HomeUS Coins1926 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition Coins and Medals From the U.S. Mint

1926 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition Coins and Medals From the U.S. Mint

A photograph of the Liberty Bell. Image: Adobe Stock.
A photograph of the Liberty Bell. Image: Adobe Stock.

By Vic Bozarth for PCGS ……
 

The year was 1926, and the United States was celebrating its 150th anniversary, more widely known at the time as the Sesquicentennial. A grand international event known as the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial International Exposition was held in 1926, half a century after the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition unfolded in the same city in 1876. The nation and the world had completely changed in the intervening 50 years between the two events, and by 1926 the United States had come through the Great War, spun many revolutionary technological revolutions, and saw societal changes unfathomable five decades prior.

Let’s Do It Again

As early as 1916, John Wanamaker, the sole surviving member of the 1876 Centennial Exposition’s Finance Committee and namesake of the famous Philadelphia Wanamaker’s department store, proposed a fair for 1926. Despite Wanamaker’s death in 1922 at the age of 84–and a multitude of political hurdles surrounding planning for the fair–the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition opened on May 31, 1926, near the U.S. Navy Yard in South Philadelphia. The event drew delegates from 34 nations.

Many historical events were spawned by the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition. Yet, there were also myriad feuds between many of the political players and financial backers that led to the expo losing millions. Still, there were numerous highlights.

What would later be called Municipal Stadium and eventually John F. Kennedy Stadium was constructed for the fair as the Sesquicentennial Stadium. One of the most significant events held at the Sesquicentennial Stadium was the September 23, 1926, championship boxing match between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey. The bout drew over 120,000 attendees who stood in the rain for the occasion. Dempsey defended his title, but just 364 days later Tunney would defeat Dempsey in a 10-round unanimous decision. The stadium also hosted the opening ceremonies where Herbert Hoover, who would later serve as the nation’s 31st president, delivered a speech.

Other noteworthy events held in conjunction with the exposition included the dedication of Naval Air Facility Mustin Field at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, adjacent to the fairgrounds. In an amazing display of cooperation for the ceremony, all the attending exposition aircraft flew in formation with aircraft of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps to honor namesake naval aviator Henry C. Mustin. Another Philadelphia-area landmark that opened in conjunction with the Sesquicentennial Exposition was the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which was unveiled to the public on July 1, 1926, as the Delaware River Bridge.

The fairgrounds boasted an amusement area designated as Treasure Island and located in League Island Park. Amusements included three roller coasters, a miniature railroad, a pirate’s lair, and an attraction with animals known as Noah’s Ark. Other amusements centered around Philadelphia’s High Street with colonial-era buildings and guides dressed in period clothing to interact with attendees.

And, we can’t forget, there were the 1926 Sesquicentennial commemorative coins!

1926 Sesquicentennial U.S. Mint Coins

In March 1925, Congress approved a resolution authorizing the mintage of more than a million half dollars and 200,000 quarter eagles. Chief Engraver of the United States Mint John R. Sinnock was named to create designs for both coins. While his quarter eagle design was approved immediately, his half dollar design wasn’t approved. Another design, this one by John Frederick Lewis, was submitted and approved with Sinnock translating the design from the Lewis sketches. Curiously, for decades Sinnock was credited for the design of both Sesquicentennial coins, but the design for the Sesquicentennial half dollar was by Lewis while the engraving was executed by Sinnock.

An interesting footnote about the Sesquicentennial commemorative coins is that in addition to the half dollar and quarter eagle, an unusual $1.50 coin was proposed. The concept behind the idea was to have a range of denominations reflecting the economy of the country during the previous 150 years by way of the number of cents making up each denomination, i.e. 50 cents, 150 cents, and 250 cents. The idea didn’t go far, and the $1.50 denomination idea was rejected pretty quickly.

The 1926 Sesquicentennial Half Dollar. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.
The 1926 Sesquicentennial Half Dollar. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.
The 1926 Sesquicentennial Gold Coin. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.
The 1926 Sesquicentennial Gold Coin. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.

The paucity of surviving higher-grade Sesquicentennial commemorative coins has shaped the market in terms of the premiums between even one or two points in grade level. Consider the PCGS Price Guide listings for examples of the Sesquicentennial half dollar and quarter eagle in MS64, MS65, and MS66. PCGS Price Guide prices for the half dollar in MS64, MS65, and MS66 are $275, $1,350, and $20,000 USD, respectively. Meanwhile, the PCGS Price Guide reflects retail values of $875, $1,500, and $5,000 for the quarter eagle in MS64, MS65, and MS66, respectively. Clearly illustrative of the disparity of value between grades, the prices between MS64 and MS65 are quite significant, but the prices between MS65 and MS66 are jarring. From MS65 to MS66 Sesquicentennial half dollars jump more than 1,400% in value!

It’s not as though production runs for these coins were all that anemic from the outset. Over a million half dollars were struck in May and June of 1926, with Philadelphia Mayor Kendrick striking the first coin on May 19, 1926. The quarter eagle saw a mintage to the tune of 200,026 – 26 were minted for assay purposes. However, the issue price of $1 for the half dollar and $4 for the quarter eagle wasn’t attractive to attendees.

Despite optimistic sales forecasts, sales for both issues were dismal. Of the 1,000,528 half dollars struck, more than 85% were returned to the Philadelphia Mint to be melted. Some 154,207 quarter eagles also met their maker after the expo. Resulting net mintages were 141,120 for the half dollar and 46,019 for the quarter eagle. Therefore, with the pressing supply issues due to the smaller mintages and challenges in locating strongly struck examples of either issue, Sesquicentennial coins are scarce in MS65 and rare in the loftier grades of MS66 or higher.

Medals from the Sesquicentennial Expo

Director of Concessions and Admissions William E. Cash had awarded Frederick B. Rhodes the concession to strike and sell the expo’s official souvenir medal. Cash had held similar positions at both the 1892 Columbian Exposition and the 1901 Pan-American Expo. The souvenir medal was designed by Albin Polasek of the Medallic Art Company. As was the case with prior expositions, the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition souvenir medal was struck at the U.S. Mint exhibit in the Government Building on the fairgrounds.

  • PCGS #643973, HK-451 – Copper BN
  • PCGS #643974, “ – Copper RB
  • PCGS #643975, “ – Copper RD
  • PCGS #643976, HK-452 – Bronze BN
  • PCGS #643979, HK-453 – Brass (William Swoger claims Gilt Bronze)
  • PCGS #643980, HK-454 – Nickel
Copper and nickel examples of the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition souvenir medals.
Copper and nickel examples of the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition souvenir medals.

Bronze planchets for the souvenir medal were unavailable at the beginning of the exposition. Nickel planchets from the International Nickel Company were acquired, but the metal itself proved difficult to work with and the strikes were poor. The nickel example in the image reverse above especially displays the weak strike that resulted.

It would be late September and early October before an additional 22,000 bronze planchets would be delivered for the souvenir medal production. The medal was also produced after the fair by the Medallic Arts Company with an improved die design. The So-Called Dollars book by Harold E. Hibbler, Charles V. Kapper, and Tom Hoffman et. al., rate the nickel and bronze strikings as Rarity-3, but the early copper pieces are scarce. According to U.S. medal expert William Swoger, there were 8,000 nickel and 22,000 bronze examples of the souvenir medal struck.

There were other medals produced to commemorate the Sesquicentennial. The three So-Called Dollar medals include the Connecticut Dollar, the Adam Pietz Dollar, and the Medal of Honor Dollar.

The Connecticut Dollar was issued for the dedication of the Connecticut State Building on the fairgrounds. Six gold examples of this medal were struck and presented to foreign heads of government while 25 silver examples were presented to other dignitaries and honorees.

Little mintage information is available on either the Adam Pietz Dollar or the Medal of Honor Dollar. However, the Pietz Dollar was issued in a gilt finish and has a rarity rating of R-5 while the Medal of Honor Dollar was struck in bronze and is rated R-4.

These medals are detailed below:

Connecticut Dollar

  • PCGS #643981, HK-455 – Silver; 25 pieces
  • PCGS #643982, HK-456 – Bronze BN; 5,000
  • PCGS #643983, “ – Bronze RB
  • PCGS #643984, “ – Bronze RD

Pietz Dollar

  • PCGS #643985, HK-457 – Gilt
  • PCGS #626614, HK-457a – Brass
  • PCGS #626614, HK-457a – Bronze

Medal of Honor Dollar

  • PCGS #643986, HK-458 – Bronze

None of these souvenir medals were produced in large quantities, and sales at the exposition were poor. As an example, in 1980 the Library of Connecticut still had 250 unsold medals, which they marketed at $8 each. None of these medals are common, but demand is spotty at best.

There was a gold award medal struck by Bailey, Banks, and Biddle Company from Philadelphia. The 72-millimeter medal was designed by Albert Laessle and is similar to the Sesquicentennial half dollar coin in terms of design and relief.

Other Souvenir Items from the Sesquicentennial

Just like other expositions from the past, there were thousands of Sesquicentennial-related items produced for the Philadelphia expo. Themes for many of the Sesquicentennial items include the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and other patriotic messages tied to the city, widely regarded as the birthplace of our nation.

Watch fobs carrying a patriotic, commemorative, or advertising message were a popular souvenir from the fair.

This is an image of an assortment of medals and pins issued to commemorate the 1926 Centennial.
Both the Liberty Bell fob and the Washington Manor House were popular items, the latter “Reproduced by National Society of the Colonial Dames of America to Commemorate America’s 150 years as a nation 1776-1926”; the engraving is exceptional. By far the most common theme for the Sesquicentennial was the Liberty Bell. The two Liberty Bell tokens pictured are examples of souvenir medals with interesting reverse designs, including the William Penn House and a weekday / date calendar reverse on the second token. Courtesy of Vic Bozarth.

President Calvin Coolidge, who spoke at the fair in 1926, is referenced in a souvenir book with historic images from 1492 through 1926 and the title Looking Back From Coolidge to Columbus. The example seen here is accompanied by its original bookmark card.

Looking Back from Coolidge to Columbus is a souvenir book from the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition. Courtesy of Vic Bozarth
Looking Back from Coolidge to Columbus is a souvenir book from the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition. Courtesy of Vic Bozarth
This Port of Philadelphia souvenir book, billing the port as “second in the United States,” is filled with shipping advertisements. Courtesy of Vic Bozarth.
This Port of Philadelphia souvenir book, billing the port as “second in the United States,” is filled with shipping advertisements. Courtesy of Vic Bozarth.

A myriad of forms or types of advertising were employed in relation to the Sesquicentennial Exposition. For example, Philadelphia leaders were rightly proud of its Delaware River access, port facilities, and major infrastructure connections that made Philadelphia a natural choice for both domestic and international trade. In 1926, the Port of Philadelphia was billed as “second in the United States” in the 192-page booklet seen below.

And as we look at these many items from the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia, not to mention the multitudes of other items covered in this series on the coins and medals of the U.S. world’s fair and expos, it’s clear that much has already been written about the commemorative coins produced by the United States Mint. However, U.S. Mint medals and other items, including those produced by private enterprises, have seen much less literature over the years, with little research behind them because so few people know about them.

All of these U.S. Mint medals were produced roughly 100 to 150 years ago in amazingly small quantities with no underlying face value to set a benchmark for their value, as is more commonly done with coins – yet many were produced in precious metals, such as silver or gold. Regardless of the huge attendance at many of the seven expositions covered in this series, the overall mintage and survival rate of these other U.S. Mint products are quite modest.

The U.S. Mint took their production to the people through these world’s fairs and expositions, with the Treasury Department and / or U.S. Mint exhibits usually in the Government Building at the respective fairs. Coins, medals, and tokens were a souvenir virtually any fair visitor could comfortably carry home. Most importantly, once they got home, many decided to keep these items in remembrance of the occasion, which is why collectors can still enjoy these relics from the past. May the scores of items reviewed in this seven-part survey help educate more people about the many exciting opportunities that these and other expos and world’s fairs provide collectors today.

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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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1 COMMENT

  1. It’s quite interesting that the reverse designs of the half dollar and quarter eagle were echoed on later half dollars, respectively the Franklin half of 1948-63 and the Bicentennial half issued in 1975-76.

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