The Commemorative coinage of the United States

The first commemorative coin of the United States was struck in 1892. It is to be observed that in the period of over one hundred years of United States coinage preceding no commemorative issues were contemplated.

The practice of issuing commemorative coins has punctuated the continental European coinages since the fifteenth century, centering particularly in Germany. Special issues then coined mark events of major magnitude even today, as well as personal anniversaries which chiefly have significance for the respective nation. The European commemorative coinage which developed after the discovery of America, was expressed largely in silver issues. The quantities of silver from the New World mines depressed the price of silver in Europe, enabling European nations to advance to larger size pieces, thus inaugurating the ‘dollar-size’ coin.

The use of coinage as a commemorative vehicle is almost as old as coinage itself, as ancient Greek coins marked treaties, military victories and alliances. The Roman coinage, particularly during the Empire, was replete with commemorative issues, marking many anniversaries, both public and private, naval triumphs, conquests by force of arms, public works, and also the activities of the Emperor.

The Columbian issue of 1892 was the first American commemorative coin. It might be noted parenthetically, that although the United States issued a souvenir coin for this celebration, Spain released only a medal. The legal tender qualities of the Columbian issue were debated at length. The argument was advanced that if legal tender, the coins should be included in the proof-sets of that year. The Columbian issue was not included in the proof-sets because of the question of price to the public. The usual procedure was to sell proof coins at a slight advance over their face value—the Columbian Exposition Commission was asking one dollar for these coins. If the Government had included these in the proof-sets of the year, the Commission price could not have been maintained.

Commemorative coins differ from the regular Issues of the year because by authorization of Congress they are permitted to bear a special design and are not distributed by government agencies. These designs are appropriate for the occasion to be celebrated. In the authorizing Act, Congress usually specifies the number of coins which may be struck, whereas in the regular issues the number of coins struck varies according to the needs of the country.

In the distribution and circulation of the commemorative issues, there is found a wide divergence when compared with the regular coinage. The regular coinage is delivered either to banks on demand, to the Treasury, or to Federal Reserve Banks, and is released by any of these agencies at par value. Commemorative coins are received by the commission named in the authorizing Act; and these commissions distribute the coins at whatever price they believe they can maintain. The actual monetary usage of commemorative coins, with the exception of some few issues, such as the Columbian, the Pilgrim, the Monroe Doctrine and the Stone Mountain, is practically negligible. The route of the commemorative coin is from the Mint to the Commission, and thence into the hands of the dealer or collector. It is almost certain that the general public is unfamiliar with more than a few of the hundred-odd commemorative issues which have been released to date.

Every United States coin is legal tender, and the majority of Acts specify that the coins authorized are ‘legal tender in any payment to the amount of their face value.’ This phrase first appears in the Illinois Act of 1918. The previous silver coinages, the Columbian half- and quarter-dollar and the Panama-Pacific half-dollar, were therefore legal tender in amounts not exceeding ten dollars. The Lafayette dollar is legal tender to any amount. All gold coins, whether commemorative or standard issues, are unlimited legal tender. There are ten issues of half-dollars, authorized between 1934 and 1936 for which no special legal tender provision was incorporated in the Act; and these issues are legal tender in amounts not exceeding ten dollars. They are the Maryland, Arkansas, Boone, Connecticut, Hudson, Providence, San Diego, Spanish Trail and Columbia, S, C. half dollars.

The earliest issues which appeared did not bear the mottoes LIBERTY, E PLURIBUS UNUM and IN GOD WE trust. The first two of these mottoes have been used since 1794 and 1793, respectively. “In God We Trust” was first used in 1864. Although all United States coins have not borne these mottoes, it may be observed that the regular issue of half-and quarter-dollars of 1892 carried them, but they were omitted from the Columbian series. In fact, until 1915 none of the mottoes appeared on commemorative coins. Thereafter, there seems to have been no system about their usage, except that “In God We Trust” was selected most often when a single motto was employed. Since 1935, all commemorative issues except the San Diego and Oakland Bay Bridge issues have borne the three mottoes.

The right to sell souvenir coins of the Government at a profit was questioned when the first issue appeared. Since then, when the issue was released at ‘double-face’ value, the general trend seems to be one of increasing premiums.

Whether any agency, even though authorized by Congress, should profit by selling money at a considerable premium, is debatable. A great many administrations have favoured commemorative coins as an easy method for financing some undertaking in which the Government wished to participate. Other administrations, such as that of Hoover, felt that the currency should not be hired out by Congressional authorizations, and that medals would serve the purpose as well.

In the course of the past forty-five years, over fifty different commemorative types have been struck at the several mints of United States. In the matter of coinage of a single issue at the several mints, Congress now seems to have adopted the ‘single-mint’ idea—permanently, it is to be hoped. Very small coinage authorizations appear unlikely in the future—for the majority of issues authorized in 1936, the minimum was 25,000 coins.

As mentioned in the text, there are Commissions which may continue their special series of re-issues for the next hundred years unless retroactive legislation is passed curtailing this feature. A bill was before the 75th Congress which would have accomplished this purpose, but it was side-tracked in the rush of more important national affairs.

In the description of the coins, there has been no little difficulty in distinguishing between the obverse and the reverse. The obverse has been chosen as bearing the more important type; and it has been thought not feasible here to follow the official dictum concerning the obverse, namely, “that on all United States coins issued since 1870, the date side is the obverse.” The reason for this Treasury Department ruling is that the obverse die must be destroyed at the end of the year, therefore the obverse is determined by the side which bears the date. For practical reasons this ruling would not prove valuable in a discussion of the commemorative issues, although it serves the Treasury Department’s purposes, even if it is not always adhered to in their publications.

The actual significance of the date in the more recent issues is very questionable, since many of the issues have been authorized in one year, with an Act requiring a specified date to appear upon the coin. Such coins have often been struck in the subsequent years with little to distinguish them. To make the confusion greater, in a number of instances, anniversary dates have been anticipated so that the coinage date is two years earlier than the anniversary date, and there is no date on the coin giving the year in which it was struck.

This confusion in dates has made it very difficult to determine the proper sequence of the issues. If one were to rely solely on the authorization dates, there would be complications, as these sometimes overlap. Likewise, if one were to rely upon the actual year in which the piece was minted, there would be difficulty in recent year because the piece might be ante- or post-dated. Similarly, one cannot depend on the date appearing on the coin, as this does not always imply the year in which it was struck (as formerly was more often the rule than not).

In an effort to find a solution, the following plan has been applied. Each issue of commemorative coins hat been considered as having three dates: that of authorization, coinage year, and the year appearing upon the coin. These three elements have been combined; and the coin has been placed under the predominant year. For example, the Connecticut half-dollar, authorized in 1934 but coined in 1933, and dated 1935, is classed as 1935. The Gettysburg issue, on the other hand, was authorized in 1936, coined in 1937, but was dated 1936. This issue is therefore closer to 1936 than 1937, notwithstanding the fact that it commemorated an event occurring in 1938. In every instance where a series of the same design but of different years and mint-marks has appeared, it has been considered as a whole, under the date of the first issue of the type.

A number of writers on commemorative coins have either cited typical coinage Acts or disregarded them entirely. It is believed that the inclusion of each Act here will prove worthwhile, as it is by the Acts themselves that a clear view of the commemorative coinage series is gained. There are many instances where the wording of a section it the same as that of a corresponding section in an earlier Act. For economy of space, the complete text of such a section has been given only for the first Act in which it appears. In all subsequent cases, to avoid repetition, reference has been made, within parentheses, to the page of this monograph where the full wording of the section is shown.

A word here will not be out of place regarding the coinage figures which have been given. Every figure has been verified from direct sources, or from Government reports wherever possible. Those furnished are for the total coinage as reported, including the additional assay pieces. Some writers on commemorative coins have seen fit to disregard these assay pieces, as they have no connection with the issue which has been released, and are struck, so to speak, on the Mint’s own account without authority in the coinage Act. These assay pieces have, however, been included here, with the belief that verification of original records which often show this additional coinage will be simplified. Since these coins were actually struck, they should be included. Where discrepancies appear between the coinage figures shown here and other accounts, in many instances this assay coinage figure will make up the difference.

A number of issues have been melted in part with no record having been kept of the varieties. In such cases, the net coinage figures for individual issues are merely approximations; and the only guide that is reliable is the combined total for the two varieties of the issue.

The Norse-American medals of 1925 have been purposely omitted from this series as they are not commemorative coins but octagonal medals issued by authority of Congress; they are often popularly but erroneously included as half-dollars. Commemorative coins are a part of the nation’s monetary system, but medals are not.

Commemorative coins, taken as a group, form an interesting and instructive modern series. The wealth of history, the progress and advance of peoples from the Old World to the New, and a host of other worth while facts provide a valuable record. Finally, we may note that the chronological arrangement is far from being the only one to which this series lends itself. Each collector may form his own criterion for the inter-relation of the Commemoratives. One man will group the pieces relating to discovery, another may keep the State Centennials together, while a third will prefer to have the Exposition issues by themselves. Perhaps this freedom in expressing individual taste accounts for some of the popularity of commemorative coins. What follows is an effort to provide dependable information which will appeal to all collectors of the series, no matter what may be their angle of approach.

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