HomeExpert ColumnsCollecting American Expositions Beyond Coins

Collecting American Expositions Beyond Coins

By Al Doyle for CoinWeek …..

The United States Mint has issued commemorative coins tied to the 1892-93 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (often referred to as the St. Louis Worlds’s Fair) and the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Why wouldn’t numismatists pursue these historic pieces? A look at current values provides a big reality check for the person who has to watch what they spend.

Columbian half dollars are quite affordable in grades as high as MS-64, but the much scarcer commemorative quarter will cost $350 or more even in circulated condition. The 1903 gold dollars honoring Thomas Jefferson and William McKinley along with the 1904 and 1905 Lewis and Clark gold dollars requires more than $3,000 to obtain the quartet in MS-60, and prices steadily rise for better-grade specimens. Never mind the high five-figure prices for the Pan-Pac $50 round and octagonal versions. Obtaining the half dollar, gold $1 or $2.50 gold Pan-Pac are also beyond the means of many collectors.

World's Columbian Exposition ticket and half dollar

It’s too bad that the artistry and rarity of these coins doesn’t fit into the budget of many potential buyers, but there is an alternative of sorts for those who want something eye appealing and affordable from these major events. Coins are just a small portion of the mementos and collectibles from these World’s Fairs of the distant past, and many eye-appealing objects from Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco can be found on eBay.

Tickets to the Columbian Exposition were anything but utilitarian slips of paper. Portraits of historic figures including Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and musician George Frideric Handel (with harp) were combined with colorful and intricately engraved lettering and backgrounds. Promotions such as Chicago Day (October 9, 1893) and Manhattan Day (October 21, 1893) included special tickets. The Chicago Day admission showed a phoenix rising from the ashes, a reference to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, while the Manhattan Day ticket carried the Statue of Liberty, just seven years old at the time.

Postcards, intricately crafted sterling silver spoons, buttons, jewelry, photos, guide books, medals and other keepsakes were some among the items sold to visitors. eBay typically has somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 lots related to the Columbian Exposition. The person who could never afford an Isabella quarter can obtain hundreds of other collectibles from Chicago’s first World’s Fair and never spend more than $50 on an individual item.

If variety is your thing, look no further than the vast assortment of items sold as souvenirs in St. Louis in 1904. In addition to sterling spoons, medals and tokens, collectors can choose from glassware and pewter, calendars, postcards, booklets, jewelry and encased cents. Other possibilities for the St. Louis specialist are the 1904 Olympics held mainly at Forest Park on the city’s south side as well as the Judy Garland movie Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). The 1904 World’s Fair is woven throughout the film.

Maybe a high-grade Pan-Pac $50 is worth more than your home, but that doesn’t shut you out of building a reasonably priced collection of items from the exposition. Pan-Pac related postcards date back to 1910, as this major event was years in the making. How about a silk handkerchief with the “PPIE” logo? There weren’t as many souvenirs from the Pan-Pac as were sold at the Columbian and Louisiana Purchase fairs, but the selection is hardly skimpy.

eBay is by far the best source for the memorabilia of this trio of world’s fairs. Pieces occasionally turn up at antique shops (especially those located near the host cities), but the selection and relevant pricing data is far more comprehensive on eBay than it is by ferreting out one or two items at a time.

New inventions and futuristic concepts were a popular attraction at world’s fairs, and many of the postcards focus on that area. Attendees were exposed to many foreign cultures, as various nations set up exhibits during an era when overseas travel was slow and out of reach of all but the wealthy. Obtain the Columbian, Louisiana Purchase and Pan-Pac commemoratives if possible, but the collecting opportunities from these historic events extends far beyond coins.

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