World's Columbian Expo Half Started Something Big
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
December 19, 2012
Other News & Articles
This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
>> Subscribe today!
The 1892-1893 Columbian Exposition half dollars started something big. Created as souvenirs of the Chicago World’s Fair, they launched a new coin collecting specialty. They were the first commemorative half dollars.
The Chicago Tribune predicted the special half dollars would serve as “admission tickets” to the exposition. But they proved to be more popular as keepsakes. What better souvenir could there have been for the first World’s Fair held in the United States?
Many cities competed for the honor of hosting the exposition, which marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of America. Chicago emerged the winner in more ways than one.
In May 1892, exposition commissioners traveled to Washington, D.C., to plea for a government loan in the form of “souvenir” half dollars. Mint Director Edward Leech endorsed a proposal for the striking of as many as 20 million coins.
The bill that was passed on Aug. 5, 1892 was less ambitious but still impressive. It provided for the minting and distribution of up to 5 million Columbian Exposition half dollars.
The bill contained two important provisions. There were to be no Sunday openings during the Fair’s run, and no liquor would be allowed.
The Mint melted “uncurrent” subsidiary silver coins to provide the metal for Columbian half dollars. The Treasury was to ship the coins to exposition officials as needed. They planned to double the government’s appropriation to the World’s Fair by selling the coins for a dollar apiece.
A government spokesman promised the Columbian Exposition half dollar would be “the most artistic coin ever issued by the U.S. Mint.” But the design presented a challenge.
“The picture of Columbus upon the souvenir coins will be ideal,” the San Francisco Examiner said. “It is not altogether clear how it could be anything else, since the roving gentleman whose bones rest in a pair of tombs neglected to leave any authentic portrait. Those available range from figures of a pallid student to a bewhiskered brigand, each probably as wrong as the other.”
Sculptor U.S.J. Dunbar was commissioned to design the Columbian Exposition half dollar. He created a plaster model based on a Lorenzo Lotto portrait of Columbus. However, U.S. Mint chief engraver Charles Barber interfered and persuaded Treasury officials to reject Dunbar’s proposal.
Barber then went to work on his own obverse design. Although he received credit as designer of the Columbus portrait, he may have copied a bust by Olin L. Warner. In Renaissance and Modern Art, published in 1913, William Henry Goodyear wrote:
“Olin Warner is ranked now with the best American sculptors, but received little appreciation until the close of his career. His commission for the design of the souvenir half dollar of the Columbian Exposition was a tardy mark of appreciation.”
U.S. Mint engraver George Morgan designed the reverse. He depicted Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, above the hemispheres.
A British publication, Spink’s Numismatic Circular, provided drawings and descriptions of the obverse and reverse designs:
“It will doubtless be interesting to our readers on both sides of the Atlantic to have an illustration of the commemorative half dollar which has been struck for the World’s Fair to be held this year in the energetic and prosperous city of Chicago.…
“The general design of the piece is original and interesting and preferable to the workmanship, which seems wanting in finish. The coin, however, will remain a pleasing memento both of the fourth centenary of the discovery of the New World and of the wonderful exhibition now being prepared in the West, though it strikes us as being a curious anachronism that the coin, dated 1892, yet apparently commemorates (though doubtless in a secondary degree) the ‘World’s Columbian Exposition’ to be held a twelve-month later.
“We should add that the edge of the coin is grained. We understand the piece already commands a considerable premium.”
The Philadelphia Mint struck the first Columbian Exposition half dollar on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 1892. The Latter Day Saints’ Millenial Star said:
“At precisely 10:30 o’clock on the morning of Nov. 19, W.S. Steele, United States Mint coiner, struck off by hand the first of the Columbian half dollar World’s Fair souvenirs. It is said to be the prettiest coin that has ever been turned out of the Mint, and every portion of the work is most beautifully brought out.
“As soon as the coin was produced, it was wrapped carefully in soft tissue paper, enclosed in a small blue envelope and marked ‘First Columbian half dollar.’ People all over the world are waiting for these souvenirs to be distributed.”
Actually, the first coin was defective. The second coin was placed in an envelope and labeled the “first” Columbian half dollar.
The 400th, 1492nd, 1892nd and last coins were also set aside, to be sold to the highest bidders. The Remington Typewriter Co. paid $10,000 for the first Columbian half dollar. It was displayed in the company’s exhibit in the Manufactures Building, where visitors could type letters or notes from the exposition. The Official Guide to the World’s Columbian Exposition said:
“The Congress of the United States in its session of 1892-93 appropriated $2.5 million in silver half dollar pieces to be coined as souvenirs for the benefit of the World’s Columbian Exposition. “These souvenir coins immediately took on an artificial value. The expectation of the management was that each coin would sell for at least $1. Extraordinary prices were offered for the first and last coins issued from the Mint.
“The first coin was purchased by the Remington Typewriter Company for $10,000. It is exhibited in the beautiful Remington pavilion, northeast corner of main balcony, near northeast entrance, Manufactures Building.”
In the Administration Building, fairgoers could see a model of the U.S. Capitol crafted from Columbian half dollars. Johanna Sara Wisthaler wrote in By Water to the Columbian Exposition: “An exhibit, manifesting the unrivaled wealth of the republic, and placed in the center of the rotunda on the first floor, was an excellent reproduction of the Capitol in Washington in miniature, erected of silver coins—indeed a masterpiece. I shall leave it to the reader to find out how many of the half dollar pieces were needed for the construction of this unique building, contributed by the U.S. Government. To our regret, Mr. George R. Davis, whom we intended to call upon, was absent.”
The World’s Columbian Exposition was supposed to open in October 1892, but it wasn’t ready in time. The commemorative half dollars also arrived late. Distribution began in the closing days of 1892.
On Dec. 19, 1892, 50,000 Columbian half dollars, including the first example, arrived in Chicago. With the exception of the proof Remington coin, they were shipped in 400-pound casks.
Temporarily, they were stored in heavily guarded United States Express Co. vaults. As orders arrived, commemorative halves were shipped from Chicago to other cities, but not with the fanfare they generated in the Windy City. “Fifty of the Columbian half dollar pieces have been received in this city from the World’s Fair Association,” the Jan. 8, 1893, issue of the Galveston Daily News reported. “These coins are ugly enough. The front side of the coins has an elegant likeness of Sitting Bull which is said to be meant for Columbus.”
Truth sometimes fell by the wayside amid hype claiming incredible demand and a shortage of souvenir half dollars. “Nearly 1,000 banks have sent in orders for from 50 to 5,000 coins at $1 apiece,” Table Talk said. “When this lot of souvenir coins is exhausted, there will be no more made, and millions who expect to get them will be disappointed.
“The World’s Fair authorities therefore make public announcement of these facts, and urge the people everywhere to subscribe immediately for these coins. “
The January 1893 issue of The Oologist, a publication “for the student of birds, their nests and eggs,” said:
“The World’s Fair souvenir coins are ‘going like hot cakes,’ and those who want to get one or more of them will have to bestir themselves or they will be too late. The desire for these mementos of the Exposition seems to be almost as universal as is the interest in the Exposition itself, and orders for them have been sent in from all parts of the United States and also from foreign countries.
“On the obverse side of the Columbian half dollar appears the head of Columbus, designed from the Lotto portrait, and surrounding it the words ‘World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1892.’ “On the reverse appears a caravel, representing Columbus’ flagship, and beneath it the two hemispheres. Above the caravel will be ‘United States of America,’ and beneath the hemispheres ‘Columbian Half Dollar.’
“There is no doubt that these coins will be regarded as the most distinctive and highest prized cheap souvenir of the World’s Fair.
The Mint struck nearly 1 million 1892 Columbian half dollars. Production of 1893-dated Columbians began on Jan. 3, 1893.
The exposition opened in May 1893. Fairgoers found it well worth the wait. Forty-six nations participated in the event. Designed as temporary structures, 150 buildings occupied the 600-acre site along Lake Michigan. Officials turned away Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. So he set it up just outside the edge of the exposition grounds and drew large audiences.
Products introduced at the exposition included Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Quaker Oats, Juicy Fruit Gum, Pabst Blue Ribbon and a concoction which a few years later would be named Cracker Jack.
The Ferris Wheel also made its debut at the exposition. Each of its 36 passenger cars could carry 60 people, giving a total capacity of 2,160 riders.
Travel writers praised the exposition’s beauty. The Columbian half dollar was another matter. “Two samples of the new World’s Fair souvenir coins came from the Director of the Mint in Philadelphia this morning to be tested,” a newspaper story with a Washington, D.C., Nov. 30, 1892, dateline reported. “There was a rush among the Treasury officials to get a look at the first of the new half dollars that have yet been sent to the Treasury.
“The samples were a disappointment, to say the least. The obverse side on which the Columbus head appears comes in for considerable criticism by the Treasury experts. ‘Whatever value attaches to the coins,’ said a Mint officer, ‘will be due to the fact that they are souvenirs, and not for any beauty which they possess. In fact, they are the ugliest coins I ever saw.’” The editor of the Galveston Daily News wrote:
“The front side of the coin has an elegant likeness of the late Sitting Bull. This, however, is said to be meant for Columbus. The patriotic American can take his choice, and the know-nothings certainly will claim the head being modeled for Sitting Bull because of that gentleman being an American.”
The editor disliked the reverse, too. “At first blush, the ship seems to be on wheels,” he claimed. “But closer examination shows that the two wheels are the eastern and western hemispheres. The ship seems to be surrounded by a herd of porpoises.”
The Boston Globe regretted that Columbus wasn’t a better-looking man. The New York Press said the coin’s design might pass muster. But it added, “The new Columbian souvenir half dollar doesn’t strike the eye of all critics as being an artistic success. The Numismatist wondered why such an “extraordinary fuss” was being made over “so ordinary a looking coin.”
The Columbian half dollar overshadowed a commemorative quarter depicting Queen Isabella. Few people were even aware of its existence. Because it sold for the same price as the half dollar, most buyers preferred the larger coin.
Fair attendance on Oct.9, 1893, designated “Chicago Day,” exceeded 700,000 persons. It was a record for an outdoor event. Columbian half dollars adorned Columbus Day badges.
The fair closed in October 1893. Total attendance reached nearly 7 million. Yet the books showed only a modest profit of $1 million, thanks to the Ferris Wheel and concession stands.
The fair ended on a tragic note. Two days before the fair closed, Patrick Eugene Prendergast assassinated Chicago mayor Carter Harrison Sr. Officials canceled the closing ceremonies and arranged a public memorial service instead.
Evaluations of the Columbian half dollar were almost as ambivalent as assessments of the fair. Sales of the 1893-dated coins were disappointing. The Mint eventually melted 2.5 million 1893 Columbian half dollars.
Proceedings of the California Bankers Association called the government’s appropriation to the exposition “a pure donation, without any conditions and without mortgaging the gate receipts.” “It was done by a compromise by which 5 million half dollar souvenir pieces were freely given to the World’s Columbian Exposition for the purpose of carrying out their plans, and they at once, by judicious advertising and by newspaper notices of proposals, brought about an offer to buy the $2.5 million for $4 million.
“They worked up a sentiment and gave sentimental value, which bankers never understand or know, to these souvenir coins, of $2.5 million, in about ten days, and the sales have actually been made. Mr. Shepard of the Mail and Express of New York, bought $10,000 worth.”
However, interest in the coins waned during the exposition’s run. More than 1.7 million were still in Treasury vaults when the fair closed. According to one report, the surplus resulted from a breach of engagement. Supposedly, the government would have turned over the entire mintage to fair authorities if they hadn’t violated the “no Sunday openings” stipulation.
In October 1894, the Treasury Department announced the souvenir coins were to become “current half dollars.” In other words, it planned to release them into circulation at face value.
The Washington Star called it “the closing chapter in the history of an unsuccessful venture.” But some businessmen saw new opportunities in commemorative half dollars. An ad in the Fort Wayne News in November 1894 said:
“The Greatest American Souvenir. The Columbian half dollar will be given in change at its face value to all patrons at our store tomorrow and continuing all week. Purchases must not be less than one dollar.
“This opportunity to secure one of these Columbian half dollars without expense or premium will be by the people especially appreciated when the first half dollar issued brought many thousand dollars, and one dollar was the price paid for each half dollar during the World’s Fair.”
The exposition was over, but Columbian half dollars still made news. In 1896, someone stole a souvenir half dollar from a drugstore in Bristol, Conn. The June 18, 1896, issue of the Bristol Herald reported:
“In the recent burglary at P.J. Priors drugstore, one of the articles purloined was a Columbian half dollar. A coin which is identical with the one stolen recently came into the possession of Justice Corban.
“Mr. Corban is unable to recollect who paid him the piece of currency, but he is of the opinion that it was in settling the costs of a local court case that he received it. If the judge finds out whence the coin came, it is evident that a very strong clue will have been obtained as to who the burglars are.”
In 1897, President William McKinley visited the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., apparently bringing along a supply of Columbian half dollars for tipping. The April 10, 1897, issue of The Morning Herald said, “Messenger Tier, of the Western Union Company, was the recipient this morning of a Columbian half dollar from the President after the delivery of one of the telegrams he received, a souvenir that the receiver prizes highly.”
The number of souvenir half dollars in circulation was dwindling by 1899. The Boston Transcript said:
“Columbian half dollars are not as much used as might be expected from the fact that they are current coins. There is not more than $20 worth of that cast in the sub-treasury, and the receipt is not more than $10 on $20,000 of coins.
“They are sorted out and kept by themselves and are not paid out unless asked for. The demand is slight, but it is expected that by Christmastime the business firms will want them to give out in change as sort of an advertisement, for that is the way they did last Christmas.
“The Treasury will then send to Washington after as many as are needed and exchange them for gold only in large quantities.”
The Treasury Department put 140,000 1893 Columbian half dollars into circulation between October and December 1906. The Washington Post called them “a worry.” It said their “quaint” design often went unrecognized by cashiers. But they attracted many new coin collectors and paved the way for future commemoratives.
The Columbian half dollar’s design hadn’t pleased everyone. Nor did the idea of paying twice face value for a coin. But the enormous quantity minted and the publicity they received helped familiarize the public with commemorative coins.
The series is still going strong today, with far-ranging themes and designs that might never have been without Chicago’s souvenir half dollar.