Early commemorative U.S. coins were issued by the U.S. Mint from 1892 through 1954. These coins, which ranged in denomination from a quarter to $50, were issued to honor people, places, and events. Often the funds raised by the sales of commemorative coins were used to help pay for monuments and other enterprises. For example, proceeds from the pair of Lewis and Clark gold dollars, sold in 1904 and ’05, were used to erect a bronze statue of Sacagawea, the Corps of Discovery’s Native-American guide.

In general, the mintages of these coins were low—for example, only 10,000 or so of those Lewis and Clark coins were struck. Some coins, however, were produced in the millions, including the very first early commemorative minted in 1892 for the World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago.

Of particular interest to collectors are the $50 gold coins issued for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Only 1,100 or so coins were struck, divided almost evenly between octagonal versions (645) and round ones (483). The coin’s obverse featured a helmeted Minerva, a Roman goddess associated with wisdom, while another wise creature, an owl, was depicted on the reverse. The two versions of this commemorative gold coin were the same except for the dolphins that swam around the edge of the octagonal one.

Panama-Pacific coins routinely sell in the five- or six-figure range. More accessible are coins struck in 1936 and 1937 to mark the 75th anniversaries of two Civil War battles, at Gettysburg and Antietam respectively. Other coins seem outright curiosities today, such as the 1936 50-cent piece that celebrated the centennial of Bridgeport, Connecticut’s incorporation by placing a profile of P.T. Barnum on the obverse (the circus impresario resided there) and a stylized Art Deco eagle on the reverse.

The era of early commemorative coins ended in 1954, when the second of two coins honoring African Americans was minted. The first was a half-dollar produced to raise funds for a Booker T. Washington Memorial in Rocky Mount, Virginia. These coins were sold from 1946 through 1951, but they never raised the funds intended. In fact, the coin’s would-be beneficiary ended up in the hole.

A second half dollar, struck from 1951 to 1954, featured profiles of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. The bill authorizing the coin was filled with the language of the McCarthy era—the coin’s legally binding purpose was “to oppose the spread of Communism among Negroes in the interest of National Defense." Like the first Washington coin, this one failed to do what its proponents had envisioned, and the entire commemorative coin program was put on hold until the George Washington half dollar was struck in 1982.

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