As noted earlier, the first official United States commemorative coin was really the 1848 CAL. gold quarter eagle, of which 1,389 were minted, but standard reference books do not recognize this, and it is "proper" to state that the first commemorative coin was the 1892 Columbian silver half dollar. The spectrum of American commemorative coinage is broad. Each design has its own story, and as there are dozens of different designs, a recitation of the background of each would make a book in its own right. Indeed, several authors have written such books, B. Max Mehl, David E. Bullowa, Anthony Swiatek, Don Taxay, and Walter Breen among them. The Swiatek-Breen work, The Encyclopedia of U.S. Silver and Gold Commemorative Coins 1892-1989 is a must for every library. In 1991, Q. David Bowers published Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia. An organization devoted to the study of the subject, the Society for U.S. Commemorative Coins, is one of the most enthusiastic groups in numismatics.
Silver commemoratives can be divided into several series. The first is that of silver coins minted during the earlier years from 1892 to 1954. Within this range we have the 1893 Isabella quarter, the only commemorative of its denomination, the 1900 Lafayette silver dollar, and 48 different designs of commemorative half dollars.
The Lafayette dollar is interesting for several reasons. Some 50,000 pieces were prestruck in December 1899, using five different die pairs. As it was not legal to strike a coin in advance of the date shown on the dies, the Mint circumvented the question by stating that the coin really had no date (which brings up another question: was it legal to mint a coin without a date?). On the reverse of the Lafayette dollar appears the inscription PARIS 1900, which was not the date of the coin, according to Mint officials, but, rather, was the date at which a statue, also depicted on the reverse, was to be erected in Paris.
Another interesting thing about the Lafayette dollar is that only 36,000 were distributed. Most of the rest of the 50,000 mintage went to the melting pot, some of them not until the 1940s. Had collectors of the 1930s and early 1940s known that the Treasury Department had on hand thousands of Uncirculated Lafayette dollars there would have been a great rush to buy them, but no one was aware of this, and only after they were melted was the situation disclosed in a government report! What a numismatic shame.
As noted, from 1892 through 1954 some 48 different commemorative designs were minted. In addition certain issues were produced with slight design differences, or in mintmark varieties, bringing the total number of commemorative half dollar varieties in the span to 142.
Each commemorative coin has its own story. Thomas G. Melish, a well-known numismatist, decided to turn a quick profit and persuaded Congress in 1936 to create for him a commemorative half dollar for Cincinnati and give him the right to issue it for whatever price he pleased! Melish and his associates posted the selling price at $7.75 for a set of three coins (one each from the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints), the highest price of any set up to that time, but sold just a few of the 5,000 sets at that price, preferring instead to send "sold out" notices to many applicants, who were then free to buy Cincinnati sets on the open market for prices far above the $7.75 price, in fact, at the $50 level.
Apparently there was nothing worthwhile to commemorate on the Cincinnati half dollar. Ever innovative, Melish dreamed up the idea of placing the portrait of Stephen Foster on the obverse, although Stephen Foster had very little to do with the city. The reverse noted that Cincinnati was celebrating its 50th anniversary 1886-1936 as "a musical center of America," although to this day no one has ever come up with an explanation of what occurred musically in Cincinnati 50 years earlier in the year 1886!
Other commemorative half dollars had more validity in history, and few would question, for example, that the 1935 commemorative half dollar issued to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the state of Connecticut was worth issuing. Thoroughly confusing was the Delaware half dollar, ostensibly struck to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the landing of Swedes in that state, a coin authorized in 1936, bearing the date 1936 on the obverse, but actually struck in 1937, and on the reverse bearing the date 1938. You figure it out!
In 1936 when sets of Rhode Island commemorative halves were distributed through banks and agents, they were sold out in just six hours after being placed on sale, according to official news reports. However, anyone who missed the opportunity to buy sets at the original issue price could obtain some by paying a premium to - guess to whom? - some of the official distributors who just happened to set aside a few extras.
Some commemorative issues turned into a veritable annuity for their issuers, none more so than the Daniel Boone half dollars sold by C. Frank Dunn, whose office was in an upstairs room in the Hotel Phoenix in Lexington, Kentucky. Dunn distributed Daniel Boone half dollars in 1934, ostensibly to commemorate the bicentennial of the famous explorer's birth. Not satisfied to let it go at that, he decided to keep celebrating the situation, and was able to create not one coin, but a set of three coins from three different mints in 1935. As if that were not enough, still more varieties were made for the year 1935, bearing the small date "1934" on the reverse. Additional Boone sets were minted from 1936 through 1938. All of this poured thousands of dollars into Dunn's pockets, amid outcries from collectors who on one hand complained about the inequities of such profiteering, but on the other hand considered their holdings incomplete if they did not own, for example, a rare 1935-D Boone half dollar with small "1934" on the reverse, not available any longer from Dunn, for these had been "sold out" at an early date, but obtainable only on the open market for multiples of the original issue price.
The 1936-S Oakland Bay Bridge half dollar has the unique distinction of being the first and possibly the only commemorative half dollar available for sale at a drive-up window. Examples were offered for sale to automobilists who visited toll booths at each end of the famous span.
The Arkansas centennial was to be celebrated in 1936, but promoters could not wait. Therefore, pieces were produced at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints beginning in 1935! Production continued through 1939, thus observing the centennial in a rather extended (and greedy) fashion. Of all commemorative half dollar sets, Arkansas pieces were the most poorly produced, with unsatisfactory finishes, often showing extensive bagmarks and dull lustre. Even pieces taken from original wrappings are apt to look like they have been severely mistreated. For this reason, Arkansas half dollars, although quite rare in many instances, have never been popular with collectors.
Oregon Trail half dollars, first issued in 1926, turned into another scandal, and by the time the last Oregon half dollars were produced in 1939, just about everyone was thoroughly disgusted with them, with the possible exception of Wayte Raymond (acting for J.W. Scott & Co.), distributor of certain of the later issues. Raymond, by the way, was a professional numismatist of great reputation, and certainly one of the most influential and most important dealers of our century. It was Raymond who launched the Standard Catalogue of United States Coins, thus paving the way to the widespread collecting of dates and mintmark varieties. Raymond sponsored the early research activities of Walter Breen, who became one of the greatest numismatic scholars ever. Similarly, he acted as a mentor to John J. Ford, Jr., who went on to revolutionize the way auctions were catalogued. However, like nearly all professional numismatists of the 1930s, Raymond had to work hard to make a living, and as long as there were people buying commemorative half dollars, Raymond and others sold them.
Today each of the 48 basic varieties of commemorative half dollars minted during the 1892-1954 span is readily available, although the 1928 Hawaiian, 1935 Hudson, and 1935 Old Spanish Trail are elusive. In MS-60 to MS-63 grades most commemoratives are quite reasonable in price. MS-65 and higher coins have been eagerly sought after by investors, who have driven the market price out of the reach of many collectors. However, a nice MS-63 coin can be nearly as attractive as an MS-65 coin, and as the price can be just a tiny fraction of the MS-65 level, there is no reason not to be satisfied with an MS-63 coin.