Chapter 8

Silver Commemoratives

(and Clad Issues)

 

1892-1893 Columbian Exposition Half Dollars

The World's Columbian Exposition

The first United States silver commemorative coins are the 1892 and 1893 half dollars made for sale at a premium at the World's Columbian Exposition, scheduled to open in Chicago in 1892 but postponed until 1893.

In 1890 plans were made for America to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing in the New World by holding an exposition in 1892. The 1876 Centennial Exhibition, held in Philadelphia, was a grand success a decade or so earlier, and now it was intended to outdo this and any other fair ever held. St. Louis, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago all competed for the honor to host the celebration. The choice was decided by Congress, which passed an act on April 25, 1890, naming Chicago.

An undeveloped 686-acre site on the shore of Lake Michigan was selected for the Exposition grounds. In January 1891 a group of architects met in Chicago to plan the buildings, which were subsequently constructed mainly in the classical style reflecting Greek and Roman influences, and with exteriors made of an artificial composition resembling marble, giving rise to the name "White City" for the structures.

Work proceeded apace, and the Exposition was dedicated on October 21, 1892, but as all exhibits were not yet in place, it was not possible to open the fair to the general public in the 400th anniversary year. Finally, at noon on May 1, 1893, President Grover Cleveland officiated at a ceremony that opened the Exposition grounds to the public. Strains of the Hallelujah Chorus greeted the estimated 300,000 individuals who had come to attend the opening day festivities.

The Exposition was intended to showcase American progress in art, architecture, technology, science, agriculture, and other endeavors. No expense was spared to create a virtual city, complete with 160 buildings (many of which were connected by canals plied by gondolas and small steampowered craft) and 65,000 exhibits devoted to commercial, national, artistic, and other subjects. Separate structures showcased the attractions and products of different states and a number of foreign countries. Sculptures and other works of art decorated many of the open spaces as well as building interiors. Ultimately the event cost an estimated $30 million to stage and attracted 28 million visitors. Attending the Exposition was the aim of citizens all across America, and to oblige them the various railroads ran special cars and excursions to Chicago. Many individuals made home-town newspaper headlines by walking or bicycling to the Exposition from distant locations.

The World's Columbian Exposition had many numismatic features. The United States Mint exhibit in the Government Building featured a coining press that struck thousands of brass souvenir medals, which were offered for sale at 25¢ each'! Coins from the Mint collection, taken to Chicago from their home in Philadelphia, were on view and were highlighted by the rare 1804 silver dollar and the unique 1849 $20 gold piece in company with coins from all eras of civilized history. In addition, there were many private exhibits and vendors. For souvenir hunters literally hundreds of different inexpensive tokens, badges, and medals struck in brass, aluminum, white metal, and bronze were available. The Scott Stamp & Coin Company, a leading fum of the era, had two separate sales areas at the fair.

The Souvenir Half Dollars

The idea for a commemorative half dollar was suggested by the manager of the Exposition, who first proposed that the staggering quantity of 40,000,000 pieces be coined, apparently for use as admission tokens to the fair and as souvenirs of the event. Later the requested quantity was reduced, and it was decided to sell the coins for $1 each in order to raise money to help defray Exposition expenses.

On August 5, 1892, Congress approved a bill providing for a United States silver half dollar of legal weight and fineness, in a quantity not to exceed 5,000,000 pieces (to be known as the Columbian half dollar) with devices to be prescribed by the director of the Mint with the approval of the secretary of the Treasury. It was mandated that the half dollars would be made from metal obtained from obsolete silver coins held by the Treasury, thus freeing Exposition officials from the necessity of arranging for the acquisition of new metal or becoming involved in heated debates in Congress concerning purchases' of silver from Western mining interests. It is presumed that Columbian half dollars were made of melted-down early Liberty Seated and other obsolete silver coins including three-cent pieces, half dimes, and trade dollars which had been presented to the Treasury for redemption.