The Arkansas Centennial Commemorative was authorized by act of Congress on May 14, 1934 ostensibly to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Arkansas statehood in 1936. The bill called for a maximum mintage of 500,000 coins to be issued exclusively to the “Arkansas Centennial Commission or its agents” “and at such time as they shall be requested by such commission or any such agent, and upon payment to the United States of the face value of such coins”. This wording set the stage for what became a typical abuse of the Commemorative Coin Program in the late 1930s.
In a search for early revenue, the coins were first issued in 1935. Most of these coins were minted in Philadelphia, but late in the year a second order was placed which included coins from both San Francisco and Denver Mints. Unlike future programs, the Arkansas coins were not issued in great numbers and then returned to the mint for melting and reissued in later years, but rather issued in moderate to small size lots over the course of the next 4 years. By late 1935, Texas Coin Dealer B. Max Mehl had associated himself with the distribution of these coins and bought up the entire mintage of 1935 “D” & “S” as well as the second striking of 3,000 Philadelphia coins from the Centennial Commission to distribute at a profit for himself. This pattern continued through the life of the series, with Stacks the major New York Dealer and Auction house getting involved as a distributer in late 1936. By the time the program ended the coin had been issued for 5 years with three mint marks available in each year requiring a collector to acquire 15 coins to constitute a complete set!
Models for the coins were created for the Centennial Commission by Emily Bates, based on designs by Chicago artist Edward Everett Burr. The models were shipped to the Medallic Arts Company of New York to be turned into hub dies.
The obverse of the coin (as defined by design correspondence/documentation in the National Archives) shows two conjoined Busts; in the background a Native Indian wears a feathered headdress. In front of this figure is a female bust sporting a phrygian (or liberty) cap. The word "LIBERTY" is emblazoned across the cap. Various sources have attributed this figure as an Art Deco Ms. Liberty, while others have identified it as an Arkansas resident of the 1863 era. The obverse also includes the dual date of the centennial (1836 and 1936) below and to the left of the busts as well as the inscription “ARKANSAS CENTENNIAL” across the bottom edge.
The reverse is a much more complicated design. The primary feature is an eagle with spread wings perched on a rising sun. The eagle caries a banner in its beak with the mottos “IN GOD WE TRUST” on the left and “E PLURIBUS UNUM” on the right. Behind the eagle is a star studded diamond which is taken from the Arkansas flag. The diamond has 13 stars along its border, but it hints at the bottom half of the image from the Arkansas flag where an additional 12 stars would bring the number to 25 as the 25th state to join the union. The name “ARKANSAS” is within the diamond with an additional star above the name and three more stars below. Above the diamond shape the ends of 7 sun’s rays seem to continue having passed behind the eagle and diamond, but a careful look reveals that none of these rays actually match up with rays emanating from the sun! Swiatek & Breen argue that Anti-Union/Pro-Confederate sentiments still ran high in 1930’s Arkansas and attribute these rays as a clandestine symbol for the original 7 states that seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy. The Legend “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” runs along the top rim of the coin and is pierced by these seven rays! The inscription “HALF DOLLAR” and the actual issue date of the coin appear on the face of the sun (giving rise to some controversy over which side is the obverse). Finally for those coins issued at a branch mint, the mint mark appears to the right of the sun on top of the right most ray.
General Market Notes
The keys to the series are the 1939, 1939-D, & 1939-S issues. The semi-keys are the 1938, 1938-D, & 1938-S issues.