As the name indicates, commemorative coins were issued by the United States Mint by specific order of Congress at various times to celebrate some special occasion or event of importance. As such, they are considered an integral and important part of the history of this nation.
For the duration of this article, we will only address the American commemorative coins issued from 1893 to 1954, and omit the so-called "modern commemorative" issues from 1982 to present day. Commemorative coins have ranged in denomination from the Isabella quarter, issued in 1893 by the Board of Lady Managers of the Columbian Exposition, to the massive $50 gold pieces, both round and octagonal, struck by the San Francisco Mint in 1915 to commemorate the Panama-Pacific Exposition in that city. Present values range from a few dollars for the later Booker T. Washington and Carver/Washington issues to over $150,000 for the round Pan-Pacific gold slug in Gem Uncirculated (MS65) condition.
In a sense, commemoratives should be included among the unusual coins of the United States, for, although they are spendable, full legal tender, they seldom have been seen by the general public. With a few exceptions, these coins have never been in general circulation; most were originally sold at prices above face value; and generally they have been kept bright and shiny, just as they came from the Mint.
The history of (original) United States Commemorative coins begins in 1892 with issuance of the Chicago Columbian Exposition half dollar, and concludes 62 years later with the minting of the last of the Carver/Washington half dollars in 1954, In those 62 years, many important historic events were commemorated, as well as some of definitely dubious import.
The prices of commemorative coins have had a somewhat spotted career. From the collector's standpoint, they alternately blow hot and cold. Currently, they're on the hot side. Indications are they'll stay that way. But, if history repeats, they may cool off without much warning and stagnate for months on end.
There have been gold Commemoratives, ranging in size and denomination from the tiny $1 gold pieces (Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark, Pan-Pacific, McKinley Memorial, and Grant Memorial) through the $2.50 gold pieces (Pan-Pacific, and Philadelphia Sesquicentennial) to the heavy $50 gold slugs of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. At the silver end of the spectrum, there have been the Isabella quarter and the Lafayette silver dollar, but by far, the largest number of commemorative coins have been silver half dollars.
In complete contrast to the government's view on postage stamp issues, Secretaries of the Treasury and Presidents typically frowned on commemorative coins. While the Post Office Department would issue a special stamp almost at the drop of a hat, the Treasury Department disliked to issue coins which varied in the least from those which became familiar to the American public through day-to-day purchases. A special stamp may be issued which looked like a refugee from a bottle of patent medicine, but few persons protested. Stamp collectors were delighted that they had a new issue on which to spend their money, and the government took in quite a bit of cash through such sales.
Commemorative coins, however, were minted only when specifically authorized by Congress. The original idea was to issue these coins to organizations which needed them for fund-raising purposes in connection with more or less historic celebrations. Thus, a half dollar piece might be sold by the Commemorative Commission for a dollar, the 50-cent profit going for some worthy project, such as sculpturing a mountainside or paying the costs of a centennial celebration.
All too often, the commissions yielded to the opportunity offered by coin dealers to unload quantities of their coins. It was a much faster way of meeting expenses than selling them one at a tune to collectors. The dealers, in business to make a living, of course, then peddled the coins to collectors for whatever they could get - sometimes quite a fancy increase over the original price. Before long, there arose an unpleasant aroma.
Secretaries of the Treasury, from Andrew Mellon on, tried to call a halt to the practice. By 1937, when the 76th Congress adopted H. R. Report No. 101, the thing was considered to have become something of a racket, with coin dealers about the only beneficiaries.
That 1937 House action effectively put a stop to Commemorative issues until, on the final day of the 1946 session, a pair of bills slipped through. One was to authorize an issue of half dollars to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Iowa's admission to the Union, the other to aid the Booker T. Washington Birthplace Memorial.
As to the artistic merit of the various commemoratives, there are many different opinions. Some contend that almost all these coins are not well designed. Others claim their historic importance far outweighs artistic considerations. Some think the lettering and legends required by law to be included (denomination, United States of America, In God We Trust, E Pluribus Unum, etc.), make it impossible to design a simple and attractive coin. And there are many who are quite happy with the design and appearance of practically all the commemorative half dollars.
Portraits of living Americans have appeared on Commemorative half dollars (no living American has ever been portrayed on coins of regular mint issue). Thomas E. Kilby, governor of Alabama during that state's centennial celebration in 1921, appears on the Alabama Centennial half dollar. It was the first time in history that a living person's portrait was used on a United States coin. In 1926, during the Sesquicentennial of American Independence, the portrait of President Calvin Coolidge appeared with that of George Washington on the Commemorative half dollar. This was another first: the first time a portrait of a president had been used on a coin struck during his lifetime. Senator Carter Glass of Virginia, former Secretary of the Treasury, objected to the idea of using portraits of living men on coins, however, he was overruled and his portrait appeared on the obverse side of the Commemorative half dollar issued for the Lynchburg, Virginia, Sesquicentennial in 1936.
In addition to the American eagle, commemoratives have portrayed various birds and animals. Among those pictured are the California grizzly bear, a calf, beaver, catamount, badger, Texas longhorn steer, oxen, horses, owls, and dolphins. Bits of Americana such as a gold prospector of 1849, an Indian warrior, Hawaiian native chief, pioneer settlers, the first white child born in America, and a Panama Canal laborer are depicted on other coins. There have been plenty of ships: Columbus' flagship Santa Maria, the Pilgrims' Mayflower, the Half Moon of Henry Hudson, and numerous other sailing vessels with identities more or less certain.
Battles commemorated are a pair from the Revolutionary War - Lexington and Concord, and two from the Civil War - Antietam and Gettysburg.
Designers of the Commemorative coins have not been without a sense of humor: there's the picture of "one fatte calf" required to be given each year by the early settlers of what is now New Rochelle, New York, and a solemn portrait of that distinguished American showman, Phineas T. Barnum, who is credited with the saying, "There's a sucker born every minute." There's even a pun on the Old Spanish Trail Commemorative - the explorer Cabeza de Vaca being represented not by a portrait but by a translation of his name, "head of a cow."
The collector of commemorative half dollar types needs only 50 coins to complete the set - roughly $50K in MS65 condition. If you are more ambitious, and want all the mint marks and specials (Grant with Star, Missouri 2*4, etc.), your goal will be 144 coins, this costing in the range of $90K (MS65) to complete the full set.
In the last 15 years, many of these commemoratives have shown startling price increases, some justified on the basis of heavy demand for a limited supply of coins. Others appear to have been over-promoted and the prices elevated beyond what normally might be expected on a pure supply and demand basis. However, through the years, like almost all items in the coin market, commemoratives appear to have had their values adjusted in accordance with sound economic laws. The wise collector, however, does not insist on completeness in commemoratives or in any other series. He intelligently buys and saves those coins which appeal to him. And certainly there are many moderately-priced commemoratives which are quite as attractive as those with top prices.
Beginning in 1982, a new era of special commemorative coin issues began at the Treasury Department. Ms. Donna Pope, the Mint Director, was forging a new relationship with coin collectors with a cleaver marketing scheme that would ultimately provide a virtual unlimited source of profit for the government (to this day).