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Collecting United States' Classic Commemorative Coins (1852-1954)

Updated: Jun 22, 2022

According to the US Mint: “The 1892 Columbian Exposition half dollar was the first commemorative coin authorized by Congress. From 1892 through 1954, subsequent legislation authorized the U.S. Mint to produce commemorative coins for 53 different events, occasions, or individuals.

Coin Collection
Coin Collection

This resulted in the Mint producing over 180 silver and gold commemorative coins.” Taking the gold coins out of the picture, there are 144 silver issues left, 142 half dollar denominations, one quarter dollar, and one dollar. These are all legal tender United States coins but were designed to collect and not go into circulation. While commemorative coins serve the purpose of recognizing and honoring important people, places, things, and events, commemorative coins also often serve the function of raising funds for and awareness of the subjects depicted on the coins. Some of the designs are beautiful and some not so but with all the history involved these are so fun to collect. Even on a budget there are small subsets one can specialize in within the series.

If I had to chose I would start a set of the most in demand or scarcest coins first. These would include:

1922 Grant with Star Memorial Half Dollar
1922 Grant with Star Memorial Half Dollar

1922 Grant with Star Memorial Half Dollar

The Grant Memorial Commemorative was authorized on February2, 1922. Most of these have no star on the obverse. The star was a mistake and only 4,256 of these were distributed. The no star version is less valuable and had a net distribution of 67,405 coins. The obverse depicts Grant in profile in the later stages of his life. The reverse depicts Grant’s log cabin birthplace. The coin was designed by Laura Garden Fraser. The silver piece commemorated the 100th anniversary of Grant’s birth. Any profits from the coin went to the Ulysses S Grant Centenary Memorial Association which was formed in 1921. They spent the money on projects around Grant’s birthplace to honor him. The next coin is almost as scarce.

1928 Hawaiian Sesquicentennial Half Dollar
1928 Hawaiian Sesquicentennial Half Dollar

1928 Hawaiian Sesquicentennial Half Dollar

The Hawaiian commemorative honored the 150th anniversary of Captain John Cook’s landing in Hawaii. There were 9,958 uncirculated coins distributed and a few Sand Blast Proofs. The obverse has a portrait of Captain Cook and the reverse has a standing Hawaiian chieftain. Well known Honolulu artist Juliette May Frazer designed the coin. The proceeds from the selling of the coins would go to form a collection of Captain Cook memorabilia for Hawaii. The next coin commemorates a social event.

1935 Old Spanish Trail Half Dollar
1935 Old Spanish Trail Half Dollar

1935 Old Spanish Trail Half Dollar

The 1935 Old Spanish Trail Commemorative Half Dollar commemorated the 400th anniversary of the overland trek of the Cabeza de Vaca Expedition through the Gulf states in 1535. 10,008 of these silver pieces were distributed. The coin was designed by L.W. Hoffecker, and models were prepared by Edmund J. Senn. L.W Hoffecker, a coin dealer-promoter seems to be the only one who benefited from sales of this issue. He lobbied Congress to pass legislation to mint the coin for the benefit of the El Paso Museum Committee. It seems that the museum only ended up with two coins and nothing else. The next coin up has a mintage of 10,008.

1935 Hudson Sesquicentennial Half Dollar
1935 Hudson Sesquicentennial Half Dollar

1935 Hudson Sesquicentennial Half Dollar

David Hall in PCGS Coin Facts states: “Today, the Hudson half dollar is one of the scarcer silver commemoratives but in the time of its issue, the Hudson was subject to controversy and distribution abuse. The event commemorated, the 150th anniversary of the founding of the city of Hudson, New York (population of 14,000 at the time), was pretty obscure to begin with. The original issue price was $1 per coin, but it was rumored that one dealer had purchased 7,500 of the original 10,008 mintage at 95 cents each. He (or someone) apparently held the hoard off the market as prices in the aftermarket soon reached $9. Collectors were outraged, but this was a situation often repeated in the 1934-1939 commemorative era.” The obverse of the coin portrays Henry Hudson’s ship Half Moon and the reverse has Neptune seated backward on a whale (taken from the city seal) and a mermaid. The coin was designed by Chester Beach. The next coin in this little set is one of my favorites.

1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition Half Dollar
1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition Half Dollar

1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition Half Dollar

This commemorative celebrates the opening of the Panama Canal. This was released in conjunction with the Panama-Pacific Exposition held in San Francisco. The exposition was a great success and was held in Golden Gate Park from Feb. 20, 1915 until December 4. An estimated 19 million attended the event. This coin came individually or as part of a five coin set, the others being gold and quite valuable today. The mintage was 27,134. The designers were Charles E. Barber and George T. Morgan. The obverse of the coin is an allegorical representation of Columbia scattering flowers with the Golden Gate bridge in the background. The reverse has an eagle perched on a shield. So far all of the coins in this set have been half dollars. The next one is a Dollar.

1900 Lafayette Memorial Silver Dollar
1900 Lafayette Memorial Silver Dollar

1900 Lafayette Memorial Silver Dollar

In 1899 the Lafayette Memorial Commission sought to raise funds to erect a statue in Paris of General Lafayette in 1900. This would be in connection with the Universal Exposition to be held there. The statue of Lafayette would be a gift from the American people. There was a problem that arose concerning the dating of the dollar. The Lafayette Memorial Commission wanted the coins stuck in 1899 but bear the date of 1900 because that was when the Paris Exposition was to be held. US Mint policies did not permit the predating of coins. The issue was circumvented by placing on the reverse an inscription which read as follows: ERECTED BY THE YOUTH OF THE UNITED STATES IN HONOR OF GEN. LAFAYETTE/ PARIS 1900. Actually this legend

referred to the date the statue was erected, not to the striking of the coins, so it can said that the coins themselves bore no date, a curious footnote in American numismatics. Striking of all Lafayette dollars was accomplished in one day, December 14, 1899. The distribution of this coin was 36,026.The obverse depicts busts of George Washington and General Lafayette. The reverse has Lafayette on his horse. The designer was Charles e Barber. The last coin in this set is a quarter.

1893 Columbian Exposition “Isabella” Quarter Dollar

The Isabella quarter is one of the highest demand issues in the silver commemorative series.

Because it is the only quarter, because it is one of the earliest issued, because it is rare in top condition...all of these factors make the Isabella quarter one of the most sought after of all United States commemorative coins. This coin was issued in conjunction with the 1892-93 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

According to Q. David Bowers in his book “Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia”: “In January1893, well after the Columbian half dollar was a reality, Mrs. Potter Palmer, well-known Chicago socialite, patron of the arts, and grande dame of the Exposition, suggested to the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives that $10,000 of the money earmarked for the Board of Lady Managers of the World's Columbian Exposition be given in the form of a special issue of souvenir (as they were called) quarter dollars. This was translated into a law approved March3, 1893, which stated that the production of these quarters would not exceed 40,000 and that the pieces would be of standard weight and fineness. Like the Columbian half dollars, the quarters would be made from metal taken from current silver coins held by the Treasury Department.

The Board of Lady Managers had been formed at the insistence of Susan B. Anthony, who has determined that women should be adequately represented in the administration of the Exposition. Interestingly, there was also a Board of Gentlemen Managers, but this did not get much publicity, as it was taken for granted. The Board of Lady Managers took complete charge of the quarter- dollar project and stated that the coins were to have female motifs. Kenyon Cox, a well-known illustrator, was commissioned to prepare sketches, apparently furnishing motifs that were eventually modified by Charles E. Barber at the Mint. However, another artist, Caroline C. Peddle, one of Cox's former art students, was also heavily involved and furnished sketches, all of which were eventually rejected.”

The obverse of the coin depicts Queen Isabella, who reigned and financed Columbus’ expedition in 1492. A foreign monarch on a US coin was unique. It was the first and still the only commemorative quarter dollar. The reverse has a kneeling woman with a distaff. The quarter commemorates the industry of women. The total distribution was 24,214 pieces.

This seven coin set might set you back $20,000or so and take years to assemble the right pieces, but there are less expensive options in this 144 coin series as well.

Here are some ideas:

Commemoratives referencing states.

  • Arkansas

  • Alabama

  • California

  • Connecticut

  • Delaware

  • Hawaii

  • Illinois

  • Iowa

  • Maine

  • Maryland

  • Missouri

  • Texas

  • Rhode Island

  • Vermont

  • Wisconsin

Civil War Related

  • Antietam

  • Grant

  • Grant Star

  • Gettysburg

  • Stone Mountain

Social Events

  • Spanish Trail

  • Roanoke Island

  • Pilgrim

  • Huguenot Walloon

  • Sesquicentennial of American Independence

  • Monroe Doctrine

  • Oregon Trail

  • Panama Pacific Exposition

Cities Commemorated

  • New Rochelle

  • Providence

  • Norfolk

  • Lynchburg

  • Elgin

  • Columbia

There seem to be endless themes for collections within the classic era of United States commemoratives. The Oregon Trail Memorial Half Dollar (1226-1939) has 14 different issues with different dates and mintmark. Many think it is the most beautiful design within the series. Another great design is the Texas Centennial of Independence Half Dollar (1934-1938) with 13 various coins to assemble. The Boone Bicentennial Half Dollar (1934-1938) has16 different pieces. A set of Arkansas Centennial Half Dollars (1935-1939) contains 15 coins. The Booker T. Washington Memorial Half Dollar (1946-1951) series has 18 and Carver/ Washington Half Dollar (1951-1954) has 12.

In summary, the classic commemorative coin series offers an excellent variety of beautiful and scarce issues. A wide range of United States history, both significant and trivial, is represented in commemorative coinage. The checkered stories behind many commemorative issues makes the collection even more compelling.


Bowers, Q David “A Guide Book of United States Commemorative Coins”: 2nd Edition. Pelham, Alabama: Whitman Publishing,LLC, 2017.

“Various Articles” PCGS, https://www.pcgs.com/coinfacts. Accessed 18 June 2022.

Accessed 18 June 2022.

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