By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek….
Early American Commemoratives, Part 2: Commemoratives and Related So-Called Dollars
In the first part of our story, we discussed a number of so-called dollars and commemorative coins issued during important national and international expositions, including the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, and the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915.
In this second part, we look at five interesting so-called dollar designs that are directly related to classic commemoratives that celebrate the same event. Some of them competed directly with the federally-issued coins. Many of them feature similar design motifs to those found on the official commemoratives, or at least found in proposals for their designs. These so-called dollars are essential collectors’ items, and their story is worth telling.
Battle of Bennington So-Called Dollar (1891) & Vermont Sesquicentennial Half Dollar (1927)
In 1891, the 300-foot-tall limestone monument to the Battle of Bennington was dedicated before a crowd of several thousand. The Monument commemorated a key battle of the Revolutionary War that saw New England militiamen, assisted by Green Mountain Boys Ethan and Ira Allen, rout the German troops of British general John Burgoyne. A private medal was commissioned for the ceremony, which also doubled as a centennial celebration for the admission of Vermont into the Union.
The so-called dollar (HK-150-151) is an attractive 19th century medal that features American flags and cannons surmounted by a shield showing the Vermont countryside. The dual centennial date “1791-1891” is situated beneath the device and is part of a ring of thirteen stars. The reverse highlights the dedication of the new monument, which divides the design into eastern and western hemispheres. The dual date “1777 1891” refers to the date of the battle.
In 1927, Congress authorized production of a commemorative coin to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Bennington and the Independence of Vermont. In Don Taxay’s marvelous An Illustrated History of U.S. Commemorative Coinage (1967), the author provides a number of illustrations of artwork submitted for the Vermont half dollar.
One of the rejected submissions closely resembles the reverse of the so-called dollar. The design was the work of sculptor Sherry Fry, a fascinating man who served in the U.S. Army’s first camouflage unit during World War I, alongside painter Barry Faulkner (a student of Augustus Saint-Gaudens) and Homer Saint-Gaudens, son of the Master himself.
Fry’s design featured Ira Allen on the obverse and the Bennington obelisk on the reverse. His proposals were rejected in favor of the superior designs of Charles Keck, who also depicted Allen on the obverse but settled on an elegant catamount for the reverse, after much deliberation with the Commission of Fine Arts. The result is one of the classic commemorative era’s most beautiful coins, one that should rest side by side with its so-called dollar forebear.
Hudson-Fulton Celebration (1909) & Hudson Sesquicentennial (1935)
HK-383-385. Classic commemorative collectors should recognize this design.
The classic commemorative series is awash with ships, none of them more stylized than Chester Beach’s rendering of the Half Moon. What’s interesting about the coin is that Beach’s Half Moon design is actually a redux of a design he used for bronze and aluminum medals struck by the Medallic Art Company for the 1609-1909 anniversary of the North American arrival of Henry Hudson’s Halve Maen. The Halve Maen (Half Moon) was secretly chartered by the Dutch to discover a direct route to China, but ended up near present-day New York (oops!).
Collectors of the Hudson half dollar, one of the more coveted pieces in the series, would be remiss not to seek out its nearly identical cousins HK-383 through 385, which feature the familiar Beach design on the obverse along with inscriptions reading “IN COMMEORATION OF THE HUDSON-FULTON CELEBRATION” and “THE HALF MOON 1609-1909”. The so-called dollar’s reverse features another memorable ship, Robert Fulton’s S. S. Clermont. The Clermont, also known as “Fulton’s folly” (and quite possibly never actually called the Clermont during Fulton’s life; that’s another story), was America’s first steam ship. Fulton, who occupied much of his time dreaming up submarine technology (in the late 18th century, no less), designed the vessel and went into business with founding father Robert Livingston. The ship carried passengers on a trip from New York to Albany in 32 hours, which was considered an improvement over existing methods of transportation.
The Hudson Commemorative half dollar (1935) has one of the series’ lowest mintages at 10,008. Upon its release, coin dealers and speculators bought out nearly the entire mintage and began to sell the coins nationally at prices far above the initial offering of $1 per coin. It remains one of the most desirable early commemoratives and routinely sells for a thousand dollars or more in gem. Hudson so-called dollars are even tougher to find, with known survivors in each metal configuration numbering less than 200. The design marriage between the two pieces only adds to the mystique and uniqueness of this piece of American numismatic history.
Long Island Tercentenary (1936) Half Dollar & So-Called Dollar
The Long Island SCD bears a passing resemblance to John Mercanti’s 2007 Jamestown gold five dollar obverse.
The 300th anniversary of the first European settlement on present day Long Island (derived from the Dutch Lange Eylandt) was cause for a large local celebration, held from May 30th to September 7th, 1936. The Committee in charge of the celebration sought Congressional approval for a commemorative coin that would help offset the costs. Legislation for the proposed half dollar was held up until a month before the celebration, and with the Mint backed up due to numerous other commemorative projects (1936 being the peak year for the series), reduction work on Howard Weinman’s models had to be done out of house at the Medallic Art Company. Delays in production meant that the coins would not be ready in time for the event.
With no coin to sell, organizers sought to issue a private medal. The Long Island Tercentenary Commemoration so-called dollar (HK694-694a) is struck on gilt copper and features the busts of a European settler and a Native American on the obverse. Unlike the coin, where the portraits are conjoined and face to the right, on the so-called dollar they face each other. The reverse features a federal eagle with a one star shield, fasces on both sides, and the inscriptions LONG ISLAND’S FIRST WHITE SETTLEMENT and 1636.
In August of 1936, the Mint was finally able to produce coins for the event, and they sold quite well. Today, Long Island half dollars are abundant in all but the highest grades. Several hundred examples of the so-called dollar struck in gilt (pictured above) are known and a little more than a dozen exist having been struck on white metal.
Wisconsin Territorial Centennial (1936) Half Dollar & So-Called Dollar
HK-696. The half dollar features the same badger on the reverse.
In 1936, the state of Wisconsin celebrated the centennial of the establishment of the Wisconsin Territory (which didn’t become a state until 1848). The event kicked off a weeklong celebration, culminating in a “Centennial Cavalcade” held at the stadium of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. During the event’s planning stages, organizers sought ways to defray the costs and turned to the method du jour – asking Congress to authorize a commemorative half dollar. The bill was passed in May of 1936, leaving little time to prepare the designs. The approved design, created by Wisconsin art student David Parsons, proved un-coinable due to its high relief and required alteration, further delaying the coin’s release. It was finally available to the public in late July, weeks after the end of the celebration.
To go along with the Wisconsin half dollar, a so-called dollar (HK-696) was designed and sponsored by the Commission, with 1,500 pieces struck in bronze and sold for $1. A prone badger (which dominates Parsons’ half dollar reverse) sits at the bottom of the obverse, the Capital building in the background. The reverse shows an intriguingly designed eagle, the dates of the event, and the inscription OFFICIAL WISCONSIN CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION.
A pairing of the commemorative half dollar and the bronze so-called dollar is only logical – even if the illogic of the event’s organizers meant that the two items could not possibly have been offered to celebration attendees at the same time.
Delaware Tercentenary (1938) Half Dollar & So-Called Dollar
The bold, Beaux-Arts sculpture makes this so-called dollar (HK-697) one of the series’ most elegant medals. Image courtesy of William Hyder.
The Kalmar Nyckel (Key of Kalmar), a Dutch-built merchant ship, is another famous vessel that appears on both a so-called dollar (HK-697) and a commemorative half dollar. Both pieces were commissioned for the 1938 celebration of the Tercentenary of the settling of Delaware. The medal was designed by Ulysses Anthony Ricci, a painter of some note who had studied sculpture with famed American medallic sculptor James Earle Fraser. Ricci is perhaps better known today for his architectural sculpture and other public art.
His treatment of the ship is far more compelling than Carl Schmitz’s bland and lifeless low-relief design on the half dollar (even the Mint preferred Schmitz’ own depiction of Old Swede’s Church for the obverse). The so-called dollar also features a beautiful sculptural rendering of Delaware’s Coat of Arms, adopted in 1777. Encircling this motif is a wreath with the names of seventeen of the state’s most prominent families wrapped in ribbon. The bronze medal was produced by the seemingly-ubiquitous Medallic Art Company and fewer than 500 pieces are known to be extant. The Delaware half dollar is much more common, with a mintage of 20,993.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed our second look at so-called dollars and their commemorative cousins. Spotlight on So-Called Dollars will return next week with the third and final installment, focusing on the so-called dollars of America’s forgotten history. This collection of strange and curious pieces will surprise even the most passionate collector of Americana, and is one more reason why the so-called dollar series is worth a look.
FLIP OF A COIN
- It Started Before Columbus, Though: Besides the Kalmar Nyckel, there are a few other United States coins honoring ships that brought settlers to these shores. Of course you have the Mayflower, featured on the Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollar (1920-21). You also have the Godspeed, Discovery, and Susan Constant on the reverse of the Jamestown 400th Anniversary silver dollar (2007), and the Nieuw Nederland on the Huguenot-Walloon Tercentenary (1924). Wish we knew the name of Leif Ericson’s drakkar…
- Even PCGS’ Michael “Miles” Standish says that the American Bullion program is postmodern, since it reuses classic designs in new contexts (we’re suckers for art terms). However, only one resurrects an old design in its entirety, obverse AND reverse, and that’s the American Buffalo .9999 fine gold bullion coin. Minted since 2006, it pays tribute to James Earle Fraser’s much-beloved Buffalo nickel (1913-1938).
- From the Walker/ Morgan Numismatic Files: Did you know that at the time it was abolished in 1980, the United States Assay Commission was the oldest government commission still in existence? It had been hard at work since the first coins came out of the Philadelphia Mint in 1792. Membership had its perks, too, since a new and exclusive commemorative medal was given to commissioners each year.
 Hibler, Harold E. and Charles V. Kappen. So-Called Dollars: An Illustrated Standard Catalog. Ed. Tom Hoffman et al. Coin and Currency Institute, 2008. Print.
 Hibler & Kaplan, p 132.