recent communication. I thank you for the suggestion that we should not change the prices in after years should $1.50 be made the basis of distribution of the 1935 coins. It had occurred to me that through the sale of the 30,000 from the three silver mints that the 50c additional would raise for us a fund of $15,000, which economically used and wisely expended would prove adequate for future use and needs. The sale has progressed most marvelously considering the fact that we have never had a dime with which to operate.
"I am going to ask a favor of you; will you please write Miss Mary M. O'Reilly, assistant director, U.S. Mint, Washington, D.C., and ask whether or not a new design could be made for commemorative coins after the first design has been made and adopted, but I am now under the impression that this cannot be done without changing the law. I am fearful of undertaking to change our bill since there is a disposition on the part of Congress not to issue any more commemorative silver coins. When you get this information will you please transmit same to me? We have ordered the dies for the 1935 issue to be sent from Philadelphia to Denver and San Francisco."
Mary M. O'Reilly replied to Walter Nichols stating that no change could be made in the design once it has been authorized by Congress, thus ending the matter, at least for the moment. Not stated by Miss O'Reilly was that the secret was to have Congress pass a new bill authorizing a design change, as was later done with the 1935 "small 1934" Boone half dollars and the 1936 Robinson-Arkansas issue. In 1936 this procedure was attempted by Senator Connally of Texas, who introduced S. 3721 "To provide for a change in the design of the 50-cent pieces authorized to be coined in commemoration of the one-hundredth anniversary of independence of the State of Texas." 3
Testimony given by Robert M. Jackson (secretary to Sen. Connally) before the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency, March 11, 1936,4 told of the Texas half dollar situation: "The purpose, of course, is to raise money to help build a memorial museum on the campus of the State University at Austin. This is backed by the American Legion of Texas. The American Legion has spent a considerable amount of money on the present project, and started the coin sale. After they had progressed to a certain point with it they ran into some difficulties, but they kept on with the work, and they have now perfected an agreement with the regents of the University of Texas, and the entire sale of coins is now being handled by a board of the board [sic] of the regents of the University of Texas .... They have made elaborate plans to continue the campaign in Texas to try to sell all of those coins. It is their hope to sell one to every family in Texas as a souvenir of the Texas Centennial ...."
Senator Alva B. Adams then asked, "How many of those coins were originally authorized?" to which question Jackson replied, "There were 1,500,OOOauthorized." Adams continued his questioning: "What is the reason for desiring to have five different designs [in the new bill proposed]?"
Jackson tried to explain: "I do not know much about the matter of coin collecting, and these experts sitting at the table4 can tell you much more than I could. But the information given to me is to the effect that they are having difficulty selling them, and that by changing the design people will want to buy not one coin only but the entire set of coins. That is the purpose of putting out several designs. In other words, they have one coin now and after they sell that one coin to a person that is the end of it so far as that person is concerned, but that by having five different designs people will want to buy the set .... "
Then followed a comment by Sen. Adams that, if five different designs were produced at three different mints, 15 varieties would be created for the year. The proposal for new Texas designs was eventually rejected, as was a related proposal for three new Arkansas half dollar designs.
Later Texas Coinages
In January 1936 the Philadelphia Mint struck 10,008 new Texas coins, followed by the coinages in February of 10,007 and 10,008, respectively, at the Denver and San Francisco mints. The 1936-dated coins were priced at $1.50 each. Coins were distributed, beginning on April 3, 1936, by The Texas Memorial Museum Centennial Coin Campaign, Beauford H. Jester, chairman. Since even this small quantity did not sell as well as anticipated, in April and May 1937 the three mints produced fewer sets, in the amounts of 8,005, 8,006, and 8,007, respectively. On April 12, 1937, jester announced that 1934 and 1936 Texas half, dollars were still available at the original issue prices and that the 1935 coins had all been sold.
The Centennial Exposition closed in 1937, but the production of additional coin varieties rolled on. In January 1938 the three mints struck 5,005, 5,005, and 5,006 coins, respectively, now offered at a new high price of $2 each.
The Committee tried its best to sell the 1938 coins as well as to liquidate unsold remainders from earlier years. A form letter dated July 9, 1938, signed by Charles J. Littlefield, executive secretary of The Texas Memorial Museum Centennial Coin Campaign, advised that on June 25th the Board of Directors had passed a resolution stating that as of November 1, 1938, all sales of Texas half dollars would be discontinued. In the meantime collectors were advised that sets dated 1936, 1937, and 1938 were still on hand and could be ordered for the original issue prices. "All orders received after November 1 will be returned to the senders."6
After November 1938 thousands of unsold pieces were returned to the Treasury for melting. A portion of the funds derived from the sale of the coins went to the Texas Memorial Museum, the cornerstone for which was laid on December 19, 1937 on the University of Texas campus in Austin. A brochure distributed in 1936 noted that the structure would cost $1 million, of which the federal government had allocated $300,000, The Texas Centennial Commission had promised $225,000 (for furnishings and equipment), and of which "through the sale of the Texas Centennial coins, a minimum of $500,000 will be raised to complete the first unit of the Museum. " The same brochure advised that Texas half dollars could be purchased from 314 banks in 236 different Texas towns, as well as from The Texas Memorial Museum Coin Campaign Headquarters.
Although 304,000 pieces were coined for distribution during the life of the 19341938 series plus a few additional coins for assay purposes, eventually 154,522 were returned to the Treasury for melting. The net sale of the issue amounted to 149,478, seemingly an inefficient distribution, but one which raised little unfavorable comment at the time among collectors.
Collecting Texas Half Dollars
As years went on, the Texas Centennial half dollars remained fairly popular with numismatists. Despite derogatory comments by some observers, the Texas design was and is considered to be attractive by many collectors, and a ready demand has always existed for nicely preserved specimens. Most coins in existence are in Mint State with the typical grade being MS63.
GRADING SUMMARY: For evidence of friction and/or contact marks check the eagle's breast on the obverse and, on the reverse, the head and knee of Victory. Early issues are very lustrous and frosty, whereas those produced toward the end of the Texas series are more satiny than frosty.
1 In his monograph, "Commemorative Coins of the United States," p. 26.
2 Testimony by Robert M. Jackson (secretary to Texas Senator Connally) before the Senate Committee on Ranking and Currency, March 11, 1936, told of distribution by other banks as well: "The Texas commemorative coin is on sale by 314 banks in Texas, as well as by banks outside of Tcxas. And we had the Riggs National Bank here in Washington selling them for some time, and finally they sent back their unsold supply. They sold them for a dollar to anyone who wanted to come down to the bank and get it."
3 The House version ofthe bill, H.R. 1037 7, proposed that the director ofthe Mint be "authorized and directed to provide for a series of not more than five different designs to be placed on the reverse side of the 50-cent pieces ...."
4 As printed in "Coinage of Commemorative 50-CentPieces," the transcript of the hearing, published in 1936.
5 Including L. W. Hoffecker and Frank G. Duffield.
6From an extensive file regarding the Texas commemorative half dollar in the Bowers and Merena Galleris Reference Collection.
1937 Texas Centennial Half Dollar Obverse
1937 Texas Centennial Half Dollar Obverse