The Panama-Pacific Exposition Coinages

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, held in San Francisco in 1915, was the occasion for a commemorative issue materially different from its predecessors. For this event, fifty-dollar gold coins were for the first time authorized and coined by the United States. The previous fifty-dollar gold pieces, more familiarly known as “slugs,” struck in the “fifties” in the gold mining days, were issued in California privately or by the Government assayers. It was therefore natural that the Exposition authorities, if they were going to issue any souvenir coins at all, should choose a form long associated with California.

The issue included more denominations than had been made heretofore in connection with an exposition, so that this set of coins is notable among our commemorative pieces.

The Act of Congress creating this special issue, reads:


AN ACT For the coinage of certain gold and silver coins in commemoration of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and for other purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Secretary of the Treasury shall cause to be coined at the United States mint at San Francisco not exceeding three thousand gold coins of the denomination of $50 each, ten thousand gold coins of the denomination of $2.50 each, twenty-five thousand gold coins of the denomination of $1 each, and not exceeding two hundred thousand silver coins of the denomination of 50 cents each, all of legal weight and fineness; said coins to be struck in commemoration of the Panama Pacific International Exposition. The words, devices, and designs upon said coins shall be determined and prescribed by the Secretary of the Treasury, and all provisions of law relative to the coinage and legal-tender value of all other gold and silver coins shall be applicable to the coins issued under and in accordance with the provisions of this Act; and one-half of the issue of $50 gold coins herein authorized shall be similar in shape to the octagonal $50 gold pieces issued in California in eighteen hundred and fifty-one; and the entire issue of said $50, $2.50, and $1 coins herein authorized shall be sold and delivered by the Secretary of the Treasury to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company at par, under rules and regulations and in amounts to be prescribed by him. The coinage shall be executed as soon as may be and the delivery of said coins to begin not later than the day of the opening of the exposition. Said 50-cent coins herein authorized shall be issued only upon the request of the Panama-Pacific Inter-national Exposition Company, and shall be delivered to it by the Secretary of the Treasury, at par, during the period when said Panama-Pacific International Exposition shall be officially open.

Sec. 2.(Refers to medals and diplomas of the Ex-position.)

Sec. 3. That the 50-cent silver coins herein authorized may, in the discretion of the Secretary of the Treasury, be coined or finished and issued from the machinery to be installed as a part of the exhibit of the United States mint at said exposition, and for the purpose of maintaining the exhibit as an educative working exhibit at all times the coins so minted may be re-melted and reminted. All of said 50-cent silver coins herein authorized not issued to and at the request of said Panama-Pacific International Exposition, whether the same are coined as a part of said working exhibit or coined at the mint in San Francisco, shall be re-melted upon the official closing of said exposition. All provisions hereof in regard to the coinage, finishing, or issue of said 50-cent silver coins from machinery installed as a part of the said exhibit shall be coined, finished, and issued under such regulations as the Secretary of the Treasury may prescribe; and the Secretary of the Treasury shall cause to be prepared a suitable souvenir medal (of such metal or composition of metals as he may prescribe), to be struck off by the machinery in said mint exhibit, …

Sec. 4. That the Secretary of the Treasury is hereby authorized to obtain suitable designs for the coins and medals herein authorized, and the sum of $5,000, or so much thereof as may be necessary, is hereby appropriated, out of any money in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated, to defray the cost of said designs: Provided, That the Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company shall reimburse the Treasury Department for the amount thus expended.

Approved, January 16, 1915.

The fifty-dollar gold piece or five eagles was designed by Robert Aitken of New York. It was issued in round and in octagonal form. Of the former shape 1510 and of the latter 1509 were struck during the months of June, July and August. A special hydraulic press used for striking medals at the Philadelphia Mint, was sent to San Francisco for the purpose. The first coining took place before a number of notable guests on June 15, 1915, the octagonal variety only being coined. The first 29 “slugs” were struck by officials and guests, and the remainder of the first 100 pieces by the various employees of the Mint. A very complete account of the ceremony is in the “Numismatist” for August, 1915. The description of the pieces is as follows:

Obv. Minerva, goddess of wisdom, skill, contemplation, spinning, weaving, agriculture and horticulture (the official description), facing left and wearing crested helmet; around edge of shield between two lines, date in Roman numerals:•M•C•M•X•V•; above, in field, motto in smaller letters:•IN GOD WE / TRUST•, all within double-dot and dash border. Between milling and double-dot and dash border, in large letters around top: UNITED•STATES•OF•AMERICA and around bottom:•FIFTY•DOLLARS•
Rev. An owl, accepted symbol of wisdom and sacred symbol of Minerva, perched upon branch of western pine. Pine cones and needles fill the lower part of field. To right of owl, in field, in small letters:•E / PLURIBUS / UNUM•; all within double-dot and dash border. Between milling and double-dot and dash border, in large letters around top: PANAMA-PACIFIC•EXPOSITION around bottom:•SAN•FRANCISCO•Below pine branch, at owl’s right talon, the designer’s initials incused in small letters: R. A. In right field, near pine cone, small mint-mark, S.

Edge.Reeded.44 mm. Gold.

Lettering. Roman.

10. The obverse and reverse of the octagonal issue is similar to the round type described above, except that the designs of both obverse and reverse have been reduced. The complete design of the round issue has been reduced from 44 mm. to 36½mm. on the octagonal issue. The octagonal issue has eight dolphins in the angles of both obverse and reverse between the circular inscription and the milling. The dolphins were placed there, surrounding the central field, to convey the idea of the uninterrupted water route made possible by the Panama Canal, Diameter 44 mm.

It might be noted that the Panama-Pacific issue is the only United States commemorative coin bearing the same design in two diameters. Much disappointment was felt by the critics and Exposition authorities that the two differing planchets of the quintuple eagle bore the same design. Disappointment was also expressed that the design did not “rise to the occasion,’’ especially with two such promising subjects as the old gold-mining days and the completion of the Panama Canal. The general criticism was that the artist, in working out a purely American theme, had borrowed from classical symbolism, and that the only thing American about the coin was the inscription.

The quarter-eagle or two-and-a-half dollar gold piece was the work of Chas. E. Barber and George T. Morgan of the Mint. Miss Evelyn Beatrice Longman, of New York, had prepared a design for this piece but was unable to complete her model on account of illness. This was the first commemorative coin in this denomination. Pieces to the number of 10,017 were struck in the month of June, 1915.

Obv. Columbia, with caduceus in right hand, seated facing right on a hippocampus plunging to left, typifying use of the Panama Canal; above: panama-pacific•exposition; below, in exergue: 1915, and at extreme right, mint-mark s.
Rev. An American eagle with raised wings, to left, on classical standard, inscribed: E•pluribus•unum; above: united states of America Below, divided by standard: 2½—DOL•

Reeded. 18 mm. Gold,
This coin is extremely attractive and although classical in design was enthusiastically received.

The gold dollar, the work of Charles Keck, of New York, was struck during the months of May, June and July, 1915, and the total coinage was 25,034 pieces. The dies for this piece were made by the Medallic Art Company.

12. Obv. Head of man wearing peaked cap, to left, representing the laborer, through whose efforts the Panama Canal became a reality. In front, in two curved lines: united states of / America Below: 1915.

Rev. one / dollar encircled by two dolphins indicating the meeting of two oceans. Around border, in circle similar to fifty-dollar gold coin design: panama•pacific•exposition; below:

san Francisco•In field, below do of dollar, the mint-mark s.
Edge.Reeded.14½ mm. Gold.

Lettering. Roman.

This design is thoroughly American and a bold piece of work.

The only coin of the silver series was the half-dollar. This was the work of C. E. Barber and G. T. Morgan, and is by no means as graceful or satisfying as their quarter-eagle.

13.Obv. Columbia to left, scattering flowers; behind her, a naked child holding large cornucopia to signify the boundless resources of the West. In background, the Golden Gate and setting sun; Golden Gate and setting sun; below, a wave motif separating date 1915, preceded by mint-mark s. Around the edge, panama-pacific—exposition, in Roman letters.

Rev. Shield of the United States surmounted by American eagle; in left and right fields, an oak and olive branch, emblems of stability and peace respectively. Above eagle: in god / we—trust, in small Gothic letters. Around edge: united—states of—America At bottom, divided by shield:•HALF—DOLLAR•(The D of DOLLAR touches shield). All inscriptions except first in Roman letters.

Reeded.30 mm. Silver.
During the month of June, 1915, there were struck at the San Francisco Mint 60,030 of the half-dollars. The report of the Exposition management states that 483 of the round fifty-dollar pieces were distributed and 1,017 melted, making no account of the 10 additional assay pieces which were struck. Of the octagonal pieces, 646 were sold and 854 melted down, likewise not accounting for the 9 assay pieces.

The Commission sold 6,750 quarter-eagles and 3,250 were returned to the Mint. The entire issue of 25,000 gold dollars was dispersed; and of the fifty-cent pieces, 27,000 were sold and 32,866 were returned to the Mint for melting. The coins were sold at the Exposition in especially prepared cases. The complete set of five pieces sold for two hundred dollars, and the set of four pieces (optional as to choice of the octagonal or round fifty-dollar coin), for one hundred dollars. The smaller sets of three coins went for seven dollars. These pieces were also sold individually at four dollars for the quarter-eagle, two dollars for the gold dollar and one dollar for the silver half-dollar.

Prior to the transfer of the half-dollar dies to San Francisco from Philadelphia, several gold essays were struck from the dies; these have no mint-mark. This commemorative series was the first one to be struck at a branch mint, setting the precedent for many subsequent issues.

A series of commemorative postage stamps was also issued in connection with the Panama-Pacific celebration.

The Panama-Pacific Act has the distinction of authorizing the smallest issue of commemorative coins, a fact which is usually overlooked, and considered to be a new evil. This was the first Act to specify the place of coinage, a practice which continued in the following Act but which appears in no other issue, to date.

The Panama-Pacific coins were the first commemorative pieces to carry the mottoes. Each denomination except the gold dollar has either “E Pluribus Unum” or “In God We Trust.” “E Pluribus Unum,” the phrase appearing on so many of the standard and commemorative issues, refers to the thirteen original colonies. Translated, it means: “One out of many,”

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