Q. David Bowers
Eventually all of the 1926 Philadelphia Mint coins were sold (except for 75 returned for remelting, probably consisting of misstruck or damaged specimens). The Association then requested an additional 100,000 pieces, these from the San Francisco Mint, which produced the coins in October and November of the same year. While thousands of pieces from the additional coinage were disposed of quickly, it was soon evident that the market had been saturated, and large numbers remained unsold." Still, the Association sought to have 1927-dated varieties made, but the Treasury Department declined until all of the 1926-S coins were delivered and paid for.
In 1928 at the Philadelphia Mint an additional 50,028 were made, but as some of the 1926-S coins had not yet been called for, the Treasury mandated that the 1928 coins not be released. For the next five years collectors wondered what would happen to them, and several inquiries in this regard were printed in the pages of The Numismatist.
In 1933 the problem was solved, after a fashion, by melting 17,000 unsold specimens of the 1926-S coinage, enabling the 1928 coins to be released by the Treasury Department. Early in 1933 sales of 1928 coins (and also unsold 1926 and 1926-S coins) were handled by the Oregon Trail Memorial Association, which found an in-different reception to its offerings. Coming to the rescue was the Scott Stamp & Coin Company of New York City, which agreed to market the issues under what it stated was an exclusive contract. Well-known numismatist Wayte Raymond, representing the Scott interests, suggested that the 1928 half dollars be made "rare" by melting all but 6,000 of them.
Scott, which had saved the day somewhat by selling at least some of the 1928 issues, now desired to capitalize on the gullibility of collectors and their need to complete sets by having more varieties coined. Scott figured that if additional Oregon Trail half dollars could be minted with the date 1933 they could be sold effectively at the Century of Progress Exposition held that year in Chicago.
Scott, billing itself as "sole distributor of Oregon Trail half dollars," advertised in The Numismatist, September 1933: "The Oregon Trail Memorial Association issues a new half dollar dated 1933 to commemorate the Century of Progress. 5,000 1933 half dollars were struck at the Denver Mint; 2,000 have been reserved for patriotic societies; 3,000 are offered to the public. 1928 Oregon Trail half dollars. None ever sold until this year. All of these coins, except 6,000 pieces, have been remelted by the U.S. Mint. We offer the 1928 and 1933 half dollars at $2.00 each. Postage and registration extra."
As it turned out, 242 of the 1933-D half dollars were later returned to be melted, resulting in a net distribution of 5,008 pieces. It is probable that these 242 returned pieces were defective, rather than coins from leftover unsold quantities. This represented the first time the Denver Mint produced commemoratives. The various mints experienced difficulty in striking the Oregon Trail halves, and numerous pieces were rejected because of weakly struck rims.
The Scott organization contemplated its strategy and decided to proceed full speed ahead by promoting additional varieties from different mints and in relatively small quantities and selling them into three markets: the general public, coin collectors, and speculators. It turned out that speculators, while they may have been interested in other things, did not take a fancy to the Oregon half dollars, perhaps because the series had a bad reputation by that time. Individual collectors and dealers absorbed a few thousand of each of the succeeding issues, and others were sold to the general public.
In 1934 at the Denver Mint 7,006 Oregon Trail half dollars were minted, followed by a 1936 Philadelphia coinage of 10,006, and by 1936 San Francisco coins in the amount of 5,006.1 In 1937 Oregon Trail halves were struck only at Denver, and to the extent of 12,008, a large figure for the time. Up to this point, issue prices had been quite erratic. The 1926 and 1926-S pieces had been offered for $1 each. Then when Scott got into the act the price was doubled; and the 1928 issue, released in 1933, went on the market at $2 per coin. Seeking to increase sales, in view of the tremendous unsold quantity of 1928 issues, the 1933-D was pegged at a slightly lower $1.50. That didn't stimulate activity to the extent desired, so for the 1934-D the price was raised back to the $ 2 level. In due course the issues of 1936 and 1937were listed at $1.60 each.
Scott promoted and sold the Oregon Trail issues dated from 1928 through 1936, save for some quantities set aside by the original Association for direct sale in bulk to historical societies. Apparently 1936 coins were sold by both the Scott Stamp & Coin Co. and the Oregon Trail Memorial Association, the latter doing business from a mail drop at 1775 Broadway, New York City.
Testimony Concerning Oregon Trail Coins
In testimony before the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency, March 11, 1936, L.W. Hoffecker, chairman of the Legislative Committee of the American Numismatic Association, discussed the Oregon Trail Issues: (From Coinage of Commemorative 50-Cent Pieces, the transcript of the hearing, published in 1936. The hearing was called to order at 11 a.m. in Room 301 of the Senate Office Building. The purpose was to consider a series of bills proposed for various new commemorative issues, and other bills, including an unrelated bill (S. 335) "to authorize the coining of a 3-cent nickel piece." An especially important matter was the proposal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, June 17. 1935, that commemorative coins be discontinued, in favor of medals (the basis for a bill, S. 3086).)
Mr. Hoffecker: "We are all free to admit that the privilege has been abused very greatly, but it has not been done by the coin collectors themselves. There is one particular issue that was sold out 3 or 4 years ago at about a dollar. And I will tell you the issue, the Oregon Trail. In 1926 they asked for 6 million coins. They have already gotten out of the coins, and they say they are going to ask for some more. That issue is owned by a dealer, and the commemorative association has got a part of the profit but not the major part."
(Later in the same hearing:)
Mr. Hoffecker: "The first complaint about the distribution of these commemorative coins began with the Oregon Trail Association. They asked for 6 million coins, and as I have said, they have only taken out about 4 percent."
Senator Francis T. Maloney: "Where is the other 96 percent now?"
Mr Hoffecker: "They have not been issued. The reports of the mint up to 1929 showed they had taken out 148,000 coins. Since 1929 I have no information as to the number. They got out two coins in 1926, one in 1928, and one in 1933 from one of the mints, and in 1934 they got out a few from another mint, and I have not the record of how many, but there is not a very large issue. The 1933 coin is selling at $5 now."