Originally coined under the legislation approved May 3, 1935, these coins were intended to commemorate the California Pacific International Exposition which was being held in San Diego’s Balboa Park from May 29, 1935 through November 11, 1935 and again February 12 to September 9, 1936. The original legislation allowed for the coinage of up to 250,000 pieces at a single mint. The initial striking of 250,132 was executed at the San Francisco Mint in August of 1935 and shipped to the Bank of America in San Diego for distribution either by mail order or sale at the fair.
Sales of the 1935-S coins were very slow, so in attempt to stimulate collector interests the organizers of the Exposition petitioned Congress to allow the excess coins to be melted and re-struck with the 1936 date. The original petition requested that the new coins be struck at all three mints, but the eventual legislation called for all the re-strikes to be coined at a single mint. In keeping with the directions of the re-coinage legislation the remaining 180,000 coins were shipped to Denver in early 1936 to be melted and re-coined (leaving the net mintage of the ’35-S at 70,000).
Sales of the 1936-D coins were even slower than the sales of the originals and eventually 150,000 of the re-struck coins were returned to the mint to be melted (leaving the net mintage of the ’36-D at a mere 30,000).
The very busy design draws from a number of sources. The obverse displays part of the California State Seal. The central figure is the Goddess Minerva wearing armor and a helmet. She is seated holding a spear in her right hand while her left rests on a shield emblazoned with the head of Medusa and the word “EUREKA”. A cornucopia rests on the shield and spills its bounty at Minerva’s feet while she is flanked on the right by a Grizzly Bear. In the background field to the left is a minute figure of a miner wielding a pick and above that a four masted schooner, with mountains in the background. “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” arcs along the top edge with dots separating the words. “HALF DOLLAR” arcs across the bottom with the word “LIBERTY” between this inscription and the bottom of the central device. Finally the stylized initials RA for the sculpture Robert Aitken can be seen just to the left of the bear’s rump.
The reverse is equally busy but equally well executed. The primary focus is on two of the buildings used for the exposition in Balboa Park. The dome is that of the chapel of St Francis and the other is the California Tower (both currently part of the Museum of Man). The motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” is below the buildings while “SAN DIEGO” and the date hang in the air flanking the tower. The mint mark is under the motto and the entire design is circled by the inscription “CALIFORNIA PACIFIC INTERNATIONAL EXPOSITION” with the words seperated by dots in keeping with the obverse style.