PANAMA-PACIFIC INTERNATIONAL EXPOSITION HALF DOLLAR
The exposition of this half dollar held in San Francisco in 1915 celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. The coins were struck at the San Francisco Mint and were sold at $1.00 each during the exposition.
Ms. Liberty (so identified by her Phrygian cap) scatters flowers from a cornucopia held by her naked child. Unaccountably, Ms. Liberty has most often been mislabeled Columbia, which name would mean on the tutelary genius of the lands discovered by Columbus. Equally unaccountably, the child has nearly adult proportions, though to be of that height compared with Ms. Liberty and the flowers, he/she must have been about four years old. Beyond them, the sun sets between the southern (Yerba Buena or San Francisco) and northern (Marin County) outcroppings of the Golden Gate, shown as they might have been before 1848-minus buildings or bridge. Between the sun and the date 1915 is a conventionalized wave motif, alluding to the Exposition's maritime themes.
Left of the date is the S mintmark of San Francisco, though in actuality many of the Exposition's coins of all denominations were struck on the Exposition grounds rather than in the "Granite Lady" (as the mint building was then known). The inscription is a conveniently abbreviated form of the exposition's official title.
On Reverse, oak and olive branches flank an eagle which is an imitation of Morgan's. The olive branch is traditional for peace, though either ironical or imperceptive for 1915 when World War I was already underway. We have not heard any explanation of the oak branch which makes any sense, and considering Charles E. Barber's role in the design, possibly there is none.
As a sop to Congress, which in 1908 had furiously demanded restoration of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on St. Gauden's gold coins, this is the first commemorative coin to bear either of the mottoes; possibly the framers of the authorizing act, or Treasury Secretary McAsoo (who had to approve the designs), or the engravers, or all of them, remembered the public protests attending the appearance in 1907-1908 of the mottoless coins.
As early as July 1914, two bills were already pending in the Senate which sought to authorize souvenir coins (commemoratives). One, introduced by Senator Elihu Root (R.-New York, and recently Nobel Laureate for Peace), would have mandated issues of quarter dollars celebrating a century of peace and the opening of the Panama Canal. The other was Panama-Pacific Exposition Company's bill, providing for silver half dollars and gold dollars, quarter eagles, and $50 coins, for the Exposition to be held in San Francisco in 1915. It included an appropriation for designing the coins, presumably to be paid to whichever artist provided models satisfactory to Treasury Secretary McAdoo.
Sometime between February 1 and 8, 1915, Malburn persuaded McAdoo that the half dollars should be designed entirely within the Mint. By February 13, Acting Mint Directory Dewey wrote to A.M. Joyce, Superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint, that he had already delivered Barber's designs for the half dollar to Malburn quick work, to say the least! Malburn obtained Secretary McAdoo's approval on march 22, and during the ensuing two months the master dies, hubs, and working dies were prepared in the Philadelphia Mint. At some unknown date in this period, trial strikings from the adopted dies, without S mint mark, were made at Philadelphia: not over four in copper, six in silver, two in gold. One of the two gold strikings is in the Norweb collection, ex King Farouk; the other was in the Brand estate, sold early in the 1970s by A. Kosoff, along with a silver and a copper specimen without the S. At least one of the silver strikings was recovered during the 1950s as a normal Pan-Pacific half dollar.
The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal (by the S.S. Ancon, August 15, 1914), was set up late in 1914 through early 1915 on a 635-acre site near the Marina in San Francisco; some of Bernard Maybeck's buildings erected for it still survive, notably the colonade at the Exploratorium at the foot of Lyon Street.
As its total cost was in excess of $50 million, larger than that of any other national or regional exposition until the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair, it had to explore every possible means of attracting visitors by the millions (after its opening on February 20, 1915, there were some 19,000,000 in all). Commemorative coins were only a small part of the whole publicity venture; but as the exposition was taking place in a mint city, what more natural than to have presses and personnel from the San Francisco Mint to demonstrate the minting process? Local newspaper people were on hand, and the strikings went on accompanied by great festivity.
In all, 200,000 were authorized to be made, all at the San Francisco Mint (this being the first commemorative half dollar ever to be made at a U.S. presence of the public). Despite the immense publicity, only 60,000 were actually struck, all in June 1915, plus 30 assay coins; and of the 60,000, only being returned to the mint for melting. At least half of the survivors have been cleaned, impaired, or frankly circulated; gem specimens are very difficult to locate. One scarce variety shows plainly double punched mintmark S (north).
Individual half dollars were sold at $1 apiece, most of them in small paper envelopes bearing an unfortunate resemblance to workmen's pay envelopes, with a description of the enclosed coin. The text was similar to that on the pasteboard tickets in the copper frames. A very small number went out in small plush cases similar to those for the short sets. We have seen possibly ten envelopes and 18 of the Single-coin plush cases.