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HomeUS Coins1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition Coins and Medals From the U.S. Mint

1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition Coins and Medals From the U.S. Mint

By Vic Bozarth for PCGS ……
 

The Panama-Pacific Exposition was one of the biggest of the popular world’s fairs, which drew millions over the several months that these international-scale events were held. While there had been some fairly large expositions in the western United States (including the 1905 Lewis and Clark Expo in Portland, Oregon) prior to the Panama-Pacific Expo, there had been no world’s fairs west of St. Louis. The Lewis and Clark Exposition wasn’t considered a world’s fair.

The West Wants a World’s Fair

The earthquake of 1906 had ravaged San Francisco, but nearly a decade later the city wanted to showcase its revival and growth following the region’s recovery. While world’s fairs are kind of like a big circus that doesn’t move to the next town after a couple of days, the logistics and financial considerations are quite different. Most world’s fairs were open to the public for months at a time, but the preparation usually involved several years of construction beforehand and often a year of demolition afterward.

Two of the commonalities between the first five expositions covered in my recent series is the amazing cooperation and support that countless individuals, companies, and government entities provided to pave the way for these successful events. In each of the five prior expositions, this cooperation and support was crucial to their success. Thousands of people were involved, and planning often started years in advance.

This postcard promoted support for the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Courtesy of Vic Bozarth.
This postcard promoted support for the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Courtesy of Vic Bozarth.

Pictured above is a postcard produced to solicit support for a potential Panama-Pacific Exposition. This postcard sported two messages: “Do It Now!” and “Get your congressman to vote for San Francisco-1915.” It was mailed and postmarked from Woodland, California, to Blacks Station, California, in 1910 – five full years before the fair.

Regardless of the fact that another fair was already happening in San Diego, plans for an expo in San Francisco quickly gathered steam. The grounds and facilities themselves were major construction projects, with lavish grounds and buildings. Plans for the fairs most often included plans for the grounds themselves afterwards – including removal of most of the buildings and structures.

Starting with the plans for the Columbian Exposition, many of the largest buildings and structures had used a method of construction utilizing “staff”, which is a mixture somewhat like concrete made of plaster, cement, and jute fiber that would last for the duration of the fair but was not meant to be permanent. Others describe staff as a mixture of plaster of Paris and hemp fibers on a wood frame.

While some buildings constructed for these expositions were meant to be permanent, like the New York State Building at the 1901 Pan-American Expo in Buffalo, New York, most buildings at these fairs and the fairgrounds themselves were most often to be returned to their former state or used otherwise after their respective fair’s conclusion. To speed up construction and ultimately demolition, using staff cut costs significantly.

Panama-Pacific Commemorative Coins

The Panama-Pacific Exposition commemorative issues were to be the pinnacle of all classic U.S. commemorative coin production. The San Francisco Mint struck both a $2.50 gold quarter eagle commemorative as well as two gold $50 commemoratives, one in the traditional round shape and the other with an octagonal perimeter mirroring some of the classic Gold Rush-era slugs from San Francisco’s past. There was also a commemorative half dollar and a gold dollar. The set of five coins was offered by numismatic promoter Farran Zerbe, who had specially made Panama-Pacific commemorative coin holders that are still quite collectable today.

The United States Mint-issued coins for the Panama-Pacific Exposition include:

  • PCGS #9357 – 1915-S Panama-Pacific Half Dollar
  • PCGS #7449 – 1915-S Panama-Pacific Gold Dollar
  • PCGS #7450 – 1915-S Panama-Pacific Quarter Eagle
  • PCGS #7451 – 1915-S Panama-Pacific $50 Round
  • PCGS #7452 – 1915-S Panama-Pacific $50 Octagonal
The 1915-S Panama-Pacific Half Dollar, Gold Dollar, Quarter Eagle, and Round and Octagonal $50 coins. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.
The 1915-S Panama-Pacific Half Dollar, Gold Dollar, Quarter Eagle, and Round and Octagonal $50 coins. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.

Medals from the Panama-Pacific Exposition

As in prior fairs and expositions, there were also medals and tokens produced in association with the Panama-Pacific Exposition in addition to the U.S. Mint issues.

Many are unaware of the problems and delays in the production of Panama-Pacific commemorative coinage for the expo itself–the coins weren’t available for sale when the fair opened! Weeks and even months passed while the fair was in progress, with no commemoratives to buy. As a result, sales were certainly less than hoped for, and visitors to the exposition would have simply purchased something else – perhaps a medal or token.

The Panama-Pacific Expo medals produced by the U.S. Mint include just one official medal design designated in So-Called Dollars as:

  • PCGS #513227, HK-399 – Silver $1; $1.5 or $2 Swoger (Rarity-5)
  • HK-400 – Bronze 25 Cents (R-4)
  • PCGS #514203, HK-401 – Gilt 50 Cents (R-4)

This official commemorative medal was designed by American sculptor Robert Aitken and sold by the Department of Official Coins and Medals, whose chief was the aforementioned Zerbe. These medals were struck at the Mint Exhibit on the grounds of the fair. The press that struck the medals was operated by A.W. Downing of the Philadelphia Mint. As with the expos in St. Louis and Portland, the medals could be mounted or a loop added for a small additional charge.

The official Panama-Pacific medal. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.
The official Panama-Pacific medal. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.

Aitken’s design of the Panama-Pacific official medal is widely considered to be one of the most attractive U.S. Mint commemorative medal designs. Aitken’s talents, too, are quite evident on both of the 1915-S Panama-Pacific $50 Round and Octagonal issues, both of which he designed. His work is also appreciated for his well-known 1921 Missouri Commemorative Half Dollar design and the 1935 and 1936 San Diego Commemorative Half Dollar issues struck for California Pacific International Exposition.

Additional medals issued in conjunction with the Panama-Pacific Exposition include So-Called Dollar numbers HK-402 through HK-425. Many of these Panama-Pacific medals are also described also as State Fund Dollars, which were sponsored by the individual states attending the expo to raise funds for the fair by selling their medal prior to the fair. These medals were most often sold for $1 and struck in bronze, although there were strikings in other metals also.

The State Fund Dollars include Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, and Tennessee. These State Fund Dollars comprise HK-402 for the Alabama issue to HK-413a.

The Alabama State Fund So-Called Dollar Bronze, cataloged as PCGS #643856, HK-402. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.
The Alabama State Fund So-Called Dollar Bronze, cataloged as PCGS #643856, HK-402. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.

Another group of So-Called Dollars Medals are called Exposition State Medals and comprise HK-414 through HK-416a. Several of these impressive medals share the Tower of Jewels motif and/or a ship passing through the completed Panama Canal as the central designs.

An example of HK-414 (cataloged PCGS #643905). Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.
An example of HK-414 (cataloged PCGS #643905). Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.

There are several more interesting Panama-Pacific Exposition So-Called Dollars, including Exposition City, Baroque Shield, Four Portraits, and U.S. Expositions Dollars, which comprise HK-417 through HK-422. Two of the more intriguing So-Called Dollars from the exposition are octagonal in design and mimic one of our more iconic Territorial $50 gold issues. The Type One examples are HK-423 and HK-424 in gilt. The Type Two example, HK-425, was also gilt. Both types are quite popular because of their octagonal design.

  • PCGS #643928, HK-423 – Silver Plated (R-8)
  • PCGS #643929, HK-424 – Gilt Bronze (R-6)
  • PCGS #803593, HK-424b – Gilt Bronze Uniface NL in So-Called Dollars book
  • PCGS #643930, HK-425 – Gilt Bronze (R-6)

Examples of these medals were struck by Irvine & Jachens from Daly City, California, using oreide (commercial bronze).

A gilt bronze Type One example, cataloged PCGS #643929 and HK-424. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.
A gilt bronze Type One example, cataloged PCGS #643929 and HK-424. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.

HK-1030 is a Panama-Pacific Medal listed in So-Called Dollars as a “gold dollar” and issued by coin dealer Thomas Elder, who had the medal struck in 1910 in anticipation of the exposition. This 19-millimeter gold Proof medal was privately made by a New York City jeweler named H. Kroll.

Other Panama-Pacific Expo Souvenirs

The big attraction of the Panama-Pacific Exposition was the Tower of Jewels, an edifice covered with thousands of faceted crystals. Its reflectivity and brilliance was enhanced by crystals in multiple colors. Batteries of searchlights magnified the Tower of Jewels’ gorgeous spectacle at night. Visitors left the exposition with a sense of awe having never before experienced color and light in such amazing clarity. In many ways, the Tower of Jewels was the first true “light show” of the 20th century.

This collectible linen depicts an embroidered image of the Tower of Jewels. Courtesy of Vic Bozarth.
This collectible linen depicts an embroidered image of the Tower of Jewels. Courtesy of Vic Bozarth.

Visitors to the fair were treated to many intriguing sights and sounds, as well as new technologies and products. Many visitors were Californians, but scores of others traveled substantial distances and made arrangements for accommodations while traveling and visiting the fair. How did one make reservations for both the travel and the stay in 1915?

Logistics for personal travel in 1915 were quite daunting. The Travelers Hotel Guide was a 20-page advertisement focusing on the potential attendees for both the Panama–Pacific Exposition in San Francisco and the Panama-California Exposition being held in San Diego. Basically this is an early letter of credit one could present when traveling to not only secure lodging but also cash personal checks. The guide lists hundreds of participating hotels across the U.S. in 1915.

The Travelers Hotel Guide functioned like a letter of credit. Courtesy of Vic Bozarth.
The Travelers Hotel Guide functioned like a letter of credit. Courtesy of Vic Bozarth.

Postcards from the fair were immensely popular. After all, bragging rights are a big deal. No kidding, the social media of the day were postcards. With very inexpensive postage (one cent domestic, two cents international!), an interesting subject, and space to write a small personal message, this was the preferred medium of exchange in 1915.

This postcard from the Panama-Pacific Exposition features a lovely serialized image promoting the fair. Courtesy of Vic Bozarth.
This postcard from the Panama-Pacific Exposition features a lovely serialized image promoting the fair. Courtesy of Vic Bozarth.

The Panama-Pacific Exposition was a great success. The coins and medals struck for the fair are some of the most iconic of the U.S. commemorative coin series. The locale of the event, too, is historic, with the five expo-related coins being the first U.S. commemorative coins struck at the San Francisco Mint.

Eleven years would pass before another major exposition was held, this time in Philadelphia for the United States Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) in 1926.

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For more information from PCGS, the sponsor of this article, click on the image below.

PCGS

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Vic Bozarth
Vic Bozarth
Vic Bozarth is a member of the Professional Numismatics Guild (PNG), the ANA, the CSNS, FUN, and many other regional and state coin clubs and organizations. Vic has extensive experience buying and selling coins into the mid-six-figure range. Both Vic and his wife Sherri attend all major U.S. coin shows as well as most of the larger regional shows.

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