Commemorative Coins of the United States

A Controversial Portrait

In 1892 and 1893 the "souvenir coins," as they were called, attracted much attention in newspaper columns across America. The portrait of Columbus to be used on the obverse caused considerable controversy, as seemingly no one could agree on what the famous explorer looked like. The confusion prevailing at the time is reflected by a typical newspaper article: (This quotation and others from contemporary clippings are taken from a scrapbook on the subject of World's Columbian Exposition coinage assembled 1892-1893 by an unknown person and now in the possession of the author. Certain of the clippings are not attributed and none is dated.)

"The authorities have decided that the Columbus whose features are to appear on the souvenir half dollar shall be the one portrayed in the recently-discovered picture which is believed to be by Lorenzo Lotto, a painter whose name is not a very familiar one, but whose portrait work is hardly second to that of Titian. While it is not proved that this picture is the countenance of Columbus, it is asserted that more can be said for it in support of its genuineness than anyone of the other 30 alleged portraits ....

"The belief in the authenticity of the picture rests rather on what the picture shows than on the imperfect records of its successive ownerships. The person who appears on the canvas answers to the description of the Admiral. The face is of the Genoese type, the lines are those formed by exposure to the weather, and the bronzed, tanned look of the skin is the result of salt air and southern suns. The dress is the Italian costume of the Colum-bus age, which appears in no other portrait of the Discoverer .... Absolute certainty is admittedly impossible. Therefore, if the best judgment of experts is that the Lotto portrait has the most chances of genuineness in its favor, it ought to be adopted. This much is certain, that whatever likeness of Columbus is put on five million souvenir half dollars, which will be distributed over all parts of the United States, will become the popular conception of the appearance of the man and will remain so to the end of time."

The final decision was left up to the chief engraver of the Mint, Charles E. Barber, who left Philadelphia on September 23, 1892, to go to Chicago to consult with Director-General Davis of the Exposition. Barber adopted a design from a plaster model by Olin Levi Warner, who in turn took Columbus' portrait from a medal made in Spain in 1892, whose facial image was from a Madrid statue by Jeronimo Suiiel, which in succession was taken from a fanciful portrait by Charles Legrand in the Naval Museum in the same city. The most that can be said for the Warner-Barber portrait of Columbus on the obverse of the half dollar is that it is attractively done and probably represents what a typical citizen of Genoa may have looked like in the explorer's time. (U.S.J. (Ulric Stonewall ]ackson) Dunbar (1862-1927) was to have designed the Columbian half dollar, and apparently made a plaster model for the obverse using the Lotto portrait, but nothing further carne of it. See Taxay, An Illustrated History of U.S. Commemorative Coinage, pp. 3 ff. for additional information, including p. 7, which illustrates three sketches by Barber, none of which was adopted, including one whose centrai motif of an eagle on a scalloped shield was borrowed in concept from the reverse of an 1877 pattern half dollar.)

The reverse of the half dollar was executed by George T. Morgan and was modeled after a replica of Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, produced in Spain in honor of the 400th anniversary, as also shown on a plaster model by Olin Levi Warner. Two globes below the ship represent the Old World and the New and are stylistically related to the globes shown on the reverses of Spanish milled silver dollars prevalent in the Americas in the 18th century. The Warner models were later an attraction at the Exposition and were viewed by many who purchased half dollars. Although Warner was proud of his work appearing on the Columbian half dollar and in fact mentioned it in at least one biographical sketch, his contribution, never acknowledged by the Mint, has been largely ignored by the numismatic community.

Among other designs suggested for the reverse were a view of the Administration Building at the Exposition, several varieties of perched eagles, and a flotilla consisting of the three vessels of Columbus, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

A set of commemorative postage stamps was produced in connection with the Columbian Exposition. The Santa Maria, as shown on the reverse of the half dollar, is shown on the 3¢ stamp, and the $5 stamp bears a portrait of Columbus taken from the obverse of the half dollar, except that the face of Columbus is turned in the opposite direction. An admission ticket to the fair, printed by the American Bank Note Company, also displays the same visage. During the ensuing decades numerous events commemorated on coins would also be memorialized on stamps.

Minting the First Half Dollars

The first Columbian half dollar was struck at the Philadelphia Mint on November 19, 1892. Originally the initial coin was intended to be used in opening ceremonies for the Exposition, but by the autumn of 1892 the opening had been delayed and was many months in the offing.

The Chicago Tribune carried an account of the production of the first pieces, datelined Philadelphia, November 19, 1892: (These excerpts are from a transcript of a Tribune article published on November 20, 1892. and reprinted in The Encyclopedia of United States Silver & Gold Commemorative Coins, p. 59.) "It was a $10,000 beauty that dropped today from the coin press at the United States Mint when the work of coining the Columbian half dollars began. Supt. Bosbyshell was on hand to represent the government, and James W. Ellsworth of the World's Fair Commission represented that body. (Col. James W. Ellsworth was a numismatist and possessed an extraordinary collection which in the early 1920s was sold to Wayte Raymond and John Work Garrett.)

There was great interest manifested in the affair because of the big premiums that have been offered for certain of the coins. In addition to the first one, there were also delivered to Mr. Ellsworth the 400th, 1492nd, and 1892nd coins of the new half dollars. Over 2,000 of the souvenirs were struck today, and the work will continue until all of the 5,000,000 donated [sic] by Congress are completed ....

"When the hour arrived, Supt. Bosbyshell was summoned to the pressroom by Chief Coiner William S. Steele, while Engraver Charles Barber, who designed the famous coin, Chief Clerk M.N. Cobb, and others assembled as witnesses .... Foreman Albert Downing placed one of the blank planchets in the receiver and grasped the lever which raises the lower die, while Edwin Cliff, his assistant, stood at the balance wheel. Unfortunately, the first attempt was a failure a little flaw caused the coin's rejection.

"The next attempt was made more carefully for the reputation of the coiners was at stake and they had resolved that the first approved souvenir of the Exposition should be a marvel of perfection and beauty. The planchet, before being accepted, was examined under the microscope and found without a blemish. For the second time, two workmen turned the press by hand, while the spectators waited in suspense. Again the coin was lifted from the face of the steel die and critically examined by Coiner Steele, Engraver Barber, and Supt. Bosbyshell. Every line was sharply defined, and the strong features of the discoverer of America, which adorn the coin, seemed to look approvingly on the work.

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