Q. David Bowers
Many commentaries concerning the Columbian half dollars appeared in various papers throughout the autumn of 1892 and early 1893. It seems as though everyone had an opinion, many of them centering on the seemingly unconscionable profit to be made by selling a fifty-cent piece for one dollar. Samples:
From the Philadelphia Call: "The average man won't stick about the World's Fair souvenir half dollar. Any other will do as well. Perhaps the proposition to sell the 50Â¢ souvenirs at the World's Fair for $1 is an evidence of what visitors to Chicago may expect in the general increase in prices."
Pittsburgh Chronicle: "The coinage of the souvenir half dollars has begun at the Philadelphia Mint, and the superintendent expects to have 30,000 of them ready by the end of the month. Talking about money making, did you ever see anything like the profit Chicago will get out of the remelting of old half dollars and making 'souvenir' coins of them?"
San Francisco Examiner: "The newest thing out. Buy your half-dollar for a dollar and sell it for two dollars. We don't hear much about the two-dollar victims yet, but suppose they will be forthcoming. The picture of Columbus upon the souvenir coins will be ideal, so it is stated. It is not altogether clear how it could be anything else, since the roving gentleman ... neglected to leave any authentic portrait. Those available range from figures of a pallid student to a bewhiskered brigand, each probably as wrong as the other."
Galveston Daily News: "The front side of the coin has an elegant likeness of the late Sitting Bull. This, however, is said to be meant for Columbus. The patriotic American can take his choice, and the know nothings certainly will claim the head to be intended for Sitting Bull because of that gentleman being an American. On the right shoulder appears the letter B. This certainly indicates the location of either a boil or a barnacle. (A little humor here. B was the initial of Charles E. Barber, chief engraver of the Mint.) There is also a likeness of Columbus' ship under full sail. At first blush the ship seems to be on wheels, but closer examination shows that the two wheels are the eastern and western hemi-spheres. The ship seems to be surrounded by a herd of porpoises, but probably this is meant for waves. There is also a fishing pole rigged out of an after port in the cabin of the ship, and one gathers an idea that the venturesome mariner is either baiting his hook and lying about a bite he has just had, or has hauled in a fish, for the line is taken aboard ship. The figures 1492 appear beneath the vessel. The coin is of the same size and weight as the old run of half dollars, and for all they are sold at a heavy premium, the purchasing power is but ten beers."
Minneapolis Times: "A dollar will go no further in Chicago than in some other places, but Chicago is the only town that can sell 50Â¢ for $1."
Colorado Sun: "The World's Fair people count upon making a good thing by selling their five million souvenir half dollars at premium. The Chicago propensity for speculating in futures cannot be restrained."
New York Sun: "With a high collar and a little attention from the hair cutter, the Christopher Columbus on the new Columbian half dollar would answer very well for the Right Honorable William Ewart Gladstone."
Philadelphia Ledger: "If it were not known in advance whose vignette adorns the Columbian souvenir half dollar, the average observer would be undecided as to whether it is intended to represent Daniel Webster or Henry Ward Beecher."
Boston Globe: "The first view of the new Columbian souvenir coin inevitably leads to expression of regret that Columbus wasn't a better looking man."
The preceding commentary reflects that the Columbian half dollar created a controversy in its own time, thus setting the stage for arguments, differences of opinion, and controversies that would swirl around numerous later commemorative issues, continuing unabated to the present day.
Distribution of the Columbian Exposition Coins
The coinage in 1892 amounted to 950,000 Columbian Exposition half dollars, whereas those dated 1893 were produced to the extent of 4,052,105, for a total of 5,002,105. This amounted to the authorized quantity of five million coins plus 2,105 extras minted for assay purposes.
Visitors to the fair were given the opportunity to buy souvenir half dollars for the much-criticized price of one dollar each. Displays of Columbian half dollars helped promote sales. In the rotunda of the Administration Building at the fair was a model of the Treasury Building in Washington, constructed of Columbian half dollars, measuring 20 feet long, 11 feet wide, and four feet high. (Described and illustrated in The Book of the Fair, Bancroft, 1893, p. 302.) Viewers were advised that "coins sold will be taken from the columns" of the model, but as no coins could be removed until the closing of the Exposition, it is to be inferred that most intending purchasers bought their Columbian half dollars elsewhere at the event.
Clipped Columbian half dollars used to construct the angles and comers of the model were struck in white metal rather than the usual silver alloy. In the nearby Liberal Arts Building there was another model, a 20-foot-high shaft, also made of commemorative half dollars.
After the Exposition closed and sales efforts ended, 3,600,000 half dollars remained unsold, of which about 1,400,000 were held by the Treasury in Washington, 960,000 in Chicago, and 147,700 at the Philadelphia Mint. What to do with this vast hoard was hotly debated, for the managers of the Exposition felt that the investment of those who paid $1 each for the coins should be protected.
The New York Sun, December 10, 1893, printed the following: 1 "It was reported that Mr. Ellsworth, representing the commissioners of the Exposition, called at the Treasury Department and paid to Acting Secretary Curtis $40,300 to defray the cost of transporting and recoining the unsold half dollars which was said to exceed the total face value of $1,700,000. Secretary Carlisle was requested to recoin the twenty five and fifty-cent souvenirs at the expense of the government, but this he declined to do and notified the Commission unless it bore the expense of the recoinage he would issue the souvenir pieces at their face value. As this would materially reduce the value of those in the hands of purchasers and speculative holders, Mr. Ellsworth was sent to make the necessary deposit."
Apparently, the preceding account was inaccurate, for in 1894 the Treasury an-nounced that the remaining Columbian half dollars were available for face value to anyone desiring them. Takers were few, so many coins were subsequently put into circulation, and others were melted. By the turn of the century Columbian half dollars were familiar items in pocket change.
When all was said and done, 950,000 Columbian half dollars dated 1892 were distributed, and 1,550,405 were released dated the following year, 1893. This amounted to about halfof the original mintage of five million coins.
Collecting Columbian Half Dollars
As the numismatic fraternity constituted only a small part of the American popula-tionin 1892 and 1893, relatively few coins were carefully preserved by coin collectors. Today most surviving Columbian half dollars show the effects of wear, either of casual handling from being saved as souvenirs by non-numismatists or from having been passed from hand to hand as a medium of exchange.
While most Columbian half dollars were minted with lustrous, frosty surfaces, a few Proofs were made and possibly a few thousand prooflike business strikes were produced. It was suggested that Proof Columbian half dollars be included in regular silver Proof sets for the year 1892, but the idea was vetoed when it was realized that per current Mint policy regular-design Proof half dollars were sold for just a few cents above face value, but that something over $1 would have to be charged for a Proof Columbian half dollar in order to be consistent with the intended $1 issue price for Uncirculated pieces. The two philosophies could not be reconciled, and the idea was dropped.
When I first started collecting coins in the early 1950s I quickly learned that the commonest 19th-century coin issues (apart from Treasury-held Morgan silver dollar reserves) were 1883 Liberty nickels without CENTS and 1892 and 1893 Columbian half dollars. In 1953 you could buy all the Columbian half dollars you wanted for 60 to 65 cents each. Indeed, around that time a coin dealer in downtown Boston showed a bushel basket full of them in his shop window.
Columbian half dollars remain very common today, and hundreds of thousands or even more exist, most of which are in grades from about EF-40 to MS-60. Higher level Mint State coins are also plentiful, up to about MS-63, above which examples are somewhat elusive. Truly pristine pieces are hard to find, I consider the Columbian half dollar design to be one of the most attractive in the commemorative series, and a lightly toned Uncirculated specimen is an object of beauty, even though it may not be exciting from a rarity viewpoint.
GRADING SUMMARY: Most specimens show signs of friction or contact on the high areas of Columbus' portrait on the obverse and on the ship's sails on the reverse. Some coins are lightly struck on the highest areas of the portrait and/or lack ship sail details on the reverse. In general, 1892-dated coins are better struck than those dated 1893. Beware of deeply toned coins whose toning masks wear; sometimes these are sold in slabs bearing high technical grades. Most Uncirculated coins have very attractive frosty lustre. Prooflike pieces are occasionally seen and are usually dated 1892.