Three years after the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition Half Dollar, another commemorative half dollar was issued, this time for the statehood centennial of Illinois. This coin prominently featured a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the obverse, leading many to refer to it as the Lincoln Half Dollar, although it is more appropriately known as the Illinois Centennial Half Dollar.
The coin is important for a number of reasons. First of all, it was the first commemorative half dollar to sell the entire authorized mintage, which had been established at 100,000 pieces. Next, it was the first half dollar to portray a U.S. President. While some earlier commemoratives had featured Presidents, they were different denominations. Finally, this represented the first commemorative coin to be issued in connection with an event related to a specific state, a practice which would dominate many commemorative issues over the next thirty years.
As previously mentioned, the obverse of the Illinois Centennial Commemorative features a bust of Abraham Lincoln, facing right. Around the bust is the text CENTENNIAL OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, with the words separated with dots. Behind Lincoln is IN GOD WE TRUST and in front is LIBERTY. To finish the obverse design there is the date below the truncation of the neck.
The portrait is noticeably different from the one appearing on the Lincoln Cent, which had first been struck in 1909 and had been designed by Victor D. Brenner. The obverse of the commemorative was designed by George T. Morgan, the British engraver who had been employed at the U.S. Mint since the 1870’s. Not only had he been responsible for the famous Morgan Dollar named after him, but his designs can also be found on a large number of patterns (test pieces produced to test new coin designs) and a number of other commemoratives.
Morgan did not base his portrait on an existing photograph or other visual depiction of Lincoln from his lifetime, but instead based it on a statue made by Andrew O’Connor for the Illinois centennial. The statue, featuring Lincoln as a President-Elect in the early 1860’s, was unveiled in 1918 and currently resides at the Illinois State Capital in Springfield. It stands next to a stone with Lincoln’s farewell address to the citizens of the city, which he delivered as he was about to board the train to Washington D.C.
The reverse was not designed by Morgan, but by John R. Sinnock, who based it on the Illinois State Seal with some modifications. Added to it are, as required by law, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, the denomination (as HALF DOLLAR) and the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. The design has some similarities to a design by Morgan from the late 1870’s, which was seen on a number of pattern coins and was later resurrected for the Panama-Pacific Quarter Eagle, although it is unknown if this was done deliberately or if it was merely coincidental.
The original state seal was designed after statehood had been achieved, initially featuring an eagle with its wings spread and a shield upon its breast. With minor alterations this original design stayed in use until the 50th anniversary of statehood was commemorated in 1868, when a completely new seal was designed. It featured an American Eagle, viewed from the side, perched on a rock in what appears to be the Illinois prairie. The sun can be seen rising in the background and a large shield is in front of the eagle. The eagle’s wings are spread, it has its beak is up, holding a scroll with the Illinois Motto “State Sovereignty, National Union”. Interestingly enough, on the actual seal, the word Sovereignty is upside down. This dates back to the time when the seal was being redesigned, when Senator Fuller tried to put the words National Union on the bottom of the scroll (where, in his opinion, it would make it more prominent). This failed, however, but Fuller did manage to put the word sovereignty upside down, making National Union appear more prominent.
The design on the actual coin is different in that the word sovereignty is not turned upside down. In addition the dates “1818, 1868”, which are on the rock in the state seal, do not appear on the coin. The design of the eagle is also slightly different, with its neck more level and not raised as much as on the state seal design. It is unknown why the design was altered that much, but aesthetic purposes seem to be the primary reason.
The coins were offered for sale at $1 each, a price similar to previous commemorative half dollars. A number of people bought large quantities of the coins (as well as a bank in Springfield, which kept the coins for over a decade), making it the first commemorative that actually sold out. The official mintage is generally listed as 100,058 (authorized were 100,000 coins), with the additional 58 coins set aside for assay purposes and later melted. The issue remains popular to this day, most likely because of the striking image of the 16th President of the United States on the obverse. Certified gems (MS-65) are generally available but higher grade examples are surprisingly scarce. An extremely limited number of pieces have been certified as Proofs, but whether or not these were actually struck deliberately as such remains unclear. It appears to be more likely that these are merely the first coins struck of the dies, resulting in prooflike surfaces, and these so-called Proofs are not widely publicized.