The first United States commemorative coin was the Columbian half dollar designed by Olin Lewis Warner. C. E. Barber engraved the obverse showing the bust of Columbus, and G. T. Morgan engraved the reverse having a representation of Columbus' flagship the Santa Maria above two hemispheres.
The fanciful head is intended to represent Columbus. It is signed B for Charles E. Barber, Engraver of the Mint. As no authentic portraits of Columbus exist-the earliest one is attributed to Lorenzo Lotto, 1512, some six years after the explorer's death-Barber was forced to use imaginary portraits for his prototypes. Three of these have been identified. The portrait immediately came in for criticism as resembling either Daniel Webster or Henry Ward Beecher; the resemblances are there but beyond doubt accidental considering the actual prototypes. The three-masted caravel on reverse is intended to represent the Santa Maria, Columbus flagship. George T. Morgan, the Assistant Engraver appears to have copied it from a photograph of the reproduction of that ship, built in Spain for the Columbian Exposition. Morgan's initial M is concealed in the ship's rigging.
The Act of Congress of August 5, 1892, which authorized a maximum of 5,000,000 to be coined "at the mints of the United States" to help defray the cost of completing the buildings and exhibits. The coins were to be "manufactured from uncurrent subsidiary coins now in the Treasury" (mostly half dimes withdrawn in 1873 but not melted in the meantime). This was the first of the great World's Fairs to be honored with a commemorative coins; it was scheduled to open in Chicago in October 1892, to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovery of a group of Caribbean islands, which he mistakenly thought to be part of India. (Half dollars or no, the Exposition did not manage to open until May 1, 1893, remaining in operation only until the following October 30.)
The floundering Exposition, in financial difficulty long before its doors could open, had petitioned Congress for a $5,000,000 appropriation. What it was promised by the above-mentioned Act of Congress was "nothin' much before," to be sold at $1 apiece. What it got was "rather less than 'arf o'that behind," because Congress had withheld some 1,141,760 pieces of the 1893 mintage as security to cover expenses of awards medals and judges, and many of the coins they did get remained unsold, to be either spent or melted. "No reason for it, just company policy," saith the Lord unto Job.
The Board of Gentlemen Managers of the World's Columbian Exposition, and others alluded to below. The Exposition was organized as of April 9, 1890, Congress specifying Chicago as the site (Act of April 25, 1890) after much pressure from city officials in New York, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. wanting the Exposition to be held in their respective cities. On a tract of 686 wilderness acres bordering Lake Michgan and known as Jackson Park, the Exposition people had to erect some 150 buildings, accommodating over 9,000 paintings, innumerable sculptures and 65,000 exhibitors; a formidable task. The Board (through F.W. Peck) made many recommendations to the Mint for designs of the half dollars.
At first, through Board member W.E. Curtis, they commissioned the Washington, D.C. sculptor U.S.J. Dunbar to model a bust of Columbus based on the Lotto painting. Mint Engraver barber rejected it. When it became apparent that the designing itself would have to be done in the Mint, the Board suggested that barber could adapt the portrait of Columbus from that on a recent medal by Enrique Lopez Lorensis, which medal was duly ordered for the Mint Cabinet Collection via the U.S. Minister to Spain at Madrid.
However, what arrived instead was an anonymous medal, and even this being in very high relief could never have satisfied Barber. Slabaugh says that Barber based his portrait on a photograph or medallic reproduction of the statue by Jeronimo Sunel in Madrid, which statue is in turn based on a portrait by Charles Legrand in the Naval Museum in Madrid.
We have been unable to verify this. However, the actual prototype was evidently the plaster model signed O.L.W., one specimen being found in the Chicago Historical Society; its resemblance to the finished coin is so strong as to silence any doubts.
Much the same problems recurred with the reverse. At various times during the fall of 1892, the Board favored different motifs. An editorial in the October 1892 American Journal of Numismatics cites newspaper stories describing two devices, respectively the main Exposition building with its enormous dome, and the Nina, Paint and Sant Maria sailing westward. Neither of these proved acceptable to Barber. Eventually, the Board decided on the single three-masted caravel with the two hemispheres, as in the plaster model here illustrated (also in the Chicago Historical Society).
To date no original presentation cases or holders have shown up, though there are a few Colombians in cases originally intended for medals. Slabaugh's "gold imprinted black leather holder nearly round in shape, similar to small coin purse" is apparently in this latter category. On the other hand, there are several types of original mountings. We have no details on these, but presume they were special badges sold to groups in attendance on those days only. They are quite rare, seldom exhibited.
The portrait from the half dollar is found, minus its inscription, on one of the regular admission tickets (a selection of the different designs is illustrated). These were made by the American Bank Note Company, evidently copying the half dollar-the time element excludes its being the other way around. These tickets, but particularly the one with the Columbus head, make excellent tie-ins at convention exhibits of commemorative half dollars (quite aside from their being long popular among coin collectors).
A rarer and more desirable tie-in, however, is the $5 commemorative stamp with the half dollar portrait reversed and again without its inscription. This scott 245, also designed by the American Bank Note Company, its first day of issue being January 2, 1893. Understandably, the quantity made was very limited-only 27,350-and the stamp is now a famous rarity.