The Norfolk Virginia Bicentennial Half Dollar is another poster child for the commemoration of obscure local events; In this case the 300th anniversary of the land grant to the city of Norfolk (1636) and the 200th anniversary of the conversion of the town to a borough (1736). Neither of these events really rise to the level to warrant a commemorative coin, making the authorizing act a very hard sell. So hard in fact that it wasn’t passed until June 28, 1937, well after the 1936 commemorative date.
First impressions of the coins design just screams “jumbled mess” and the assessment doesn’t get any better with in depth study. Both the obverse and reverse are so full it is hard to conceive of how the artist could have added another word or symbol.
The obverse of the coin (ship side) has three nested layers of content. In the center is a copy of the Norfolk City Seal. It consists of a 3 masted ship under full sail on a row of moderately high waves; below the ship is a plow in a field of 6 indeterminate plants sitting above three sheaves of wheat. All of this is encircled with two Latin inscriptions. Across the top arc is “ ET TERA ET MARE DIVITIAE TUAE” which means “Both Land and Sea are Your Riches” and below the wheat “CRESCAS” meaning “May You Grow (or Prosper)” In the upper inscription the words are separated by dots, while in the lower there is a dot at each end of the single Latin word. This center design is surrounded by another middle ring of text with two additional inscriptions. Across the top “TOWN 1682 BOROUGH 1736 CITY 1845” and across the bottom “City of Norfolk Virginia” all words in these inscriptions are separated by dots as well. Finally, the third ring of text around the outside includes “ BOROUGH OF NORFOLK BICENTENNIAL” (with words separate by diamonds) and at the bottom the date “1936” with sea shells before and after!
The reverse is equally busy. The central design element is the “Royal Mace” presented to the Borough of Norfolk in 1753 by the then Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie. The Mace includes a Royal Crown at the top and a very ornate shaft with multiple flutes. The Mace splits the Land Grant commemorative date of 1636, and the date is flanked on either side by a sprig of laurel complete with leaves and a flower. Under the date in straight lines on the left are “In God We Trust” and “Liberty” and on the right “E Pluribus Unum” and a monogram of the conjoined initials "WMS" (William Mark Simpson) and "MES" (Marjorie Emery Simpson) the husband and wife team responsible for the design! Above the date in two arcing lines of text“Norfolk Virginia” and “Land Grant” both of these inscriptions are split by the Mace Head so that a single word appears on either side of the head in each line! Finally the outer ring of text includes “United States of America” across the top with dots between each word and at the ends of the phrase and at the bottom “Half Dollar” with dots at each end, and the words divided by the bottom of the mace.
General Market Notes
The initial authorization calls for the striking of no more than 25,000 coins at a single mint. The actual initial mintage included an additional 13 coins for assay, and was executed at the Philadelphia mint in mid 1937. By this stage of the commemorative program sales were slow and eventually 8,077 coins were returned to the mint to be melted leaving a net distribution of 16,936