The Continuing Story of Commemoratives

During the period of Booker T. Washington half dollar issuance (1946-1951) and Carver-Washington half dollar production (1951-1954) the coin market went through a cycle. After World War II coin prices continued to increase, but in 1948 and 1949 the market, pausing for breath, stumbled and fell. The slump was but short lived in the overall scheme of things, and by 1952-1953 market strength was rapidly rebuilding.

By the time that the last Carver-Washington half dollars were coined in 1954, there was little interest in current commemoratives within the numismatic community, and the American population was not attentive either. Older commemoratives the issues from the 1892 Columbian half dollar to the 1946 Iowa half dollar-were a different story, and these were enthusiastically bought, sold, and traded.

During the late 1950s collectors began to voice interest in commemoratives once again, and from time to time proposals for the production of new designs were made. (Mention should be made of the Pine Tree Shilling Tercentenary Commemorative Coin Committee, sponsored by the American Numismatic Association, which expended a great deal of effort in the early 1950s in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Congress to authorize a quarter-dollar commemorative coin to observe the 1652-1952 anniversary of the first silver New England coinage. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a representative to Congress from Massachusetts at the time, introduced H.R. 1286 on January 12, 1951, the counterpart to Senate Bill S. 290. Numerous Massachusetts and New England organizations backed the effort. The proposed 25 ¢ design depicted on one side the portrait of an Indian and on the other a pine tree. Among recent earlier proposals for new commemoratives was H.J. Res. 333, 1948, for an issue of 250,000 half dollars to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the termination of the War with Spain, such coins to be issued in 1948 and 1949.) Cincinnati dealer Sol Kaplan was particularly vocal in this regard and made several overtures to members of Congress. The often-stated philosophy of the Treasury Department was that commemoratives were subject to abuses by special interests, and that distributions were typically inefficient and often unsuccessful. The Treasury Department had no incentive to reawaken interest in the topic. Spokespeople for the Treasury had but to point to the Boone, Oregon Trail, Arkansas, Texas, Booker T. Washington, and other issues to argue effectively that commemoratives benefited vested interests but did little for American citizens as a whole.

In the meantime during the issuance of the Carver-Washington half dollars (1951-1954), the coin market in general grew rapidly, and prices of older commemorative issues increased. The advent of Numismatic News in 1952 spurred interest further, as did an expanded interest in coin collecting, study, and investment.

In 1960 two events happened that changed the market dramatically: (1) The Philadelphia Mint produced two varieties of one-cent pieces, with the scarcer being known as the Small Date. Philadelphia versions of the Small Date Lincoln cent were believed to be of great value, and a sack containing $50 face value of such cents was apt to trade for $10,000 or more, a situation similar to finding money in the streets. Time magazine, newspapers, and television carried stories of this bonanza, and millions of citizens sought to find treasures in their pockets. (2) Interest in coin collecting expanded greatly, to be accelerated in the same year by the launching of Coin World, the hobby's first weekly publication.

Within the next several years the Teletype system became a reality and linked dealers all over the United States, The Coin Dealer Newsletter began publication (in 1963) as an investment journal, and the number of dealers expanded. A boom market in popu1ar issues including commemoratives, ensued, and continued to 1964, when the cycle peaked and prices slumped. The market slowly rebuilt through the late 1960s and early 1970s, until 1973-1974, by which time many issues were selling for prices far above their pre-1964 levels. A market adjustment took place, and gold coins in particular fell out of favor. From 1975 through the balance of the decade a great expansion of interest took place, particu1arly in the investment area, culminating in a market peak in 1979-1980. Early in 1980 coin prices underwent a severe adjustment, and the market sub-sequently endured a slump for the next several years. (Not all series were affected. The Eliasberg Collection of U.S. Gold Coins, auctioned in 1982, saw record prices which in many instances were not exceeded during the balance of the decade.)Throughout the 1980s the market gained momentum, again peaking in spring 1990.

Director of the Mint Eva Adams, appointed to her post during the John F. Kennedy administration, waged a bitter war with collectors, blaming them for the nationwide coin shortage of the mid-1960s. Obviously, this was not a favorable climate even to discuss new commemoratives. Later Miss Adams made peace with the numismatic fraternity and took an interest in the activities of the American Numismatic Association. Mary Brooks, her successor, was more receptive to the interests of collectors, but still there was no chance for new commemorative issues. Of course, it was up to Congress to create commemorative issues, but the Mint made it clear that such coins would be a bother. Then followed Stella Hackel (Stella Hackel Sims), who had relatively little interest in numismatics and, in fact, caused many irreplaceable Mint records to be destroyed in an "economy move." (Not all series were affected. The Eliasberg Collection of U.S. Gold Coins, auctioned in 1982, saw record prices which in many instances were not exceeded during the balance of the decade.)

In 1971 art historian Cornelius Vermeule (in Numismatic Art in America) lamented the lack of recent commemorative coins (none had been struck since the last Carver Washington half dollars in 1954): "Distressing is the fact that the accumulated prejudice against commemorative half dollars mounted to such levels that, 25 years later, the centennial of the Civil War could sweep past without the appearance of a single commemorative coin. Fatted calves and gnawing beavers (Motifs on the 1938 New Rochelle and 1936 Albany half dollars, respectively.) make clever fare in the artistry of American coinage, but events from the raid at Harper's Ferry to the shot that shook the nation in Ford's Theatre demand the dignity of commemoration that only a coin can give. Postage stamps are no substitute; they are like writing in the sand. A nation without an artistic, imaginative, and varied coinage of significance is impoverished beyond precise description."

Perhaps it was indeed time for some new issues. Enter a new director of the Mint, Donna Pope, who beginning in May 1981 brought the most enlightened outlook toward coin collecting ever shown by an official in this position. (She was renominated and reconfirmed for a second five-year term on August 1, 1986.) Mrs. Pope sought to learn about collecting and the effective marketing of Proofsets and other coins and built strong bridges with numismatic publishers, the American Numismatic Association, and other hobby elements. Marketing programs well devised whereby new packaging, advertising ideas, and promotions were tried.

In the meantime Elizabeth Jones, whose artistic credentials were of international repute, had been named as chief engraver and sculptor of the Mint. Others on the staff of the Engraving Department of the Mint possessed excellent artistic talent as well. The stage was set for the renewal of commemorative coinage, except that this time around it would not be on behalf of private or local interests.