Columbian half dollar

The Columbian half dollar is a coin issued by the Bureau of the Mint in 1892 and 1893. The first traditional United States commemorative coin, it was issued both to raise funds for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and to mark the quadricentennial of the first voyage to the Americas of Christopher Columbus, whose portrait it bears. The Columbian half dollar was the first American coin to depict a historical person.

Columbian half dollar
United States
Value50 cents (0.50 US dollars)
Mass12.5 g
Diameter30.61 mm (1.20 in)
Thickness2.15 mm (0.08 in)
EdgeReeded
Composition
  • 90.0% silver
  • 10.0% copper
Silver0.36169 troy oz
Years of minting1892–1893
Mint marksNone (all struck at the Philadelphia Mint without mint mark)
Obverse
DesignRight-facing portrait of Columbus flanked by the words "United States of America" and "Columbian Half Dollar".
DesignerCharles E. Barber, after a concept by Olin Levi Warner
Design date1892
Reverse
DesignPort view of the Santa María above two hemispheres flanked by the date 1492. "World's Columbian Exposition Chicago" encircles the rim with the date of striking at bottom.
DesignerGeorge T. Morgan, after a concept by Olin Levi Warner
Design date1892

The coin stems from the desire of the Columbian Exposition's organizers to gain federal money to complete construction of the fair. Congress granted an appropriation, and allowed it to be in the form of commemorative half dollars, which legislators and organizers believed could be sold at a premium. Fair official James Ellsworth wanted the new coin to be based on a 16th-century painting he owned by Lorenzo Lotto, reputedly of Columbus, and pushed for this through the design process. When initial sketches by Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber proved unsatisfactory, fair organizers turned to a design by artist Olin Levi Warner, which after modification by Barber and his assistant, George T. Morgan, was struck by the Mint.

Some 5,000,000 half dollars were struck, far beyond the actual demand, and half of them were melted. The appropriation did not cure the fair's financial woes, as fewer than 400,000 were sold at the premium price, and some 2,000,000 were released into circulation, where they remained as late as the 1950s. The pieces can be purchased in circulated condition for less than $20; coins in near-pristine state sell for about $1,000, far less than the $10,000 the makers of the Remington Typewriter paid as a publicity stunt in 1892 for the first specimen struck.


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