Like many of my fellow numismatists, I have always been fascinated by classic U.S. commemorative coins. My first commemorative half dollar was an 1892 Columbian Exposition Half Dollar, which paid homage to the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893. But interestingly, even at 11 or 12 years of age, I was already fascinated with World’s Fairs.
World’s Fairs have had a major influence on many U.S. commemorative coins. Indeed, it’s all connected.
First, let me get something straight. I love collecting stuff. While I don’t organize my canned foods in the cabinet, nor arrange food items in the fridge, I do get a kick out of seeing a neatly arranged group of interesting items.
If, and I mean if you’re a collector, you view certain items differently than most. What floats your boat? Did you really want “one of those” when you were a kid – and couldn’t afford it? Have you always brought interesting “stuff” home? (Pets don’t count!).
Why am I fascinated with World’s Fairs? As a child, my Grandma Ina had several items in her home from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Her mom, my Great Grandmother Velli, attended the fair as a child with my great-great grandparents. They had traveled to St. Louis from their farm near Excelsior Springs, Missouri. Sure, the Columbian Exposition is really interesting, but for me the Louisiana Purchase Exposition St. Louis World’s Fair is much closer to home.
In my grandma’s home, I remember an oval glass paperweight containing seashells, a miniature mechanical calendar, and a small rectangular aluminum tray with advertising resembling a tip tray used today. I remember being so interested in both where these items had come from and what exactly a World’s Fair was. These items had all been brought home from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition by my great-great grandparents, and my great grandmother had been along, too.
We visited my grandparents often and although it might have been several weeks, I noticed during one visit the Louisiana Purchase Exposition items had disappeared. Grandma Ina was nuts about having a clean and uncluttered house. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition items had been hauled to the ditch with a bunch of other household refuse and junk. Like most farm families, my grandparents had a ditch used for refuse on a remote corner of the farm. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition items were never found. I was stunned!
The whole experience gave me some perspective on how different generations view things. While I’ve always been fascinated by old and especially historic items, my grandmother, having grown up in stunningly humble means, highly valued clean shiny new things. Old was bad and needed to be replaced. Of course, Grandma Ina never wasted anything, but if she didn’t see a use for it, BYE-BYE!
I remember asking my dad why she would have done that? He laughed and explained that my Grandpa Forrest, his dad, hid his stuff in his basement workshop or the garage to avoid the “wrath of Ina.”
As a native of Missouri originally and surely due to the curiosity from childhood, Louisiana Purchase Exposition St. Louis World’s Fair items eventually became a personal collection. As I accumulated more St. Louis items, I learned that a well-known St. Louis coin dealer-collector was the expert – Mr. St. Louis – for St. Louis World’s Fair items. This man, Robert (Bob) Hendershott, actually wrote the book, titled 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair Mementos and Memorabilia, which catalogs a significant portion of the known St. Louis World’s Fair items.
Many older dealers might remember Bob from coin shows in decades past. I was fortunate to have met him on several occasions because we both often attended St. Louis-area coin shows. Bob was a really cool guy and, despite our 60-year age difference, I could feel the delight and enjoyment he experienced teaching others about his specialty. You see, in 1904 at six years of age Bob attended the World’s Fair himself!
Fast forward 98 years. In 2002, Bob had Scotsman Auctions sell his personal collection of St. Louis World’s Fair items, many of which were pictured in his catalog. The auction was held in conjunction with the St. Louis Silver Dollar Show in November 2002. Hundreds of items from Bob’s personal collection were sold.
One of my most poignant and cherished memories is of Bob playing a “ditty” on his St. Louis World’s Fair special-edition accordion at the 2002 show. He was 104 years old! Wow, it still brings wonderful memories...
How could I forget? In the autumn of 2002 I was planning my wedding the following January of 2003. Although I had been a bachelor for quite some time, doing as I pleased wasn’t going to work anymore. Despite some undignified bargaining on my part beforehand, my wife, Sherri, was gracious enough to let me buy three very special items from Bob’s personal collection.
Just a tip. Having a spouse who is at least friendly to your hobbies is crucial. None of my (our) “toys” have found the ditch – yet!