The 1892-1893 Columbian Exposition Half Dollar

The 1892-1893 Columbian Exposition Half Dollar

The Columbian Exposition in Chicago was going to be a spectacular event. Marking the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America, and the first World’s Fair to be held in the United States. The exposition was huge, over 600 acres and over 200 buildings.

Forty six nations had exhibits at the fair. For all it’s grandeur, it is still best known today for two of its exhibits from the entertainment area, the worlds first Ferris Wheel, and Little Egypt. The Ferris Wheel was 264 ft high (20 stories) and had thirty six cars that could hold sixty people each. Little Egypt on the other hand was a dancer, who introduced belly dancing to a society of Victorian morality. But like all events of this size finances were always a problem. The organizers were running short, the opening was going to be delayed to October 21st, nine days after the anniversary (They didn’t make that either and the fair didn’t open until May 1893.) A grant for $5 million was requested from Congress. “No way, but what we will do is strike $2.5 million in commemorative half dollars you can sell for a dollar each. That will give you $5 million.” Of course they missed the part that the fair would have to pay $2.5 million so they would only have half the money they needed. They also didn’t consider that $1 for a 50 cent piece would make it a rather expensive souvenir. They also withheld nearly 1.4 million of the coins the organizers paid for to make sure there would be funds to pay for the awards medals that had been ordered for the exhibits and judges.

Nearly one million coins dated 1892 were struck. As a publicity stunt, for the free advertising it would generate, Remington Typewriter Company agreed to purchase the very first half dollar for $10,000. Into this picture comes one Col. James Ellsworth, a very well heeled collector who had managed to get on the Columbian Exposition Board of Directors. He was to oversee the striking of the first coin. At the striking ceremony Ellsworth selected the blank, gave it to the coiner and the first proof Columbian half dollar was struck. But when it was examined, there was a flaw in the planchet! You can’t give the Remington Company a flawed coin for their $10,000! So the first coin was placed in envelope #2 and another unflawed coin was struck as the “#1” coin. This coin, along with its accompanying witnessing documents, and the cancelled check for $10,000, is in the collection of the Field Museum of Natural History.

Now all Ellsworth had to do was get his hands on that #2 envelope. He thought he had that worked out. Before the date of the striking Ellsworth went to the President of the Board and requested the first one hundred coins after the #1 coin. He was told this was impossible because another businessman had already ordered the first 500 coins. So Ellsworth got him to sign an order to make the 400th, 1492nd, 1892nd, and the first 1893 coin as proofs. Armed with this letter he then approached the Mint Superintendent with the instructions to make those coins, and the first 100 coins as proofs, then make the business strikes. The extra coins were needed for presentation purposes. All Ellsworth had to do then was be there when the keg was opened.

When the first keg arrived, it was opened and the first 500 business strikes were turned over to the purchaser, but the special coins were not in the keg! Unfortunately, Ellsworth was not there when the next keg was opened. The Board President was not pleased to find the 100 extra proof coins and he took possession of ALL of them. So Ellsworth wrote the Superintendent and got him to recommend that they be distributed along Col. Ellsworth’s guidelines. Sure, like that was going to happen. So the Board President got together with the businessman who had ordered the first 500 coins. They divided the coins between them with the businessman getting all the even numbered coins and the President taking the odd numbered ones.   Ellsworth was out of the picture.

Later coin #2, #8 and #38 were given to a friend of the businessman and later passed on to his son. Unfortunately the envelopes have been discarded, but the “#2” can still be identified by the sharper die state and the planchet flaw on the reverse. This coin is still in private hands.

The 1893 proof still exists and is now in the hands of the Chicago Historical Society.

Sales of the four million 1893’s did not set the world on fire. The government held back over a million of them. The early purchasers had bought the 1892 and didn’t feel they needed a second coin that only differed in the date. They were buying a souvenir not collecting a coin. Many of the halves were used to pay staff, some were just spent. One point three million of them were sent back to the government to be melted down after the fair finally closed October 30th 1893, two days after the assassination of the Mayor of Chicago, and the Exposition financially in the red.

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