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.

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Legendary Coins and Currency

Legendary Coins and Currency

This online exhibition from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is a great way to get an overview… [read review or visit site]

Society of U.S. Pattern Collectors

Society of U.S. Pattern Collectors

Home to the Society of U.S. Pattern collectors, this well-organized site provides in-depth information on pattern c… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

1921 2x4 Missouri Commemorative Half Dollar, Gorgeous Superb Gem Bu++ Key Date!1936 U.s. Gettysburg Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Gem Bu1934 Texas Commemorative Half Dollar No Reserve!1915-s * Pcgs Ms64 * Cac * Panama-pacific Half Dollar 50c Commemorative Pan-pac1918 Lincoln Commemorative Half Dollar ** Free Shipping!1935 U.s. Connecticut Tercentenary Commemorative Half Dollar Silver Coin1922 Star, Grant Commemorative Half Dollar, Highly Desired Gem Key Date!1903 $1 Louisiana Purchase Commemorative Gold Dollar, Superb Gem++ Better Date!1939-d Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollar, Scarce Solid Gem Bu++ Key Date!1926 $2.50 Pcgs Ms 64 Gold Commemorative Quarter Eagle, Sesquicentennial 2 1/21936 Elgin Commemorative Half Dollar No Reserve!1893 Isabella Quarter Silver Commemorative Coin1893 Columbian Exposition Silver Half Dollar Free ShippingUs Silver Commemorative Half Dollar Type Set Beautiful Set 48 Coins Item#t67931938-d Boone Commemorative Half Dollar, Very Pq Superb Gem Bu++ * Free Shipping!1926 Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollar, Gorgeous Superb Gem Bu++, Free S/h!Silver 1926 Sesquicentennial Commemorative Half Dollar1937 Battle Of Antietam Commemorative Half Dollar Ngc Ms651920 Pilgrim 50c Commerative Half Dollar Ngc Ms65 Cac1937-s Arkansas Commemorative Half Dollar No Reserve!Hawaii 1/4 Dollar, Silver Coin Us 1903 Gold * Pcgs Ms64 * Louisiana La Purchase - Mckinley Commemorative Dollar $11937 Pcgs Ms65 Cac Colorful Toned Roanoke Commemorative Half Dollar1935 Hudson Commemorative Half1922 Grant Commemorative Half Dollar No Reserve!1926 Sesquicentennial Gold Commemorative, $2.5 Quarter Eagle, Superb Gem Bu++!1937-d Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollar, Gem Bu++ ** Free Shipping!2001 P American Buffalo Smithsonian Commemorative Lot Silver Dollar Indian Head 1935 Spanish Trail Commemorative Half Dollar Ngc Ms631926 Sesquicenteninial $2.50 Pcgs Ms 62 Sesqui Commemorative Gold $2.51938-d Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollar Pcgs Ms 66 * Nice Color, Free S/h!1936 S Bay Bridge Commemorative Silver Half Dollar, San Francisco Oakland 50c1925-s California Commemorative Half Dollar No Reserve!1918 Lincoln Illinois Commemorative Half Dollar ~ Uncirculated ~ Anacs Ms 621926-s Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollar, Au Details, True AuctionUs Half Dollar California Diamond Jubilee Commemorative 1925 (90% Silver)1925 Philadelphia Mint Stone Mountain Silver Comm Half Free S/h1915-s Panama Pacific Commemorative Half Dollar * Color Obv., Gem Bu++ Key Date!1915-s G$1 Panama-pacific Pcgs Ms 63 Pan-pac Commemorative Gold Dollar1938-d Arkansas Commemorative Half Dollar, Very Nice Solid Gem Bu++ ** Free S/h!1921 Missouri 2x4 Silver 90% 1/2 Dollar CommemorativeUs Mint--1936s Silver Commemorative Coin **oakland Bay Bridge* Gem Bu!! 1936 York Commemorative Half Dollar - Bu++1915-s Gold * Ngc Ms65 * Panama-pacific Commemorative Dollar $1 $1,400++ Pan-pac1916 Gold * Pcgs Ms65 Mckinley 100th Anniversary Commemorative Dollar $1 $1,100+1903 Gold * Pcgs Ms65 * Louisiana La Purchase Jefferson Commemorative Dollar $11917 $1 Mckinley Gold Dollar Commemorative Pcgs Ms 63 ** Nice Pl Look, Tough!1916 G$1 Ngc Ms 64 Gold Commemorative One Dollar, Mckinley Birthplace Memorial1916 Gold * Pcgs Ms66 Secure * Mckinley Memorial Commemorative Dollar $1 $1,600+1915-s Pan Pacific One Dollar Gold Coin...ngc Au50....min. Bid .01 & No Reserve!1903 Gold * Ngc Ms65 * Louisiana La Purchase - Mckinley Commemorative Dollar $11903 Jefferson Commemorative Gold Dollar, $1 Louisiana Purchase Pcgs Ms 641936 Gettysburg Half Dollar Ngc Ms651935 50c Hudson Silver Commemorative Ms 65 Pcgs (#504)1915-s Panama-pacific International Exposition Comm. Half Dollar Ngc Ms641935 Silver Commemorative Pcgs Ms-65 Hudson No Reserve Auction1900 Lafayette Commemorative Silver Dollar Pcgs Au-58 Outstanding Toning1939-d 50c Arkansas Silver Commem Ms 65 Pcgs & Cac (#576)Estate Find 1937 - Battle Of Antietam Commemorative Half Dollar!! #f92021937 Antietam Commemorative Half Dollar Pcgs Ms 66