Why are So-Called Dollars called So-Called Dollars, when they are not dollars at all? It seems the name was adopted over 100 years ago when New York coin dealer, Thomas L. Elder, coined the phrase in a sale he conducted in September 1912. He listed for sale a Theodore Roosevelt medal from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition and called the medal a "So-Called Dollar" due to the size being similar to a dollar. The name stuck and now is commonly used by coin dealers and collectors. Besides selling medals and tokens, Thomas Elder also issued his own So-Called Dollars in silver, brass, aluminum, and copper. Mr. Elder was inducted into the PCGS CoinFacts Coin Dealer Hall of Fame in 2013 because of his positive contribution to numismatics.
We recently added three set composites for So-Called Dollars in the Medals category in the PCGS Set Registry®. Bryan, Colorado’s "Century of Progress," and Pedley-Ryan So-Called Dollar Sets are now listed in addition to the Lesher Dollar Set, which has been in the Registry since 2004.
Harold E. Hibler and Charles V. Kappen catalogued So-Called Dollar medals in their book So-Called Dollars, An Illustrated Standard Catalog, first published in 1963. This catalog has become the "Red Book" for collectors of these very interesting medals. The catalog is divided into three parts: Commemorative and Exposition Medals of National Significance, Commemorative and Exposition Medals of Local Significance, and Monetary and Miscellaneous Medals. For purposes of this article, we will focus on the four sets listed in the PCGS Set Registry. All four sets are cataloged under Part III.
Bryan, Lesher and Pedley Ryan So-Called Dollars are listed as "Issues of a Monetary Nature Relating to the Gold and Silver Controversy." Colorado’s "Century of Progress" So-Called Dollars are under "Other Issues of a Monetary Nature."
The Bryan Dollars were issued by William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), who was an American orator and politician. He was a member of the Democratic Party and ran for president in 1896 (at 36, the youngest presidential nominee of a major party), 1900, and 1908. While he never won the presidency, he remained a very influential force in the Democratic Party. He served as the Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1915.
The Sherman Silver Purchase Act (1890) depleted the gold reserves In the early 1890s, which allowed the federal government to purchase millions of ounces of silver with paper currency. As a result, the value of silver was worth less than the government’s legal exchange rate for silver versus gold. Over the period of a few years, investors bought silver and exchanged it at the Treasury for gold dollars and then sold those dollars in the metals market for more than they had paid for the silver. It was feared that the Treasury could no longer support the gold standard and the "Panic of 1893" occurred. Many banks and businesses failed and thousands were unemployed. President Cleveland asked Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which collapsed the silver market. Bryan was a supporter of free silver and founded the National Silver Committee. The intention of this committee was to gain national support for the reinstatement of the coinage of silver. In the 1896 presidential election Republican William McKinley, who supported the gold standard, defeated Bryan, a proponent of bimetallism and free silver.
Bryan made Bryan Dollars in 1896 and 1900 for the presidential elections. These silver medals were struck by Eastern silversmiths whose names were engraved on the medals. Most of the pieces contained the equivalent of one gold dollar in silver. Three issues from 1900, HK-783, HK-1014 and HK784, had a market value of 48 cents. All Bryan Dollars promoted Bryan’s free silver advocacy.
Joseph W. Lesher (1838-1918) was another proponent of free silver coinage. He worked in the Colorado silver mines for 20 years, owned his own mine, and was a real estate investor. In 1900 and 1901, he issued silver dollars which he called "Referendum Souvenirs." The 1900 pieces had a denomination of $1.25. The 1901 medals had a denomination of $1.00. All medals were 8-sided to distinguish them from official U.S. coinage. Some of the medals had serial numbers. To support free silver, Lesher promised to pay $1.25 in cash or merchandise for each dollar that was presented to him even though his cost was only 80 cents. A.B. Bumstead, a grocer, distributed some of the issues. He sold 700 pieces but only three were returned for redemption. Other businesses had their names engraved on the pieces and distributed them. Two issues, HK-790 and HK-790a, were die trials to be redeemed by banks, but Lesher abandoned the idea, fearing issues with the Federal Government.
In 1933, silver was in limited demand. Pedley-Ryan & Co., a Denver investment firm, began selling one-ounce silver medals in an attempt to stimulate interest. Except for the last issue, the medals were round, rimless and plain-edged. The medals were the size of the U.S. silver dollar and contained 430 grains of 99% fine silver. The last issue (HK-828) had a slightly larger diameter, contained 480 grains of silver, and was embossed. Pedley-Ryan hoped that investors would buy thousands of pieces and by demand, the value would reach the 16-to-1 ratio supported by silver proponents. Unfortunately, the promotion failed and Pedley-Ryan stopped sales of the medals and returned to selling silver bars.
Also in 1933, the Colorado Century of Progress Commission issued Colorado’s "Century of Progress" Dollars. The commission produced these medals to promote the State of Colorado at the Chicago World’s Fair Century of Progress Exposition that year. The Colorado State Legislature failed to raise the estimated $60,000 needed for the official State of Colorado exhibit at the Expo. In February 1933, the Commission announced the issue of one-ounce silver souvenirs, valued $1.00 each. Silver at the time was 28 cents an ounce. The souvenirs were promoted and sold throughout the State at $1.25 each. Four different types were issued, all with plain edges. The first three types had incuse letters and Type IV is embossed. It is estimated that 10,000 were sold with the rest of the mintage melted.
If you are new to the So-Called Dollars, you will find excellent online source at the So-Called Dollars website, www.so-calleddollars.com. And, if you are ready to start a set in the PCGS Set Registry, visit these pages:
One collector, Colorado Native, has an excellent start on a Lesher Dollar Set with images for most items registered.