The story of the first US Commemorative coin begins with it's authorization by an act of congress on August 5, 1892. The act authorized a maximum of 5,000,000 to be coined “at the mints of the United States” to help fund the construction of buildings and exhibits for the 1892 Columbian World Exposition in Chicago. The 50 cent coins were to be sold for 100% premium ($1) to help raise money for the event.
Olin Lewis Warner created the initial design, while rather more famous individuals did the engraving. Charles Barber engraved the obverse which shows a bust of Columbus facing to the right. Barber hidden his initial “B” on the left edge of the bust (Columbus’ right collar).
George T. Morgan engraved the reverse which shows a three masted Caravel which Morgan identified as Columbus’ Flag ship the ‘Santa Maria’. Morgan ingeniously hid his “M” initial in the ships rigging just above the bottom right corner of the main sail. The design also includes two globes showing respectively the New and Old World under the ship, leading to derogatory comments about the “Ship on Wheels”. The Obverse drew its share of criticism as well. Because there are no actual portraits of Columbus, Barber drew on many historical images as a basis for his bust. In the end he settle on the simple unadorned bust facing left.
The preliminary plaster models for this design where in the possession of the Chicago Historical Society at the time of the publishing of Anthony Swaitek and Walter Breen’s The Encyclopedia of United States Silver and Gold Commemorative Coins 1892 to 1954.
The Swaitek and Breen book also tells a fascinating story of deception and intrigue surrounding the striking of 105 proof coins at the request of Col. James W. Ellsworth, latter one of the most famous American coin collectors of the era. The request to strike these coins was not cleared with the mint director at the time and they were never officially authorized. The story continues that Ellsorth allegedly substituted a flawed Planchets for the first strike so that it would be rejected as imperfect and he could keep it, even thought the first piece had already been sold (with much hype) to the Remington Typewriter company for the then astonishing sum of $10,000 (they actually got the "perfect" second coin struck).
General Market Notes
In all total mintage is on the order of 2,500,405 over the two year run, thought this figure is somewhat misleading. Because of the economics of the time, including the Depression of 1893, many of the pieces went unsold and were eventually released into circulation at face value. The result is that many pieces in today’s market are circulated!