Q. David Bowers (reprinted with permission from “Commemorative Coins of the United States – A Complete Encyclopedia”): What is a commemorative coin? There is no hard and fast rule that covers all instances, 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 occasions, 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 contained 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: “Mr. Boudinot, after remarking that the artists who had exhibited specimens of the figure of Liberty on the several samples of coins he had seen all differed in their conceptions on this occasion, for the sake, therefore 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 any of the series of regular issue United States coins, particularly one-cent pieces and half dollars, counterstamped 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.” 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 issued 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 25¢ piece, the 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.
Next on the list of commemorative coins are the 1904 and 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition gold dollars, which are quite rare today. Then we encounter the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a grand world’s fair that numismatists remember today for a panorama of five different commemorative coins ranging from a silver half dollar to two varieties of $50 gold pieces.
Then came the McKinley Memorial gold dollars dated 1916 and 1917, which by all accounts were artistic and commercial failures, although Texas dealer B. Max Mehl, who sopped up the unsold remainders for close to face value, was able to turn a profit from later sales of them. Then followed the 1918 Illinois Centennial half dollar, a coin with a pleasing portrait of young Abe Lincoln, after which we find the 1920 Maine Centennial coin of the same denomination, a coin whose design was widely criticized for its simplicity (not that simplicity cannot be desirable; in this instance, however, it wasn’t).
With relatively few exceptions coin collectors provided the main market for commemorative coins. This was true early in the 20th century, and it is true today. However, in a classic case of “taxation without representation,” collectors have almost never had a voice in any aspect of commemorative issuance, whether it be design, price, or distribution procedure. Rather, Congress, the Mint, and (until 1982) distributors (some of whom were private individuals) set the rules. Beginning in 1982 the government established sales and distribution procedures.
Buyers of commemorative coins, including members of the general public, were often exploited. Those who paid $1 to buy Columbian half dollars in 1893 were not pleased when a couple of years later vast quantities were placed into circulation for face value, and their investment became worthless. The 100% premium paid may not seem like much today in the 1990s, but in the 1890s the difference between 50¢ and $1 would have paid for a nice dinner.
When Farran Zerbe sold 1903-dated Louisiana Purchase Exposition gold dollars he turned a nice profit by pricing them for 300% of face value (he paid only $1, plus a nominal minting cost, for each). Zerbe was the first of many commemorative promoters who endeavored to increase sales by issuing misleading statements and even blatant lies in order to give the impression that the coins were selling very well and that the market for them was strong. Almost immediately thereafter, the market price of Zerbe’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition gold dollars plunged to $2 or less, and people became unhappy. This scenario was to be repeated again and again as years went on.
In the 1920s a new tactic was tried: exploit collectors not only by inconsistent prices and lack of market maintenance but also by creating special dates, varieties, and design differences for them. First out of the starting gate was the Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollar. Minted in large quantities in 1920, these coins were not completely sold. Of 200,112 struck, 48,000 were eventually returned to the Mint to be melted. This did not deter the sponsors from making more coins, but the new ones were dated 1921. Extra coins were certainly not needed at this point, and, in any event, 1921 was a year after the 1620-1920 anniversary span that the coins were supposed to commemorate. The target was the collector’s pocketbook, which was believed to be well filled. The coin aficionado who thought his collection of commemoratives was complete when he bought a 1920 Pilgrim Tercentenary coin now had to buy an 1921 half dollar as well. The floodgates of exploitation opened, and in 1921 Alabama and Missouri half dollars each were made in additional quantities in the form of special varieties created for collectors, as were 1922 Grant half dollars and gold dollars.
The decade of the 1920s saw the production of a number of other commemorative coins including the meaningless 1923-S Monroe Doctrine Centennial half dollar (issued for an exposition that had no relevance to the event being commemorated), the unconstitutional 1924 Huguenot-Walloon half dollar (which the president of the American Numismatic Association endorsed in advertising), the 1925 Fort Vancouver half dollar struck in San Francisco (but someone forgot to put a mintmark on the coin), the insipid 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition half dollar and quarter eagle (the Exposition and the coins were each quite forgettable), the rare 1928 Hawaiian Sesquicentennial half dollar (sold out quickly at the issue price of $2 each), and others. Some were beautiful; some were ugly. Some were common; some were hard to find. All were interesting to numismatists of the era and are no less fascinating today.
The Oregon Trail
An omen of things to come occurred in 1926 when a group of entrepreneurs from New York City sought to memorialize by means of commemorative coins the travails endured by pioneers who migrated westward on the Oregon Trail in the early 19th century. The Oregon Trail never did pass anywhere near New York City, but that didn’t make any difference. James Earle Fraser and his wife, Laura Gardin Fraser, created a half dollar design featuring an Indian standing in front of an outline map of the United States on the obverse; and on the reverse a Conestoga wagon headed westward toward the setting sun.
Not satisfied with having the pieces struck at just one mint - as other commemoratives had been up to this time-the issuing commission ordered Oregon Trail coins from two locations, Philadelphia and San Francisco, thus establishing a precedent that would put sparkles in the eyes of others contemplating issuing commemorative half dollars. Just wait! Not content to have the pieces dated in just one year, 1926-as most commemorative half dollars had been up to this time (the 1892-1893 Columbian and 1920-1921 Pilgrim halves were exceptions) - the issuing commission ordered Oregon Trail coins again in 1928. Never mind that vast quantities of 1926 coins still remained unsold and that the 1928 coins could not be paid for!
The Treasury Department dutifully stored the 1928-dated coins year after year until finally in 1933 they were paid for and released, but only when an outsider, the Scott Stamp & Coin Co., put up the money. By this time it was obvious that the world at large, and the numismatic fraternity in particular, needed Oregon Trail half dollars as much as the proverbial hole in the head, but that did not prevent still more varieties from being issued. Year after year, until Congress put a stop to it (1939), more Oregon Trail half dollars spewed forth. Otherwise, as stated in congressional testimony, issuance of Oregon Trail half dollars might have gone on for another 300 years! If there is a redeeming feature to this situation it is that today Oregon Trail halves are considered to be among the most beautiful of all commemorative designs.
In commemorative coins promotional schemes for profit were always copied, and before long there appeared other lengthy series of half dollars issued for more than one year and at more than one mint including the 1934-1938 Texas, 1934-1938 Boone, and 1935-1939 Arkansas coins. The story of the Boone coins would by itself make a fascinating book. In the following text details of these and other issues are given, not only under the individual types, but also under the occasional heading, “The Continuing Story of Commemoratives,” which provides a transition from one issue to another.
What Happened in Hudson
The city of Hudson, New York decided to commemorate its sesquicentennial-by now coin collectors were well aware that “sesquicentennial” meant 150th anniversary-by issuing a commemorative half dollar. The usual arrangement was that the issuing commission paid for the design of the coin and making of the dies and then bought all the pieces it wanted for face value. The bottom-line profit was determined by deducting the face value of the coins and any incidental expenses from the price for which the coins were sold. Just 10,008 1935-dated Hudson half dollars were struck, and these were advertised to collectors and others for $1 each.
It is to be remembered that several years earlier, in 1928, Hawaiian Sesquicentennial half dollars of similar mintage quantity were offered for $2 each and were sold out quickly. In fact, by 1935 a Hawaiian half dollar had climbed in value on the collectors’ market to about $8. Not bad as an investment, many reasoned. It does not require much imagination to figure out that a New York dealer was not taking much of a risk when he decided to buy an estimated 7,500 Hudsons for 95¢ each. The issuers in Hudson, New York may have been naïve, or perhaps they figured it was easier to sell the coins in bulk for nearly the same price as individually, or perhaps some inside deals were made, but, in any event, by the time that the coins went on official public sale in late June 1935, nearly all were gone. Collectors from all over the United States had their remittances returned in July with a sold-out notice. What to do? The only alternative was to pay about $5 per coin to dealers who happened to have a supply for sale.
Daniel Boone’s Extended Anniversary
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” and the best (or worst) was yet to come. Daniel Boone, the noted frontiersman, was born in Pennsylvania in 1734, and 200 years later, in 1934, in Lexington, Kentucky an individual named C. Frank Dunn paid tribute to his memory by issuing commemorative half dollars. The year 1934 came and went, and the 10,007 1934-dated Boone Bicentennial half dollars struck at the Philadelphia Mint were well received. However, as was so often to be the case in this era, although the birthday party was over and the candles had been blown out, the greedy host kept asking for gifts. Now in 1935 collectors were given the “opportunity” to complete their collections of Boone half dollars (which many had thought were already complete when they had bought a 1934-dated coin) by purchasing a new set of Boone halves, each coin with the date 1935. Of course, 1935 had nothing to do with Daniel Boone except it was the 201st anniversary of his birth. To help with sales, while the Philadelphia coins were minted to the extent of 10,010 pieces in 1935, Denver and San Francisco pieces were deliberately made scarce; just 5,005 each were struck.
Then Dunn had a brilliant idea: Why not make a really rare coin? As the 1935-dated sets were already made, he came up with the thought of creating another special variety, once with a tiny date “1934” on the reverse in addition to the regular 1935 date. Just 2,003 of these additional 1935 with “small 1934” coins were made at the Denver Mint and 2,004 at San Francisco, the smallest mintage of any silver commemorative in the history of United States numismatics. Offered at $3.70 per pair in The Numismatist in November 1935, the coins were presented to collectors who had no choice but to buy them in order to have their collections be complete. Of course, they already had thought their collections of Boone coins were finished, but they were wrong (once again).
In his office on the second floor of the Phoenix Hotel in Lexington, Dunn got to send mail to a lot of collectors in November and December 1935, but the mail was not to be in the form of Boone sets. Rather, everyone who sent a remittance from the Numismatist advertisement was told that, regretfully, others had beat him to the punch and, alas, there were no more 1935 Denver and San Francisco Boone coins with “small 1934” available. Daniel Boone in his grave could have heard the angry shouts against Dunn. To quiet the furor Dunn wrote a lengthy letter to the editor of The Numismatist to explain that he did indeed want to help members of the American Numismatic Association, but, quite surprising to him, other collectors had bought all of the coins as a result of the news stories that had appeared earlier. So, sorry, he had no more.
Where to get the rare half dollars? The answer was, of course, quite clear: from dealers who just happened to have some for the new high price of $25 per pair. Wait a minute! That was still too cheap, and the same dealers winked (privately, of course) and reported that all had been sold. Soon, more were available, but now for $50 per pair, then for $75 or even $90 per pair. In view of threatened lawsuits by angry collectors, C. Frank Dunn transferred much of his property to his wife’s name - just to be on the safe side.
The Market Crest
In early 1936 the commemorative market was as hot as a volcano, and each time a new issue was announced, collectors, dealers, and speculators rushed to order thousands. Although the market crested in early summer 1936, by year’s end over two dozen varieties of commemorative half dollars had been issued, more than in any year before or since. By that time all sorts of nonsensical anniversaries were being observed on coins. Private individuals were succeeding in having their own commemorative issues minted to price and distribute as they pleased. Congress put its foot down in 1939, and commemoratives came to a halt. It didn’t make too much difference by that point, for in 1936 prices and interest in commemoratives had peaked, and by 1939 they were an anathema to many, and the market was dead. Virtually everyone was fed up.
World War II began, and collectors thought of other things. After the conflict ended, commemoratives once again became a reality when Iowa celebrated its 100th anniversary of statehood with an issue of half dollars. At the same time the Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial succeeded in having Congress approve a series-type coin, which was eventually issued in many repetitive varieties from 1946 to 1951, and (then with a complete design change) in new form as the Carver-Washington half dollar from 1951 through 1954. No series of the earlier years-such as the Oregon Trail, Arkansas, etc., issues-had every been popular with collectors, and the Booker T. Washington and the later Carver-Washington coins were not popular either. Vast quantities were later melted. An aphorism verified by the history of commemoratives is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyone who saw what happened to the long series of commemoratives in the 1930s could have predicted what would happen to the Booker T. Washington issues of the next decade and their Carver-Washington successors.
From 1892 until 1954 some 48 different major designs of commemorative half dollars were minted as part of a larger number of 142 varieties including date and mintmark variations of the same types. Add the 1893 Isabella quarter dollar and the 1900 Lafayette silver dollar, and there were 50 major silver commemorative types and 144 varieties made during the 1892-1954 span.
Commemorative gold coins were issued less frequently, and from 1903, when two different designs of gold dollars were made in advance for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, until 1926 nine varieties of gold dollars, two quarter eagles, and two $50 pieces were minted.
After 1954, commemorative coins were a sore point in Congress, and nothing was done for many years. In the meantime relations between the Treasury Department and the coin collecting fraternity sank to an all-time low when in the 1960s numismatists were unjustly blamed by Mint Director Eva Adams for creating economic chaos by precipitating a nationwide coin shortage.
Commemoratives of Modern Times
Collectors came to believe that commemoratives might never be issued again. The very nature of commemorative coins was controversial, and there was no widespread congressional support for them. Coins for the observation of the American Bicentennial, consisting of quarters, half dollars, and dollars dated 1776-1976, were produced in large quantities, plus some smaller numbers in special format for collectors, but these are not generally considered commemoratives, as nearly all of the pieces were intended to be placed into circulation for face value. (Somewhat related is the situation of the 1932 Washington quarter dollars, originally considered as commemoratives but eventually released as regular issues).
New commemoratives were not produced until 1982, when a half dollar was struck to observe the 250th anniversary of the birth of George Washington. By this time Donna Pope had been named to the office of Mint director. Unlike the majority of her recent predecessors, Mrs. Pope viewed collectors as friends, not nuisances or enemies. Under her administration the Bureau of the Mint (later renamed the U.S. Mint) established a fine rapport with the numismatic community. Eventually this brought millions of dollars to Treasury coffers in one of the few government programs to bring a consistent profit to taxpayers. Still, few in Congress were willing to credit the Mint for the remarkably fine job it did. Mint-baiting, it seems, has always been a popular pastime for congressional committees.
Since 1982 the government has issued copper-nickel clad alloy, silver, and gold commemoratives to observe the 1984 Olympic games, the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, and other anniversaries. Modern commemoratives had been the fodder for the printing presses of Numismatic News and Coin World and have provided collectors with the possibility of reading a running commentary from the inception of a program idea, to the designs of the coins, to their final distribution.
Although there were hints of a scandal involving at first the method of distribution and later the use of funds from the 1984 Olympic coins (these problems had nothing to do with the Bureau of the Mint), other modern issues have been produced without significant controversy regarding financial aspects or ethics. However, comments pro and con concerning the designs have been plentiful.
The Mint Organization
Whereas at the turn of the 20th century the artists on the Mint engraving staff (comprising Charles E. Barber, George T. Morgan, and others) could do mostly as they please, without suggestions or interference from the outside except on a few occasions, by the 1980s the situation was vastly different. Members of Congress, especially those on committees discussing or authorizing coinage, often took strong positions on coinage designs and Mint practices. The secretary of the Treasury had his own opinions and often made the final choice of designs to be chosen for coinage. Members of the Commission for Fine Arts (which as a body had acted in an advisory capacity on coin designs since 1915) reviewed suggested motifs and offered comments, often quite negative.
The Mint itself had developed into a large organization by this time. Policy for the various coining mints (Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco, and West Point) was made at headquarters in Washington, where marketing plans for commemoratives were finalized as were selections for coin designs. The director of the Mint (in recent years Donna Pope) and her staff drew upon their experience and personal preferences to make comments on various aspects of coin designs. Often competitions were staged, and up to a dozen or more artists submitted ideas for commemorative motifs for a typical program consisting of just one, two, or thee coin denominations. Of the many ideas submitted, only a few were needed, and only a few were chosen. Naturally, there were many disappointed contestants, not to overlook the feelings of those on the Mint staff when the work of outside artists received high acclaim.
All of this produced an atmosphere that often engendered controversy. During the course of interviews with Mint personnel past and present, and in the reading of commentaries printed in numismatic periodicals, it became dramatically evident that the typical employee of the Engraving Department at the Mint felt that he or she had too many bosses. There was no single person to whom to answer. Rather, many people and organizations got into the act. The typical commemorative design, even in its final stages, was apt to be reviewed and criticized by members of Congress, the director of the Mint, members of the Commission of Fine Arts, representatives of special interests who had promoted the original legislation in Congress, staff members at Mint Headquarters in Washington, and others including the secretary of the Treasury, who made the final choice of designs to be chosen for coinage.
This system was very difficult for certain artists to work under, and several talented individuals who were formerly with the Engraving Department of the Mint told me that this was among the reasons for their leaving. At the same time, the Mint Director Donna Pope had her hands full trying to manage the mints at widely separated locations, trying to meet deadlines (often given by Congress at unrealistically short notice) for new commemorative programs, and trying to please her own set of bosses (including the secretary of the Treasury and Congress) and, in the outside world, millions of coin collectors, readers of numismatic periodicals, and more. The situation had not been easy for anyone, and the columns of numismatic periodicals have been filled with the laments of those who have felt that they have been offended or neglected. However, the coins go on and, as in the past, will outlive any controversies associated with their origin.
Despite problems in creating designs, the end results have been favorable. Many beautiful motifs have been created, and commemorative coin sales of the 1982 and later period far outpaced anything seen in earlier years.
Mint Director Pope Comments
In an interview with the author, Mint Director Donna Pope gave her opinion of several modern commemoratives: “The silver Statue of Liberty silver dollar is one of my favorites. This is the one with the full Statue of Liberty shown on the obverse. I also like the 1988 ‘Nike’ Olympic $5 gold coin. Another of my favorites is the 1987 Constitution Bicentennial $5 gold. Of course, I like a number of other coins as well, such as the gold and silver ‘eagles.’”
In reply to the question, “Have you ever considered opening a commemorative design competition to the general public or to the collecting fraternity?” Mrs. Pope commented: “I talked with Barry Frere of our staff, who remembers the situation, and he said that there was a public design competition for the [regular issue] 1776-1976 Bicentennial coins. This caused all sorts of problems, as it was difficult to evaluate so many designs. If we had unlimited time to choose designs, such a competition would be okay for commemoratives; but, as it is, we need every day we can get, to meet our deadlines. If Congress ever passes legislation that says the secretary of the Treasury can submit ideas on a five-year plan in advance, many beneficial things will happen to the designs, marketing programs, and other aspects.”
I then asked Mrs. Pope about her attitude toward and opinion of the coin collecting fraternity, to which she replied: “I came from an elective office back in my home state of Ohio, where, if you didn’t have a dialogue with your constituents you didn’t get elected. Upon entering office as Mint director I looked immediately on the collector community as my constituency. Once we got into the collecting programs I looked at them not only as my constituency but also as my main market customers. Part of being the Mint director is carefully listening to what people have to say. For the most part, 99 and 9/10ths, the collector community has been extremely gracious. There have been a couple of abrasive people-but only a couple. The rest have been extraordinarily nice even when they had a complaint. I do try to tell people why we do things. I have found in elective office if you explain why you do something, they are not as upset. There are all sorts of things that the Mint does that people probably wonder about. We try our best to be responsive to our customers, and this has worked very well.”
The Entertainment Value of Commemoratives
In contrast to earlier procedures all commemoratives since 1982 have been distributed by the Mint (and through additional outlets as well) with ample opportunity for anyone interested to place orders in time to acquire coins at the official issue prices or, if ordered early, sometimes for a discount. This has eliminated charges of favoritism, a great improvement compared to the situation of certain issues of the early (1892-1954) period.
In the 1930s collectors had lots of controversies to consider. Certain designs were believed to be inappropriate. Certain anniversaries were deemed unworthy of commemoration on coins. Certain individuals connected with such coinage were praised, and others were criticized. The work of Mint engravers was often found to be insufficient, especially in comparison to that of outside artists. Although the cast of characters is different now, the basic situation hasn’t changed. While the history of 1892-1954 commemoratives has long been recognized as being interesting, it is amply evident that there has been no diminishing value in modern times!
The buyer of a commemorative coin today - an old design or a new one - receives two things:
- The coin itself, with its concomitant features of grade, design aspects, market price, and other numismatic considerations.
- A generous measure of fascinating history.
Who can argue that the second consideration isn’t every bit as desirable as the first?
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 Liberty, meaning absolute freedom, would be a young boy leaping.