By Victor Bozarth for PCGS ……
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Some of the most iconic United States commemorative coins have been authorized in conjunction with World Fairs and centennials. To me, the most memorable of all U.S. commemoratives are those that were issued for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, held in San Francisco in 1915. A total of five different coins across four denominations were issued; these include the half dollar, the gold dollar, the quarter eagle, and both the round and octagonal $50 gold “slug” issues. No other event has garnered more attention, in terms of coins or commemoration among the classic series running from 1892 through 1954, than the Panama-Pacific Exposition.
Whenever I discuss a historic event, I try to “put myself in the shoes” of those who were there, so to speak. It’s a difficult exercise, because how can we today really know? One of the aspects of looking back to the early 20th century is the appreciation of how amazing many things (that we often take for granted today) were to an individual in 1915.
Among the events of the time was the “Great War”, now known as World War I, raging in Europe. Also, Farran Zerbe, a numismatist who spearheaded many of the hobby’s events of the day, was serving as a pivotal figure as both an initiator and a promoter of many of the coins that emerged during the period. It could be said that the 13 different classic gold commemorative coins now integral to the U.S. numismatic canon would not exist if not for Zerbe. He played major roles in both the issuance and the distribution of many gold commemoratives from that time, including the Panama-Pacific issues.
And then there’s the matter of why the World’s Fairs were even such giant spectacles.
While the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 was certainly an event of historical significance, future Fairs sought to provide an additional technological “wonder” to attract visitors. Certainly, the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair honoring the 100th anniversary of our independence in 1876, the 1892-3 Chicago event noting the 400th anniversary of European settlement in the New World by Christopher Columbus, the St. Louis shindig marking the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase in 1904, and the 1915 San Francisco gala tilting the Panama-Pacific Exposition commemorating the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 were all historically significant for what they were observing. But, what was the “hook”?
When France built the Eiffel Tower to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Revolution of 1789 for the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1889, the bar was set exceptionally high for the World’s Fair. For the next three decades, organizers of the World’s Fairs would all ponder what they could do to amaze the public. For example, in 1892, the Columbian Exposition introduced the Ferris Wheel.
In 1904, St. Louis strove to amaze with both beauty and scale by offering the Cascade Gardens and massive fairgrounds served by three different railroad lines. In addition, the 1904 Olympic Games were held in conjunction with the St. Louis World’s Fair after Olympic organizers moved the Games from Chicago to St. Louis.
Certainly commemorating the completion of the Panama Canal was worthy of celebration, but what would those organizing the fair construct to both attract and amaze the attendees? Besides massive fairgrounds with a multitude of attractions, what would the exposition organizers construct to leave visitors with a sense of awe?
In 1915, the big event was the Great War, which was precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914. Although the U.S. wouldn’t officially enter the war until 1917, by 1915 many nations were involved. Curiously, when I saw that only 21 to 24 (depending on the source) other countries participated in the Panama-Pacific Exposition, I assumed World War I might explain the relatively paltry number. For a quick reference, I checked online sources for a comparison of the number of foreign countries who participated in both the Columbian Exposition held in 1892-3 and the St. Louis fair, which was held in 1904. Forty-six different nations participated in Chicago, and a whopping 62 nations were present at the St. Louis event. There is no question that the foreign attendance at the Panama-Pacific Exposition was affected, yet more than 19 million people attended the event.
There were other suitors for the 1915 fair. New Orleans had hopes of holding a “Panama Canal Completion” Fair, too, and it vied with San Francisco for the honor. As early as 1904, a fair in San Francisco had been proposed by local merchant Rueben Hale. Widespread support in San Francisco and California, aided by the state matching private donations dollar for dollar, eventually led then-President William Taft to select San Francisco over New Orleans in 1911.
And yet, there was another parallel fair in San Diego called the Panama-California Exposition, held in Balboa Park from New Year’s Day 1915 through New Year’s Day 1917. This other immense event sprawled across 640 acres of land and drew 3.75 million visitors, despite San Diego having a population of roughly 40,000 at the time, versus the more than 350,000 living in San Francisco!
Regardless, the Panama-Pacific Exposition had been planned for years. Sure, you had the historical celebrations of the completion of the Panama Canal, the 400th anniversary of the expedition to the Pacific Ocean, and the rebuilt City of San Francisco, which rose from the rubble after the horrific earthquake of 1906. But what would the planners do to amaze and entertain visitors? What would be the spectacle of the Panama-Pacific Exposition?
The Tower of Jewels would be no big deal today. Electricity and the amazing lighting possibilities that electricity provided were just being discovered. Today, we take for granted all the amazing things available at our fingertips made possible by electricity. Folks from 1915 were still using their imaginations!
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Bowers, Q. David. Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia. Bowers and Merena Galleries, Inc. (1992)
Burdette, Roger W. Renaissance of American Coinage, 1909-1915. Seneca Mills Press (2007)
Swiatek, Anthony and Walter Breen. The Encyclopedia of United States Silver and Gold Commemorative Coins, 1892-1954. Arco Publishing (1981)
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