The First American Commemorative Coin


Can you guess what the very first commemorative coin the U.S. Mint issued was and when?

If you guessed the 1892 Columbian half dollar, you would be right. This coin was unique in American history in its historical significance, its purpose, and its appearance. Let’s examine these further.

1892 was the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s historic voyage into the Western hemisphere. A citizen of the Republic of Genoa, Columbus sailed the Atlantic for the Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, for the first time in 1492. This would lead to the first lasting contact between Europe and the New World and the eventual Spanish Colonization of South American, Central American and significant parts of North America. As we’ve mentioned before, the Spanish Empire was the first one on which the sun never set. The empire’s pieces of eight coinage literally changed the world.

In 1892, Americans were keen to remember Columbus’ impact in American history. The Chicago World’s Fair, otherwise known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, was organized and held in 1893 and showcased many of the wonders of modernity, including electricity, to the 27 million fair attendees. It was an enormous undertaking and cost a great deal of money, so the fair’s organizers wanted Congress to authorize funds, which it did, in the form of the Columbian half dollar. Unfortunately, demand for the coin never met expectations. Five million half dollars were struck, and half of them were melted. Two million were released into general circulation and remained there well into the 20th century.

What was it about its appearance that was different? It was the first coin that the U.S. Mint produced with a depiction of a historical person on it. British coins often displayed the reigning monarch, so when the United States began minting its own coinage, it chose more generic images like the eagle, Lady Liberty, or the head of an Indian since its leader was elected not ordained. Christopher Columbus was the first exception to this rule. In 1893, at the request of the fair’s Board of Lady Managers, the Mint struck a Queen Isabella I quarter. This coin was disparaged by contemporary numismatists and did not sell well either,  but it is popular with collectors today.

As we’ve discussed, many coin collectors love commemoratives because of their historic relevance, artistic and investment value, and gift potential. The Columbian half dollar was produced at a time when belief in American Exceptionalism was on the rise, huge fortunes were being made, waves of historic immigration were changing the face of America, and everyday citizens could afford to spend time and money seeing all of these on display at their own World’s Fair. As such, it was a moment in American history, so don’t let your collection of famous American coins be without a Columbian half dollar.

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