The United States Early Commemorative Series is a very popular set of 48 different commemorative half dollars, a commemorative quarter, and a commemorative silver dollar. These 50 types were issued for a wide variety of different historical reasons, providing a window into America’s past. The task of assembling a complete type set in this series can truly provide a lifetime of collecting pleasure. In addition to the 50 types, there are different dates and mintmarks that make it a daunting task to collect a complete set of classic commemoratives, with a total of 144 different issues.
In this article, we will take a look at the designs with their multiple issues, the difficulty of finding such sets, and the wide range of mintages and quality that can be found within each classic commemorative design. For a more thorough discussion please refer to the articles on each of the commemorative issues published regularly on this Web site. Also please note that issues with two varieties, such as the 1921 Alabama and Missouri Half Dollars, 1922 Grant commemoratives, and 1935 San Diego issues are not covered in this article, as they were struck in the a single year and are too limited to be considered a “set.”
Oregon Trail Memorial Half Dollars
Years of issue: 1926-39
Total number of coins in set: 14
Net mintage of all issues combined: 202,933 coins
The Oregon Trail Memorial Commemorative Half Dollars is the first truly multiple year issue within the classic commemorative series. First struck in 1926, this half dollar was meant to commemorate the pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail in the first half of the 20th century. The final coin of this series would not be struck until 13 years later, in 1939. Mintages vary widely, with the 1926-S having the highest issue with 100,000 struck (17,000 were later melted, leaving a net mintage of 83,000 pieces), and the three 1939 issues having a mintage of only 3,000 coins each.
The Oregon Set is a very popular commemorative collection to build, though the challenge associated with the individual issues can vary greatly. The 1933-D, the only issue released that year, with a net mintage of 5,008 coins, is a popular coin that is very scarce in gem or finer, though its highest grades are more available in than those for the 1934-D, which had a mintage of 7,000 pieces. The latter has the lowest number of pieces certified at the MS-67 and MS-67+ levels; no 1934-D Oregon Commemorative Half Dollars have graded finer than MS-67+ at either of the two major grading services. Even in those grades, the 1934-D is priced only moderately higher than other issues of this series.
The Oregon Trail set is moderately difficult to assemble in gem condition, especially when the collector is seeking fully original coins. Three-piece sets of the 1938 and 1939 issues have mostly been broken up, and finding an original three-piece set of those years with matching toning is extremely difficult. Occasionally, a fully original three-piece set in the original holder comes onto the market, but demand for such sets is extremely high. Yet when one coin is purchased at a time at the MS-65 level, this is a set that offers plenty of opportunity, as most coins will be available at that grade level for less than $300 each.
Daniel Boone Bicentennial Half Dollars
Years of issue: 1934-38
Total number of coins in set: 16
Net mintage of all issues combined: 87,100 coins
The Daniel Boone Bicentennial Commemorative Half Dollar set (struck to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Boone’s birth) is perhaps the most elaborate of all commemorative half dollars, as a total of sixteen different issues were released within five short years. One cause for this high output was that two varieties were created for each of the three mints in 1935, resulting in six different Boone half dollars that year alone. None of the sixteen issues have a mintage that truly stands out, and mintages vary between 12,000 Boone Half Dollars struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1936, to 2,000 coins for the Denver and San Francisco issues of 1935, with a small “1934” added to the reverse design. The three 1938 issues had a net mintage of 2,100 each, a very low number as well (a total of 5,000 were struck but 2,900 of each were returned to the mint and melted).
These relatively low-mintages make this is a difficult set to complete without deep pockets, thanks to high demand. The true key to the series are the two 1935 issues mentioned above, which at a mintage of just 2,000 pieces each have the lowest mintages of any of the commemorative half dollar series. Needless to say, demand for these pieces is high, especially in gem or better condition, which sees population numbers at the two major grading services in the lower hundreds for MS-65 and better. The condition rarity of this series is the Philadelphia issue of 1938, which has about 50 pieces certified by PCGS and NGC combined in MS-67 or better, a number no doubt influenced by re-submissions as well, making it a rare coin at that grade level.
As previously mentioned, this is a set that is much more difficult to complete in gem condition than the Oregon Trail half dollars. While the individual issues with higher mintages–such as the 1934 and 1936 Philadelphia minted coins–are available for around $200 each in gem condition, the 1935, with “1934,” and 1938 issues jump to many multiples of that, even in the lower Uncirculated grades.
Texas Centennial Half Dollars
Years of issue: 1934-38
Total number of coins in set: 13
Net mintage of all issues combined: 149,478
While it does not have as many coins as the Boone half dollar issued the same year, the Texas set is not all that easy to complete either. It was first released to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Texas’s independence from Mexico. Net mintages (after deducting the pieces melted) range from 61,350 coins for the 1934 Philadelphia issue to 3,770 of the 1938-D released, with the two other 1938 issues having mintages within 100 coins of that number. Popular because of its elaborate design, this is an issue that sees similar prices for each of the issues in gem condition, making it a prime candidate for a set to be completed in matching grades. That doesn’t mean, however, that such a set is all that easy to complete.
Having the lowest mintages, the three-piece 1938 set is the most difficult to acquire in the highest grades, with a small premium in MS-65 to a relatively high premium in MS-67, or better. While it does not have particularly low populations at the two major grading services at that grade level, popularity makes it still a difficult and expensive coin set to acquire. Surprising to some, perhaps, will be the fact that the first year of issue, the 1934, has the highest mintage but is considered to be the most difficult to find in MS-67 condition; it’s about on par with the Philadelphia issue of 1938, which has a mintage of approximately 5% of that of the 1934. It was generally purchased as a souvenir coin by the general public, and very few coin collectors saved it, unlike the later issues.
In MS-65 condition the collector can expect to pay between $225-300 for each issue, depending on overall quality and eye-appeal. Of course, because of their lower mintages, the 1938 issues trade for a slightly higher amount. Generally speaking, the Philadelphia issues are more difficult to find in higher grades than the Denver and San Francisco issues, regardless of year or mintages.
Arkansas Centennial Half Dollars
Years of issue: 1935-39
Total number of coins in set: 15
Net mintage of all issues combined: 85,200 coins
The Arkansas Centennial Half Dollars (struck for the 100th anniversary of the admission of Arkansas into the Union) are very similar to the Boone Half Dollars in that no single issue stands out for having a substantially larger mintage than the others of the series. The Philadelphia coin from the first year of issue, 1935, has the highest mintage of the series with 13,000 coins struck. Once again, the lowest mintage of the series is found in the last year that the design was struck, 1939, with net mintages of 2,100 each for the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco issues. Issues from the previous year, 1938, also had low mintages of a mere 3,150 pieces each.
Compared to the other series’ in this article, the Arkansas Half Dollar set is more difficult to complete, since the mintages are pretty low for most of the issues (as was the case with the Boone Half Dollar as well), and quality overall is lacking. The coins turned out by the mint were often lackluster, and the design of the coin (especially the reverse with the conjoined heads of Liberty and a Native American chief) is prone to show marks extremely well. While the major grading services have certified 300 or more in gem of each issue combined (of which many are most likely re-submissions), finer pieces are more seldom encountered, and this is one of the rarer commemoratives in MS-67 or better.
For the collector on a budget, this might not be the best set to collect. While individual coins are very affordable for the more common dates (you should be able to find an appealing MS-65 for about $200 or less) the 1938 and 1939 issues are much higher priced in all grades, and especially so at the gem level. This is an issue that was widely distributed to numismatists and dealers at the time, so abuse by non-collectors is not all that heavy, but there were never that many released to begin with.
Booker T. Washington Half Dollars
Years of issue: 1946-51
Total number of coins in set: 18
Net mintage of all issues combined: 1,574,469 coins (approximate number)
The Booker T. Washington Commemorative Half Dollar (struck to commemorate Booker T. Washington and to raise funds for memorials to his memory) was struck for six years between 1946 and 1951 at each of the three Mints operating at the time, resulting in eighteen different issues, the largest subset within the classic commemorative series. With over one and a half million pieces struck for collectors (and eventually for circulation, where many coins of this issue did end up) there are plenty of coins to go around, despite the fact that mintage numbers vary widely from year to year and issue to issue.
The 1946 issues have the highest mintages (the Philadelphia coin had a net mintage of half a million coins), although the 1950-S and 1951 issues come close with each having a net mintage of over 250,000 coins. Within the scheme of classic commemoratives, these are huge numbers, but there are also issues with much lower mintages. The three 1949 issues, as well as the Philadelphia and Denver issues of 1950, had net mintages of only 6,000 coins each, marking the lowest numbers of this series. It should not come as a surprise that even gems are very common, and a nice type coin in MS-65 can be purchased for less than $75. There are very little differences between the dates at that grade level, although the low-mintage issues tend to sell for a little bit more.
In grades higher than MS-65, however, the Booker T. Washington half dollars become scarcer as population numbers drop. Coins certified in MS-66 are rare, with populations of less than 500 for most issues. Certified MS-67 populations often are less than 100, with the Philadelphia issues generally having the lowest populations. For type set purposes, the 1946-S is your best bet, with well over 100 pieces graded at the MS-67 level. A complete 18-piece MS-67 Booker T. Washington set, however, is a major feat completed by very few.
Washington-Carver Half Dollars
Years of issue: 1951-54
Total number of coins in set: 12
Net mintage of all issues combined: 1,320,802 coins (approximate number)
The final United States commemorative struck until 1982 was the Washington-Carver Commemorative Half Dollar, struck to commemorative the lives of Booker T. Washington (again) and George Washington Carver. Twelve different issues were created between 1951 and 1954, the majority of which consisted of the Philadelphia issue of 1952, responsible for approximately 85% of the mintage of the entire series. Other issues are much scarcer, however, and the lowest mintages are found with the Denver and San Francisco issues of 1952, and the Philadelphia and Denver issues of 1954, all of which had mintages of only 8,000 coins.
This particular design is relatively common in certified gem condition (although not as common as the Booker T. Washington, thanks to the design which is prone to display many marks) with coins available for less than $100. Coins in MS-66 and better, however, are a different story. Especially the three coins struck in 1951 are very scarce in MS-66 and, except for the San Francisco issue, virtually unknown in MS-67. The 1952, with its huge mintage, remains scarce in MS-66, but much more available. Such coins, however, are very much in demand for type set purposes. Other dates share the same story as the 1951 issues, although they tend to be somewhat more available at the MS-66 level and thus more affordable as well.
Despite the fact that this was voted to be the least popular of the whole classic commemorative series, it does offer potential due to its scarcity in high grades, as well has having the shortest run of the sets discussed in this article.
While none of these sets are particularly easy to complete (especially not when put together in the same grade with matching eye-appeal) they generally tend to be more available than some of the scarcer type commemoratives included in a 50-piece set. As such they can be a very interesting introduction to the commemorative series, especially when your eventual goal is to complete the 144 piece set. Many of the issues discussed in this article will vary in eye-appeal, and those differences are important to know when selecting a single coin for a type set.
I have focused on gem and better pieces as I believe that these tend to hold their value very well when it comes to classic commemoratives. Compared to other series, there are fewer price fluctuations in the classic commemorative series, but they also offer historical coins that are always in demand. Gem sets have always been the most popular way to collect these coins and were therefore focus of this article. This does not mean that the lower-graded pieces should be overlooked; if you were to collect any of the sets discussed in this article and were to complete the set (whether it is in MS-63 or MS-66 and better) you have accomplished something that few collectors will be able to say they’ve done.