Q. David Bowers
About Commemorative Coins
What is a commemorative coin? There is no hard and fast rule that covers all in-stances, but, in general, a commemorative coin is one which was produced with the primary intention of creating a special souvenir to be sold at a premium above face value to commemorate an anniversary, special occasion, or other event. Such pieces differ in design from the regular circulating coinage of the same denominations of their respective eras.
There is a distinction between a commemorative coin and a commemorative medal. United States commemorative coins are those that have a designated face value and are legal tender, although they were primarily issued as commemoratives. Thus the 1918 Illinois Centennial half dollar is legal tender for 50 cents, and, if desired, a 1900 Lafayette silver dollar can be turned into a bank for face value, even though no one would want to do this. On the other hand, medals have no face value or legal tender status.
Beginning with new issues of commemorative coins in the 1980s, silver dollars were denominated $1. However, the silver content of these pieces made it impractical for such coins to circulate at that value, for they contained more than $1 worth of metal. Silver dollars for general circulation (not commemorative issues) had last been produced in 1935. Similarly, $5 and $10 commemorative gold coins of the 1980s were denominated as such although the gold therein was worth many times that. This legal fiction has as its primary purpose to target the market of coin collectors, a potential sales arena much larger than that of medal collectors. The "face value" of silver and gold commemoratives of the 1980s onward has no meaning, even though the coins are indeed legal tender for those amounts.
An unadopted proposal made by Elias Boudinot and described in the Annals of Congress, January 1,1793, would have, in a sense, made all subsequent United States coins commemoratives: (The citation is as quoted by Damon G. Douglas in "An Early Commemorative Proposal," The Numismatist, May 1944, pp. 390-391. Elias Boudinot, of Elizabeth-Town, New Jersey, had served as president of the Continental Congress in 1782. In 1795 he was appointed by President George Washington as the third director of the Philadelphia Mint.) "Mr. Boudinot after remarking that the artists who had exhibited specimens of the figure of Liberty on the several samples of coins which he had seen (Undoubtedly these were 1792-dated patterns. It seems unusual that the artists who created the designs would have personally shown specimens of coins to members of Congress, but they may have been seeking official approval. Anent the depiction of Liberty, a century later noted sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens suggested that the ideal representation of Libetty, mearung absolute freedom, would be a young boy leaping.) all differed in their conceptions on this occasion, for the sake, there-fore, of uniformity, he moved to add a clause to the present bill, providing that, in lieu of the figure of Liberty, the head of Columbus should be substituted. Mr. Boudinot supported his motion by some pertinent remarks on the character of Columbus and the obligations the citizens of the United States were under to honor his memory .... On the question being put, the motion was negatived." Thus Columbus commemorative coins were not to be-at least not for the moment.
A candidate advanced by some for the distinction of being the first commemorative coin is anyone of the series of regular issue United States coins, particularly one-cent pieces and half dollars, counter-stamped in 1824 with medal dies, depicting on one side the portrait of Gen. Washington and on the other that of Lafayette. The occasion was the return to the United States in 1824 of Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution, when Congress welcomed him as "the nation's guest." (Further Information about Lafayette will be found in the present work under the subsequent entry for the 1900 Lafayette commemorative silver dollar. The author is now preparing a work on counterstamped U.S. large cents which will treat the Washington-Lafayette issues at length.) It has been suggested that coins thus marked may have been strewn in the path of Lafayette's carriage by grateful citizens during parades held in the Eastern states in that year and in 1825. However, it is virtually certain that the dies for the medal were produced outside of the Mint, possibly by Charles Cushing Wright, and that the counterstamping was done after the coins had been placed into general circulation (as evidenced by the fact that most known counterstamps of this type are on host coins dated prior to 1824). At best, the Washington-Lafayette issues can be described as private commemorative counterstamps applied to official U.S. (and other) coins. As such, they do not qualify as United States commemorative coins.
The honor for being the first official United States commemorative coin goes to an issue produced in 1848. The occasion was the receipt at the Philadelphia Mint of native gold from the California Gold Rush, that had been sent to the East for evaluation. Believing that citizens might like to have a souvenir related to an event which was continually making newspaper headlines, the Mint specially marked 1,389 examples of the smallest gold denomination then in use, the $2.50 piece, with the notation "CAL." on the reverse.
After that time several decades passed, until in 1892 the first American silver commemorative coin was created, a half dollar to be issued in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition. At the beginning this and other commemorative issues were officially designated as souvenirs. The commemorative nomenclature became popular later. The World's Columbian Exposition inspired the production not only of half dollars dated 1892 and 1893, but of the first and only commemorative 25Â¢ piece, the 1893 Isabella quarter, which was made at the behest of society matron Mrs. Potter Palmer.
In 1900 the next silver commemorative coin appeared, the Lafayette silver dollar, the first of that denomination. The funds from the sale of these coins at $2 each were used to finance the erection in Paris of a statue of Lafayette by sculptor Paul Wayland Bartlett.
The Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis in 1904 saw the distribution of 1903-dated commemorative gold dollars of two varieties, one bearing the visage of Thomas Jefferson and the other the portrait of William McKinley. For the first time, distribution was placed in the hands of a single individual, Farran Zerbe, thus setting a precedent that would from the very beginning lead to abuses. A vast quantity, amounting to 250,000 gold dollars, was struck at the Philadelphia Mint, but eventually only about 35,000 coins were sold, and the rest were melted. This wasteful procedure was to be repeated with many commemorative issues in the future.