If you’re not already a member of the Token and Medal Society, you really need to sign up. Tokens and medals offer unique windows into American history, including many connections to the Bluegrass State. TAMS is an active hobby group. It’s been around for more than 60 years and it boasts one of the most colorful and interesting magazines in numismatics.
In the November–December 2021 issue of The TAMS Journal, Mike Miller shares a richly illustrated six-page article on “Award Medals, Medalets, and Exonumia From Louisville’s Southern Exposition, 1883–1887.” It’s a great read. Miller showcases a beautiful display of Expo award medals and augments them with related material like collectible stock certificates, admission tickets, souvenir medalets, and advertisements.
“In 1883,” Miller writes, “the civic leaders from my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, came together to design, finance, and implement the great Southern Exposition of art, industry, and agriculture. From the day President Chester Arthur cut the ribbon to open the exposition on August 1 of that year, until the day it closed on October 31, 1887, our citizens were exposed to and participated in the latest and best technology, industry, commerce, culture, agriculture, visual, and performing arts the world had to offer. During its first year, over a million attended while Louisville’s population was only 160,000.”
Miller gives a delightful tour of the Exposition, where electricity was the major innovation (with the first indoor event illuminated completely by electric light.) He tells of the music hall that seated 3,000 visitors to hear the nation’s leading orchestras, bands, and lecturers; 1,500 exhibits from all 38 states and many foreign countries; the first ice-cream sodas, a cigar factory, and the smallest engine in the world. “You could see cotton picked one day and made into a suit of clothes by the next,” he writes.
The hundreds of medals awarded during the Exposition, and related tokens and souvenirs, “represent the artistic highpoint in the numismatic history of Louisville,” Miller observes. The diesinkers and engravers used design elements that told the world that “Louisville was ready to compete in national mercantile, agricultural, artistic, and industrial markets.”
They “spark the imagination of a time when Louisville was able to dream big and make it happen.”
These medals and related pieces don’t appear at auction very frequently, but they’re available. They make very collectible mementoes of the “City of Progress” and the grand Southern exhibition that brought millions of visitors to Kentucky.
Dennis Tucker, Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, is the publisher of Whitman Publishing, a leading producer of storage and display supplies, reference books, and other resources for collectors and hobbyists. He was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel in March 2021 for his career in book publishing and his promotion of the Bluegrass State’s status as an important subject in numismatics. His column “From the Colonel’s Desk” explores the Commonwealth’s diverse connections to American coins, tokens, medals, paper money, private currency, and related artifacts.