By Victor Bozarth for PCGS ……
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No World’s Fair before or since 1915 has garnered as much attention in terms of commemorative coins as the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Commemorating the completion of the Panama Canal was a big deal, warranting the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco that drew nearly 19 million people and spawned five different commemorative coins.
Some might say that if not for numismatic promoter Farran Zerbe, then we might not have had any Panama-Pacific Exposition commemorative coins. Not only did the 1915 Expo inspire five commemorative coins but it also precipitated the creation of two new denominations never before used for the commemorative series, with the $2.50 quarter eagles and massive $50 commemoratives. For numismatists, the Panama-Pacific Exposition is special!
Although the groundwork for the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair had been laid years earlier, the production for the coins was delayed. Congress authorized production of a silver half dollar, a gold dollar, a quarter eagle gold coin, and two $50 issues (one round, one octagonal). Artists had been consulted, but initial designs were rejected despite the lack of proper time to coordinate the designs and production of the five coins. Eventually, the designs for the gold dollar by Charles Keck and the two $50 designs by Robert I. Aitken were approved. The design of the half dollar and quarter eagle were left to United States Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, who was likely assisted by Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan.
No commemorative issues had been minted since the 1905 Lewis and Clark Gold Dollar, although numerous such coins had been proposed. Several proposals were made, including those by New York Senator Elihu Root, who called for a commemorative quarter marking a century of peace and the opening of the Panama Canal. Julian Kahn, a California congressman, introduced one of two bills proposing the production of coins to both commemorate and benefit (via funds) the Panama-Pacific Exposition.
Eventually, successful legislation introduced by New Jersey Senator James E. Martine with Senate Bill 6309 on July 6, 1914, was passed by the Senate on August 3, 1914. Five months passed. On January 4, 1915, the House of Representatives approved the bill with some slight modifications, including the change of production totals for both $50 issues from 2,000 pieces to 3,000 pieces. After the Senate concurred with the minor legislative changes in the bill, President Woodrow Wilson signed S. 6309 into law on January 16, 1915.
Original mintages of the five Panama-Pacific Exposition issues, like with many U.S. coins, have little to do with the availability of a particular coin. Regardless of the optimism of our Congress, sales for each of the five issues were underwhelming, and thousands were returned to the San Francisco Mint for melting.
Mint Director George E. Roberts began preparation for the Panama-Pacific Exposition issues. Roberts asked the Commission of Fine Arts to recommend artists. Those recommended included famous sculptors Adoph A. Weinman (of Mercury Dime and Walking Liberty Half Dollar fame) and Bela Lyon Pratt (who created the Indian Quarter Eagle and Half Eagle). Although Roberts had begun to contact potential sculptors for the designs, his resignation in November 1914 led to additional delays.
Upon Robert’s resignation, Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo appointed Dr. Frederic Dewey as Acting Director of the Mint. The authorizing act required the Mint to begin delivering coins by the opening date of the fair, which was February 20, 1915. Delivery would be delayed.
Despite the rush, McAdoo didn’t approve choices of the artists until January 21. Aitken, who had been contacted earlier, had already started on his designs. However, all four of the approved artists – including Paul Manship for the half dollar, Charles Keck for the gold dollar, Evelyn Longman for the quarter eagle, and Robert I. Aitken for both of the $50 designs – had all been able to submit bronze casts of their proposals by January 29, 1915.
Dewey submitted the designs to McAdoo, who solicited advice from the Commission of Fine Arts (which liked the designs), Assistant Treasury Secretary William Malburn (who did not like them), Charles Barber, and others from the Philadelphia Mint for suggestions. On February 5, all of the designs were rejected in a letter signed by McAdoo. In the interim, Barber and the mint staff had already begun designing alternates. The expo opened in two weeks.
All four artists protested the decision. Malburn’s objections were asserted as the likely blame, although two of the four artists’ designs were eventually used. Manship’s half dollar design and Longman’s quarter eagle design were rejected, with McAdoo approving Barber’s half dollar pretty quickly. Although eventually rejected too, Longman submitted new designs and even traveled to Washington to discuss the issue. Barber’s design would be used for the quarter eagle also. It must be noted that assistant engraver George T. Morgan also played a key role in the design of at least the reverse of both issues.
Both Keck’s and Aitken’s designs were ultimately used after some slight modifications to their designs were agreed to in meetings with McAdoo, Malburn, and Dewey on March 6, 1915. The half dollar and quarter eagle designs done by Barber would be approved two and 10 days later, respectively. The fair was already open.
Production of the coins, once the designs were approved, started with bronze casts by the artists being sent to the Medallic Art Company in New York. They could prepare hubs, which are used to produce coinage dies; the hubs, once prepared, were sent to the Philadelphia Mint, where Barber and his department prepared the dies.
Robert W. Woolley was commissioned as Director of the Mint in early April. Samples of the gold dollar, the first with work completed, was approved by Woolley on April 22. The dies were sent to San Francisco and Woolley was there on April 27 when they arrived, but there were problems immediately. No “S” mintmark appeared on the gold dollar dies.
Woolley reasoned that the local pride generated by the Panama-Pacific Exposition issues being both produced in San Francisco and bearing an “S” mintmark would be quite important.
Despite discovering the Philadelphia Mint and Barber intentionally left out the “S” mintmark, Woolley had the gold dollar dies returned to Philadelphia, an “S” mintmark added, and then sent back to San Francisco on May 3. The four other issues, with added “S” mintmarks, were forwarded to San Francisco. The half dollar dies were sent on May 4, the two $50 design die sets sent on May 14, and finally the quarter eagle shipped May 27. The fair, which opened on February 20, had been open for nearly 100 days and the coins had yet to be struck.
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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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About the Author
Vic Bozarth is a Professional Numismatics Guild (PNG) member (#661). Both Vic and Sherri Bozarth are members of the ANA, FUN, CSNS, and many other regional and state coin clubs and organizations. Vic has had extensive experience both buying and selling coins into the mid-six-figure range. Both Vic and Sherri attend all major U.S. coin shows, as well as most of the larger regional shows.
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