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The Tab Toning of Classic US Commemorative Coins

By Dan DuncanRetired, Pinnacle Rarities ……
There are many strategies for collecting the classic commemorative series. With 144 silver coins across 50 different issues, enthusiasts will often target a particular subset instead of undergoing the type or complete sets. While often collectors lean toward thematic cues, some look to a toning pattern unique to the classic commemorative series – the tab-toned examples.

Coins are toned when the silver oxidizes after coming into contact with foreign material and gases. The toning patterns and colors are determined by how the coins were stored, either as originally distributed or in their collected environments. Morgan dollars are known to have a textile tone from the canvas bag, and many examples display end roll toning from the folded ends of the paper wraps in which they were stored. Roosevelt and Mercury dimes can be found with a banded toning from the bank cards that encouraged account holders to save in the 1950s and ’60s. Of course, all silver coins can be found with target toning featuring colorful bands extending from the peripheries from years of sitting in various collector albums.

All of these examples and more are highly coveted by collectors across the spectrum of enthusiasts.

But, the classic commemoratives have a unique toning pattern imparted from the original cardboard holders in which the coins were originally distributed. Many of those sold between 1935 and 1937 were mailed in three-, five-, or six-coin cardboard holders that featured a paper strap designed to hold the coins in place. The exposed areas around the tab oxidized leaving an identifiable circle across the surfaces of the coins. Usually, the opposite side of this “stenciled” pattern is toned throughout as this side was stored against the paper backing. Following is a quick discussion of the issues that can be commonly found with this tell-tale pattern.

The Tab-Toned Issues

1926–1939 Oregon Trail Memorial

This long-running issue was distributed in various ways. The coins were sold in two different cardboard holders with slots for three coins. Some of these were cut into thirds allowing for a single coin as a cost-cutting measure. One of the holders made by John H. Eggers of New York has “Oregon Trail Memorial Association, Inc.” printed underneath the three tabbed slots. The other is plain with just “Patented by John W. Rogers, New York” printed at the bottom. All the dates in the Oregon Trail series can be found with vibrant color and often the color appears to blend from the peripheries. But, after reviewing literally hundreds of images from our files, and Heritage Auctions, I have not found visual evidence that the tab toning in dates prior to 1936. This coincides with the Scott Stamp and Coin Company taking over the reins in distribution.

1935 Elgin, Illinois Centennial

Intended to commemorate 100 years since the founding of the city, the funds from the sale of the Elgin Centennial half went towards funding the completion of the Pioneer Memorial statue. The coin and statue were designed by Tygve Rovelstad. The bulk of the coins was sold through the mail and delivered in plain cardboard holders with slots for five or six coins. These were stamped with L.W. Hoffecker with a simple rubber address stamp. These same holders were used by Hoffecker to distribute the Spanish Trail. Anthony Swiatek, in his book Encyclopedia of Commemorative Coins, mentions a unique case that was issued to Rovelstad. It was a special leatherette three-coin box with gold lettering. This case was held by the family of the artist until after his passing.

1935 Hudson, NY Sesquicentennial

As a lower-mintage single-issue classic commemorative, the Hudson is one of the semi-keys to the series. Finding an eye-appealing example can be daunting, but the coins were mailed by the First National Bank and Trust of Hudson New York in plain six-coin cardboard holders with plain blue backing. Tab-toned examples are sometimes subtle with peripheral tab lines faint.

1935 Old Spanish Trail

The Spanish Trail half has the dubious distinction as a strictly for-profit issue and is not a true commemoration. In fact, the series lacks the various exonumia that orbits most of the other classic commemorative series. Hoffecker did a poor job in distribution materials, with the coins sold in plain unprinted cardboard five- and six-coin holders. These were the same holders in which he mailed the Elgin. Finding a tab-toned Spanish Trail will prove a daunting task. Our records did not have a digital image of such a coin.

1936 Albany, NY

Struck to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the city’s charter, the Albany was sold individually in single-coin boxes by The National Commercial Bank and Trust. The mail-order examples were sold in the five-coin cardboard holder with a cover bearing an image of the coin and title on the front, and a brief history of the city on the inner flap across from the five-coin slotted page.

1936 Columbia, South Carolina Sesquicentennial

Produced by all three branch mints, the Columbia half was sold in a three-coin tab holder with holed centers across all three tabs. The card had no cover page and bore the words “1786 – 1936 Half Dollar Commemorating the Sesquicentennial of the founding of Columbia as the Capital of South Carolina.” These holders were patented by John H. Eggers but saw little use as the commemorative craze waned. Tab-toned Columbia halves are fairly common, with matching PDS sets sometimes available.

1936 Delaware Tercentenary

The Delaware Tercentenary was distributed by Equitable Trust Company in a five-coin tab holder. The cover pictured the obverse and reverse of the coin with Delaware Tercentenary Coin and description across the front. The inside flap lists a brief history and discussion of the designs. The center slot has a holed tab, which imparts a small toned circle on coins stored there. Delaware halves are easily found with this toning usually in a maple hue with hints of gold and green.

1936 Battle of Gettysburg

Issued by the Pennsylvania State Commission, these halves were struck to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the fateful Civil War battle. The issue was authorized and dated in 1936, struck in 1937 for the Blue and Grey celebration that occurred in 1938. The coins were mailed in a three-coin mailer with tabs.

1936 Long Island Tercentenary

With a net mintage of over 80,000, Long Islands are plentiful in today’s marketplace. The coin was originally distributed in a plain cardboard five-slot holder, and mailed in a Tercentenary Committee envelope. Some were presented to VIPs in a blue-hinged case with an embossed Long Island Tercentenary Committee and an individual’s name. Locating a tab-toned Long Island can be done with just a little searching.

1936 Lynchburg, Virginia Sesquicentennial

Created to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Lynchburg city charter, the half dollar had a net mintage of 20,000. The coin was mailed in a cardboard and paper five-coin tab holder with the center tab holed. The holder has outer wrapping in yellow paper, with “Lynchburg in Old Virginia” on the front with references to the celebration held October 12 – 16, 1936. The inside flap is blank, and the back of the holder shows the manufacturer’s name printed as “J.N. Spies Mfg. Co. of Watertown, New York.” The half is not exceptionally elusive with tab-toned examples appearing with some frequency.

1936 Norfolk Virginia Bicentennial

Distributed by the Norfolk Advertising Board, this half was mailed in a five-coin tab holder with lime green paper backing. The center coin tab was holed. The front of the holder is printed denoting the coin, the designer, and commemoration purpose. The inner flap is blank and the back has a poem by future Virginia Poet Laureate Charles Day. The paper and glues used to produce these created beautiful autumnal hues and crisp tab toning.

1936 Robinson/Arkansas

While the original intent was to create three varieties among the series, the Arkansas Centennial Commission received authorization for just a single variant, which ultimately resulted in the Senator Joseph Robinson obverse. These were sold in both a black leather-grained box with red velour interior and the five-piece cardboard insert. The outside printing was basically a Stack’s advertisement, and a portrait of Robinson was printed on the inner panel. These are found with some frequency featuring the tab tone pattern.

1936 York County Maine Tercentenary

The first 100 sold were housed in a framed map with a single coin inset at the bottom right. Others were sold in a five-coin tabbed holder with the center tab holed. The outside was printed with a line drawing of Brown’s Garrison and the York National Bank. The inner flap has a brief history, and the back is blank. Enclosed was a printed tissue thanking the buyer for their support. Locating a crisp tab-toned York can be accomplished with little patience.

1937 Battle of Antietam

These were mailed in a five-coin tabbed holder with the center coin tab holed. These holders have J.N. Spies, Watertown NY, the manufacturing company, printed on the back. They are printed on the front cover with the coin title and names of the commission members. They were shipped in a Washington County Historical Society envelope with related materials. The Antietam half dollar can be found with overall beautiful toning and tab-toned examples are available with some diligence, usually with russet or maple hues outlining the circular pattern.

1937 Roanoke Colonization

Celebrating the 350th anniversary of the founding of the colony at Roanoke, Virginia, the Roanoke half dollar was approved in 1936 and struck in two runs of 25,000 during January and July of 1937. After sales dwindled, the Roanoke Colony Memorial Association returned 21,000 examples to the United States Mint to be melted. Many of the remaining 29,000 sold examples survived in Gem or better condition. The coins were originally distributed in the five-coin cards and locating a well-defined tab-toned pattern is possible after some searching.

1938 New Rochelle, NY 250th Anniversary

The New Rochelle half was distributed in a few different holders, including a couple of one-, two-, five-, and 10-coin holders. The first 50 coins struck were done with special treatment and are considered specimen strikes today. These were presented to various VIPs in small boxes with velvet slotted linings. Many of these were mailed out in the various cardboard and paper tabbed holders with a brief history printed on the inner flap. The coins are readily available today in premium Gem and better conditions with tab-toned examples not particularly elusive. The issue can be found beautifully toned with little effort.

1946 Iowa Statehood Centennial

The Iowa Centennial half dollar was sold through banks in various paper envelopes. It was also distributed in three cardboard insert folders and in a mailing card with slots for dimes, quarters, and the half. The half is obtainable in all grades up to MS68, with a handful of examples grading near perfection at MS69. With patience, the issue can be found in high grades exhibiting sharp tab tone patterns.

The “Tab-esque” Issues

Packaging was similar yet different across all 50 of the classic commemoratives. Dennison made several different holders that were akin to the tab examples and certain commems come with peripheral coloring very much like the tab-toned issues. Some of the following are mentioned in various lists of tab tone issues, but we have yet to locate examples with visually clear tab patterns. These were all distributed in cardboard mailers.

While many collect these issues alongside examples with true tab toning, I’ve chosen to include these commemoratives. However, by definition, they are not truly tab-toned as complete tabbing is not evident.

1928 Hawaiian

Proof issues were delivered in individual wooden boxes that were covered and lined with a satiny purple fabric. The coins could be purchased individually and mail-order circulating strikes were sold in five coin cardboard holders with tape used to hold the coins in place.

1934 Maryland Tercentenary

The Maryland half is one of the tougher examples for collectors to locate with attractive toning. Some were sold in a Dennison single coin holder with a paper flap designed to hold the coins in. The issue can be found with monochromatic peripheral color, and vibrant rainbows are a rarity.

1934 Daniel Boone Bicentennial

The first issue of the Boone was mailed in the single coin Dennison holder. Later issues were sold in a paper coin wedge with multiple coins wrapped in tissue and added to these packages.

1934–1938 Texas Independence Centennial

The first year of issue was sold individually in plain or printed white envelopes by over 300 banks across Texas. Later issues were sold in the five-coin Dennison holders. Many examples today have the peripheral autumnal hues but lack the definition of the paper tab across the face of the coin.

1935-1939 Arkansas Centennial

The Arkansas Centennials were sold for five years in various packaging. The 1935 and 1936 sets were sold in a single sheet five-coin holder with cards placed inside of a mailing envelope. Later sets were sold by Stack’s in leatherette boxes with three slots and velour interior. Arkansas examples can be found with incredible colors from these boxes. We have yet to locate physically or digitally an example with crisp tab toning.

1935-1936 San Diego, California-Pacific Exposition

The San Diego half dollar was sold and distributed in several different containers. Some were sold in plain white envelopes while others were shipped in three-coin or one-coin cardboard holders with gummed paper or tape used to hold the coins in place. There is also a Christmas Card version that used cellophane tape to secure the coin. San Diego halves from both years come with spectacular color ranging from dramatic to pastel. Banded and/or peripheral color is often seen due to the various packaging in which the coins were distributed.

1936 Bay Bridge

Issued to commemorate the opening of the San Francisco to Oakland Bay Bridge, the half was distributed in a few different ways. During the actual celebration, coins were sold for $1.50 at drive-up kiosks located close to the bridge entrances. The first 100 coins were sold in individually numbered envelopes. While others were sold via mail order, shipping in plain six-slot tabbed holders with an unattached paper flyer wrapped around it. The issue is often seen with russet hues throughout and with distinct peripheral color.

1936 Providence, Rhode Island Tercentenary

The Rhode Island half was distributed by various banks and coin dealers using different storage methods. Some were sold unprotected while others were shipped in a blank five-coin tab holder. Some were sold in a plain black leatherette three-coin card. Today, Rhode Island examples are found with a variety of toning patterns from deeply toned to light iridescence. They are obtainable with attractive peripheral toning through the lettering.

1936 Wisconsin Territorial Centennial

The Wisconsin Centennial half dollar was mailed in both three-piece and plain five-piece cardboard holders. Individual coins were sold and delivered wrapped in tissue. I have yet to find a sharp tab-toned outline but beautifully toned examples are available with mostly white or golden centers outlined by a rich patina through the bold peripheral lettering. This pattern, similar to the Texas half, has banded toning at the rim, likely imparted by the cardboard holder.

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This article is the first of several articles discussing the toning patterns of the commemorative coins from 1892 to 1954. It is the result of reviewing our digital records from the last decade, auction records from Heritage and Stack’s Bowers, and Truview images from PCGS CoinFacts. This is an ongoing study and we encourage collector input via email with digital images and descriptions of exceptional toned examples. Whether you enjoy brilliant white examples, originally toned, or wild vibrant colors, the classic commemorative series has much to offer. Struck as collector items, the packaging for most of the issues is unique and ultimately created many exceptionally toned examples. The tab toned subset is an exciting numismatic undertaking that allows a deep dive into the individual waters of distribution, 20th-century marketing, and pre-World War II mail order habits.

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Pinnacle Rarities
Pinnacle Rarities
Kathleen Duncan co-founded Pinnacle Rarities in 1992. Based in Olympia, Washington, Pinnacle sought to provide continuing professional service to a clientele composed of collectors, investors and dealers from all 50states and several foreign countries. They tried to specialize in handling the rarest, most desirable coins the industry has to offer. Pinnacle closed in 2022.

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  1. Excellent information, it’s kind of comforting to have a unmistakeable verification that the tone is natural and the years to be expected. With Morgan dollars, leading the campaign for toned enthusiasm, I see the added values of colorful unique and captivating coins, is just in it’s diapers, as the collector desire continues to shift from less than ideal, to commanders of top graded, best known gem examples, and possibly , achieving this regularly, and still being a grade maybe two, under brilliant, perfect lustered, pristine, none finer.


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