From Daniel Boone to the Alamo: the delightful diversity of early U.S. Commemorative Half Dollars

When one pauses to contemplate the excitement-factor of 20th century United States coinage, a collector can be forgiven for feeling somewhat blasé on the subject. Sure, while some would (kindly) consider the designs of this circulating coinage to be “classic”, others will more bluntly refer to the tired and stagnant nature of a series that hasn’t, for the most part, changed in any material way for an entire generation or more. Indeed, perhaps only the Swiss trump the Americans in terms of absence of modern coinage innovation, with their circulation designs that have remained fixed in time since Queen Victoria was on the English throne.

Only as late as the 1980s did the United States Mint begin dipping their fingers into the mixed-berry pie, with the earlier exception of the 1976 Bicentennial issues. And in fairness, this apparent lack of creativity wasn’t entirely the short-comings of an unenlightened U.S. Mint staff, but rather very much a reflection of the American public’s prevailing intolerance for change. After all, only in the United States could a steadfast addiction to the One Dollar note cause an attempted reintroduction of four consecutive Dollar coin designs (with more than 6 billion struck!) to be a complete failure. Clearly, the pre-Reagan generation was not an exciting time for commemorative coin collectors. That is, however, with the exception of those willing to look back one prior generation to a tremendously-diverse and challenging series of coins: the U.S. commemorative Half Dollars of 1915 to 1954.

Beginning with a 1915 issue struck for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, and ending with the final 1954 release of a Booker T. Washington & George Washington Carver Half Dollar, this fascinating series of coins is very much a reflection of American historical diversity itself. With a remarkable 45 different coin designs – all struck to an identical .900 fine Silver, 12.5 gram standard – many of these neat coins were issued as fundraisers for particular projects, and/or to mark historically significant events. A 1936 issue, for example, was released to mark the opening of the landmark San Franciso-Oakland Bay Bridge, and was actually sold from toll booths on the structure (an impressive grizzly bear graces the obverse of this coin).

Three key elements impress me most about this series of commemoratives, namely diversity, lack of recognition on this side of the border, and general affordability.

New Rochelle HalfAs already noted above, this series of coins pulls out all the stops on the diversity front. After all, how many collectors (especially Americans themselves) realize that U.S. business-strike commemoratives exist with depictions of William of Orange, General Lee, Captain Cook, Daniel Boone, a ferocious cougar, and a hungry beaver, among countless other themes?  My personal aesthetic favourite – the 1938 New Rochelle, N.Y. issue (pictured), depicting the fancy-dressed English mathematician John Pell leading a roped calf. More historically-significant than the prevailing Kennedy Half Dollar, struck every year of my life-time?  Certainly not, but a heck of a lot more interesting!  With numerous classic depictions of stage-coaches and sailing ships, horse-back generals and first-nations chiefs, frontiersmen and state iconography, you simply can’t beat the diversity of this coinage series.

When I refer to “lack of recognition” and “general affordability”, these two factors combine to present an enigma that I have long reflected on. That is, in my 25 years of professional coin dealing, I have never handled even a single example of the vast majority of these commemoratives. Sure, the majority of these commemorative mintages are quite low, but they are not impossibly so.  How it is that I have handled a 1796 American Quarter – worth more than $25,000 – but not a single example of the Rhode Island 1936 Half Dollar that only catalogues at $110 in UNC, is a real mystery. Clearly these coins are out there in the market, or otherwise their seemingly subdued mintages (often 10,000 pieces or less) would result in prohibitive retail values. Certainly, there are some that are indeed scarce; the 1928 Hawaiian Sesquicentennial in typical UNC, for example, will require an investment of close to $3,000. For those looking for a single type-piece from the series, however, a pleasant 1946 Booker T. Washington Half Dollar in Uncirculated can be had for a paltry twenty dollars. Of the 45 issues, however, perhaps as many as 31 different commemoratives can be acquired in near Mint-state or better within the $100-200 price-range per coin.

In summary, those looking to make a foray into the collecting of interesting and aesthetically-diverse American coinage – while uninspired by the handful of dominant 20th century “tried and true” designs – simply must consider the 1915 and later series of commemorative Half Dollars. With perseverance and a modest budget, the hunt and assembly of such a collection promises much satisfaction and challenge. I invite our customers to pay us a visit, and introduce yourselves to this series through the dozen or so interesting examples we have brought into stock in recent days.

As always, Happy Collecting!

Sean Isaacs

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