The series began in 1892 when half dollars were released for the World’s Columbian Exposition scheduled to open that year. However, construction delays occurred, and although there was a brief ceremony in 1892, the gates were not opened to the public until 1893. In 1893 more were struck with that date, celebrating the 401st anniversary of the “discovery” of America (not that it was lost in the first place. Thus was set a pattern of issuing commemoratives with illogical dates.
Fast forward to 1920 when the Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollar was issued to observe the 300th anniversary of the pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Even though quantities remained unsold, an additional issue dated 1921, for the 301st anniversary, was produced. A further oddity occurred with the Alabama Centennial half dollar that year. First of all, the actual centennial took place in 1919, so in 1921 the coin was two years late. Although there was no necessity to do so, two varieties were made, one with a 2X2 in the field, for Alabama being the 22nd state. To complete their collections, numismatists had to buy two, not just one, Alabama half dollar. The flood gates opened and before long we had Grant half dollars with and without stars, Missouri half dollars with and without 2*4, and so on.
In 1926 the Oregon Trail Memorial Commission sponsored a commemorative half dollar. Two varieties were made, one at the Philadelphia Mint and one at the San Francisco Mint with an S mintmark. Too many were produced, and thousands were stored at the Mint until the commission could pay for them. One might think that the series was over. However, the Oregon Trail was long and winding, with another issue in 1928, some skips, then more extending all the way to 1939, when Congress put an end to the practice.
Therein lies this week’s message. A number of long-extending series issued without logic but simply to create coins for collectors, have very low mintages toward the end. For example, in 1939 the Oregon Trail half dollars of the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints were distributed only to the extent of 3,000 pieces. The prices of individual coins in Choice and Gem condition are in the hundreds of dollars, believe it or not. Just imagine if today in 2013 the U.S. Mint issued a commemorative half dollar with a mintage of just 3,000 pieces; you would be looking at $5,000 to $10,000 or even more. Why are these low-mintage pieces so cheap? Primarily because few people have paid attention to them. There are so many regular and commemorative issues these days, from older varieties to new ones, that they have fallen by the wayside.
Texas celebrated it centennial anniversary in 1936. However, the half dollar observing this was first put out in 1934, two years in advance, in order to capture money for numismatists, followed by sets in 1935, more during the actual anniversary year of 1936, and then in the last year, 1938, low mintages of just 3,775 sets totally. Again, individual Choice and Gem coins are priced just in the hundreds of dollars.
Next comes the 1934-1938 Daniel Boone Bicentennial half dollar, more or less following the pattern of Texas, stringing on almost forever, terminating in 1938 with just 2,100 coins from the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco mints. Once again you can buy Choice and Gem pieces for in the hundreds of dollars. Next comes the Arkansas Centennial, an actual event that took place in 1936, unless you look at numismatic data and you will find that it began in 1935 and kept going on and on until 1939. In the last year just 2,100 coins were released from each of the three mints.
After 1939 there were not any commemoratives until 1946 when the Iowa Centennial half dollar was produced to the extent of 100,000 pieces for distribution. Curiously, not all have been distributed, as 500 are being set to be released on the 200th anniversary, which will not take place until 2046. Be sure to mark your calendar so you can get one!
Booker T. Washington half dollars were made that year at all three mints, continuing in sets through 1951. Stack’s was an official distributor as we were with certain earlier issues. Certain of these issues have low mintages, such as just 6,000 coins for 1949 and 1950, with a complete set in Choice and Gem condition costing in the low hundreds of dollars. Imagine that! The scenario concludes with the Carver-Washington half dollars from 1951 to 1954, again with low mintages in some instances, such as just 8,000 pieces from certain mints in 1952 and 1953, again as inexpensive as can be.
If you want to try something interesting, how about putting together a complete set of the 13 varieties of the 1926 to 1939 Oregon Trail Memorial halves? Some years ago the Society for U.S. Commemorative Coins took a poll of its readers as to the most beautiful design and this was the winner. A complete collection includes scarcities and rarities, low-mintage issues, and is unbelievably inexpensive.
See you next week!