Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
January 3, 2013
PCGS recently began grading one of America's most diverse classes of commemorative medals, known in the exonumic community as so-called dollars.
Harold E. Hibler and Charles V. Kappen first cataloged so-called dollars (dollar-sized public or private medals produced during the 19th and 20th centuries) in the seminal So-Called Dollars: An Illustrated Standard Catalog (1963). The series casts light on a wide swath of topics from American history, and is seen by some (including us) as the progenitor to the United States commemorative coin program.
The earliest so-called dollars lauded important social and cultural events, such as the completion of a canal, the construction of an important edifice, or in the event of a pair of so-called dollars struck in 1861, the onset of hostilities between federal troops and South Carolina rebels at Fort Sumter. There were a slew of so-called dollars marking the centennial of the signing the Declaration of Independence, for which federally-issued coins exist celebrating the sesquicentennial and the bicentennial (and likely in the near future the sestercentennial in 2026). Also, a number of so-called dollars were struck by "notable figures" in American history, such as anti-fiat currency Connecticut lawyer Aaron White, who warned Americans on his satirical piece to "Never Keep a Paper Dollar Until Tomorrow" or one commemorating 19th century thespian Ada Rehan.
So-called dollars were struck as souvenirs for America's great fairs, including more than fifty from the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. The same fair also saw the release of the Columbian half dollar and the Isabella quarter. Those who enjoy the output of some of America's most notable coin and medallic artists find interesting collaborations in the field of so-called dollars. An early collaboration between Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Charles Barber is one of the highlights from a series of medals struck for the 1893 fair.
From 1892 on through the 1920s, so-called dollars and commemorative coins competed against each other at a number of national fairs. Sometimes, so-called dollars were even designed and struck by Mint personnel, including some struck at the St. Louis World's Fair on machinery earmarked for the soon-to-open Denver Mint.
In other instances, when local or regional organizing committees successfully lobbied Congress to press commemorative half dollars to help fund anniversary celebrations, organizers or private speculators would also ready medals for sale at the event (this was especially important when you consider that sometimes commemoratives were not struck or delivered in time to be for sale at the events they were commemorating).
So-called dollars also prove interesting from an artistic standpoint, not only because of their originality - and sometimes weirdness - but also because sometimes motifs first designed for so-called dollars would reappear on commemorative issues. Take, for instance, the beaver on the Wisconsin half dollar. Or consider the Battle of Bennington monument design featured on the Vermont so-called dollar. Fifty years later the same design was considered for the reverse of the Vermont half dollar. There's also the Half Moon design on the Hudson so-called dollar by Chester Beach, which later appeared on the Hudson commemorative half dollar.
So-called dollars also depict America as an ascendant economic power, with pieces celebrating various anniversaries of American businesses. Examples include Ford and Dodge, the American petroleum and aeronautic industries, and the opening of Disneyland.
Those wishing to branch out into this field will find a world of possibilities and a ton of varieties (new ones are still being discovered). This challenging and rewarding series is full of scarce pieces and great designs, and now that PCGS is extending its work into the field, collectors have one less thing to worry about when putting together their ideal set.