The Columbian Exposition half dollars commemorate the 400th
anniversary of the landing of Columbus in the America and
the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The obverse
design by Charles Barber was from a plaster model by Olin
Levi Warner, which was taken from a Spanish medal. The reverse
was designed by George T. Morgan. It too was from a plaster
model by Olin Levi Warner that was taken from a model of
a ship. It was the first commemorative half dollar and the
first legal tender United States coin to have a portrait
of a foreigner as its principal motif. The obverse depicts
a bold portrait of Christopher Columbus in profile facing
right. At the periphery are the inscriptions UNITED STATES
OF AMERICA and COLUMBIAN HALF DOLLAR. The two inscriptions
are separated by a small six-pointed star on each side.
The reverse shows a representation of Columbus’ flagship,
the Santa Maria. Two globes are below the ship representing
the New World and the Old World. They are similar to the
globes seen on the reverse of a Spanish milled silver dollar
that circulated in the 18th century in America. To the upper
left and right of the globes, are the digits of the year
1492. The reverse inscription is WORLD’S COLUMBIAN
EXPOSITION CHICAGO with the date below separated from the
legend by two small six-pointed stars.
The portrait of Columbus was somewhat controversial because
no one really knew or could agree just what he looked like.
Certainly the portrait was realistic and could have been
Columbus, but it was a matter of judgment as to the authenticity
of the motif. The reverse design, on the other hand, was
accepted at the time without controversy. One attraction
at the Exposition was the display of the plaster models
as well as the model ship Warner used to create the reverse
motif. However, the Mint never acknowledged his role in
helping create the design.
The first struck coin went to the manufacturer of the Remington
typewriter, Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict. They paid $10,000,
a huge amount for a coin at that time. It was later given
to the new Columbian Museum in Chicago. Of course the Remington
typewriter was endorsed as the official typewriter of the
Exposition. In addition the 400th, the 1492nd, and the 1892nd
coins were considered special and sold at a premium.
In 1892 950,000 Columbian half dollars were minted. Another
4,052,105 were made the next year. The total plus 2,105
for assay equaled the 5,002,105 that was authorized. All
of the 1892 coins were distributed, but 2,501,700 of the
1993 issue were melted. While both dates were offered for
sale at one dollar, huge quantities remained unsold at the
premium price and were put into circulation at face value.
Today they are still quite common, especially in circulated
The coins were initially distributed by the Jennings Trust
Co of Chicago and other Chicago banks. There was no official
packaging, but several banks placed the coins in burgundy
leather holders that were imprinted in gold. Some have no
bank indicated but say “COLUMBIAN EXPOSTION”
around “1492-CHICAGO-1892.” In 1893 some Columbian
half dollars were sold with ribbons and clasps as souvenirs
of the Exposition.