U.S. & World Coin News and Articles

So-Called Dollars Commemorating the Corps of Discovery (1903-1905)

Two expositions of national importance marked the centennial of the Corps of Discovery. The first was the famous St. Louis World's Fair, officially known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. This event was second only to the World's Columbian Exposition, held a decade earlier, in scope and importance for Middle America. The great film titled Meet Me in St. Louis commemorates the spirit and energy the Fair had on the people of St. Louis at the time, while the film The Grapes of Wrath includes a scene that eludes to the Fair not as a moment of promise for the future, but as a sad reminder of a promised future that never came. These are just two small examples of the cultural impact these Fairs had on American industry and culture.

This week, Hubert and I look at the So-Called Dollars that were struck to commemorate these great events.

Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1904), St Louis, MO, aka St. Louis World's Fair

Eleven years after the successful World's Columbian Exposition, the great city of St. Louis celebrated the centennial of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery Expedition by hosting the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World's Fair. The Expo opened on April 30 and ran through December 1, 1904, drawing nearly 20 million visitors, a slight decline from the paid attendance of the World's Columbian Exposition.

There is a great deal of folklore surrounding the Louisiana Purchase Exposition; some say the waffle ice cream cone was invented for the fair, while others claim the event saw the birth of the hot dog and hamburger. These claims are likely dubious, but we do know that the popular soft drink Dr. Pepper made its mass market debut here along with puffed wheat breakfast cereal. Also, the common health maxim, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" was first uttered by fruit researcher, Dr. J. T. Stinson, in a speech given in front of Fair goers.[1]

Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1904), St. Louis, Missouri

Date

Coin

Designer

Distribution

1903

Louisiana Purchase Exposition: Jefferson Gold Dollar

Barber

17,500

1903

Louisiana Purchase Exposition: McKinley Gold Dollar

Barber

17,500

Total Pieces

So-Called Dollar Theme (some overlap)

Tie-In

12

Architecture

5

French Regents

For design aesthetics: Isabella quarter (1893)

2

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson Gold dollar

1

Missouri

2

Louisiana Purchase

1

Theodore Roosevelt

1

Chicago World's Fair

Columbian half dollar (1892-1893)

It is also notable that the Exposition hosted the 1904 Olympic Games as well, the third Olympics of the modern era. In a contemporary context it is hard to imagine an Exposition dwarfing an international event such as the Olympics, but these were different times and the Olympic movement was still in its infancy.

In order to fund the Fair, the state of Missouri guaranteed $1,000,000, while Congress authorized an additional $5,000,000. Congress again turned to the idea of producing commemorative coins as a way to offset the cost. This time, Congress decided on the creation of two dime-sized commemorative gold dollars. One bore the likeness of Thomas Jefferson and the other featured the recently assassinated President William McKinley (who, coincidentally, was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz at the Pan-American Exposition, which took place in Buffalo from May to November of 1901). The choice to honor McKinley with a gold dollar was likely due to the fact that McKinley had signed legislation authorizing the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

(It is also somewhat fitting that McKinley would be honored with a gold dollar as he pushed for and signed the Gold Standard Act of 1900, which put an end to American bimetallism.)

Unfortunately for event organizers and the government, the gold coin commemorative program was a total failure. 125,000 of each coin were authorized but only 17,500 of each were sold, bringing in just over $100,000 before expenses were taken out. A number of tie-ins were tried to move the coins, including a stamp and a "gold souvenir" token set offered by noted numismatist Farran Zerbe.[2] Many of the coins were sold only because they were infused into a number of non-numismatic products, such as jewelry and stickpins - which ruined many of the coins accounted for in the final distribution totals.

The event also saw a decline in the number of so-called dollars offered. Nearly all of these were available to Fair-goers at a fraction of the cost of the two gold dollars. Perhaps this accounts for the surprising lack of interest in the gold coins, or maybe there were more interesting tchotchkes available at the Fair's many shops.

For those interested in purchasing medals, there was an Official Souvenir Medal featuring the busts of Jefferson and Napoleon, left-facing and in jugate, along with the inscription LOUISIANA PURCHASE EXPOSITION – OFFICIAL SOUVENIR. The medal's reverse depicts a map of the present day United States with the land apportioned in the purchase in raised relief along with the inscription LOUISIANA TERRITORY 1803, 1,000,000 SQUARE MILES - $15,000,000, ST LOUIS 1904.

This medal was struck on the grounds at the Mint Exhibit, using machinery that was to be shipped to the newly established Denver Mint at the conclusion of the fair.

The Jefferson/Napoleon medal was sold in a number of metal configurations, the rarest being a single medal struck in gold; others were struck in gilt (which was offered at a price of 25 cents), a quickly tarnishing yellow-bronze, and a .600 fine silver alloy (which was offered for $1.00-$1.25)[3].


The official souvenir medal (HK-299-304). Confusion reigned when limited edition medals struck by a fly-by-night firm calling itself the Louisiana Purchase Souvenir Coin Co. began selling round and octagonal medals featuring the crowned head of French monarch Saint Louis done in the style of the Isabella quarter.

Despite the prominence of the official medal, many souvenir-seekers wound up with a handsome but unofficial piece featuring the likeness of Saint Louis IX (1214-1270), the French monarch after whom the city was named. These serial-numbered medals may have looked official - after all, there was that serial number, and the obverse said SOUVENIR COIN OF ADMISSION - but the "coins" were the product of a shadowy group calling themselves the Louisiana Purchase Souvenir Coin Company. Buyers of Hibler and Kappen's book will be treated to an amusing anecdote about the marketing strategy this group employed to sell the coin as well as the "official" reaction to their scheme.

Controversy aside, the largest portion of so-called dollars from St. Louis focused on the many fantastically designed temporary structures that made up the fairgrounds. Most of these medals were struck in aluminum and feature perspectives of the different buildings with identifying inscriptions written in the exergue. The U.S. Government building is featured on so-called dollar HK-322e.

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition would prove to be the final Fair where so-called dollars would focus so heavily on architecture. This could have something to do with the period. The 1890s to early 1900s was a critical time in American architecture, seeing not only the advent of the skyscraper, the prominence of the Chicago School, and the ascension of Frank Lloyd Wright, but it also marked the beginning of a new era in urban design that would make the bombastically ornamental palaces of the early fairs seem outmoded and unworthy of special commemoration. Or perhaps the pieces were not all that profitable for fair organizers. It is hard to know for sure.

For commemorative collectors, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition offers the challenge of trying to put together a complete set of fair-related so-called dollars. Several issues, including one featuring Theodore Roosevelt, are quite rare. The official medal makes a great accompaniment to the Jefferson gold dollar, and the Pax so-called dollar (HK-314), which references the World's Columbian Exposition on the reverse, features a ship motif which bears a striking resemblance to the reverse of the Columbian half dollars of 1892-1893.

Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition (1905), Portland, Oregon

Continuing with the Louisiana Purchase theme was the Fair held in Oregon in 1905, the site of the completion of the Corps of Discovery journey across the Louisiana and Oregon territories. The Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition was held in Portland, Oregon and was decidedly low key when compared to the St. Louis Fair held the year before. This was intentional.

Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition (1905), Portland, Oregon

Date

Coin

Designer

Distribution

1904

Lewis & Clark Exposition Gold Dollar

Barber

10,025

1905

Lewis & Clark Exposition Gold Dollar

Barber

10,041

Total Pieces

So-Called Dollar Theme (some overlap)

Tie-In

4

Lewis & Clark

Lewis & Clark Exposition Gold Dollar

3

Exposition Architecture

1

Columbia

Congress authorized the Exposition and the minting of 250,000 gold dollars honoring Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to pay for the event in an Act of Congress passed April 13, 1904[4]. Charles Barber designed the coins, which have the distinction of being the only coins minted by the United States to feature a head on both sides. Don Taxay believed that Barber modeled the two explorers' likenesses from a painting by Charles Wilson Peale.[5]

Issued in 1904 and 1905, the coins were initially offered for sale at $3.00 each, but well-connected dealers were able to offer the coins through The Numismatist and direct mail catalogs for less. Ultimately, despite efforts to promote the coins, the public was unmoved and only a hair over 10,000 dollars from each date sold, which was a little more than 8% of the authorized mintage. Because of this, the Lewis and Clark Exposition dollars are highly prized, with gem quality examples selling for upwards of $8,000-$10,000 when certified MS-65 or MS-66.[6]

As far as so-called dollar output is concerned, the fair produced only a handful. The one pictured below features Columbia, arms spread out and walking in-between figures representing Lewis and Clark, and is perhaps the most striking. The inscription on the reverse (WESTWARD THE COURSE OF EMPIRE TAKES ITS WAY) is most telling of the national sentiment concerning Manifest Destiny and America's philosophical slide into Imperialism (which the authors of this piece regard as a rejection of America's founding principles).


Flag-draped Columbia accompanies Lewis and Clark to the shores of the Pacific Ocean in HK-327, one of three metal varieties of this striking so-called dollar.

The remaining medals from this event riff on the same design, one which features jugate portraiture of Lewis and Clark on the obverse with the inscription LEWIS AND CLARK CENTENNIAL EXPOSITION (some have the date 1905, others do not), and a reverse that highlights the U.S. Government building constructed for the Fair. One variation features the Washington state building.

It is estimated that between 1.6 and 2.5 million visitors attended the Fair. Despite being dwarfed by other Fairs of the period and failing to sell through its authorized allotment of gold coins, the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition did turn a profit.

For collectors of the Lewis and Clark commemorative gold coins, the exposition offers a manageable array of accessible so-called dollars to round out their collections.



[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._T._Stinson

[2] Swiatek, Anthony and Walter Breen. The Encyclopedia of United States Silver & Gold Commemorative Coins: 1892-1954. Arco: New York, 1981.

[3] Hibler, Harold E. and Charles V. Kappen. So-Called Dollars: An Illustrated Standard Catalog. New York. The Coin & Currency Institute, 2008.

[4] Swiatek and Breen. 131.

[5] Taxay, Don. An Illustrated History of U.S. Commemorative Coinage. New York: Arco, 1967.

[6] Source 2013 Red Book.

"I love to collect coins for my two kids. We love to spend "family time" together and you cannot put a price on the time we spend together.

Thanks for your time."

Charlie C.

Charles Morgan is a member of the Ike Group and writes a weekly column with his colleague Hubert Walker for CoinWeek.com. They're working on the first volume of the Morgan Walker Numismatic Abstract, to be published this winter.

PCGS Library