The 1936 Cleveland Centennial and Great Lakes Exposition commemorative half dollar was issued to mark the 100th anniversary of the city of Cleveland, Ohio. The coin was released at the Great Lakes Exposition held in the summer and early fall of 1936 and is generally considered to be one of the more legitimate commemoratives released in the bonanza that was the commemorative coin market in 1936. The issue’s total mintage of 50,000 pieces was eventually distributed (although in two separate batches, with the second batch of 25,000 coins not struck until 1937) and this is now considered to be one of the more available classic commemoratives.
Like the other Ohio themed commemorative (the Cincinnati) issued in 1936, the Cleveland Half Dollar was the brainchild of Thomas G. Melish, an Ohio businessman and numismatist who had pushed for the Cincinnati commemorative mostly for personal gain, as there was not much of a reason to release that issue in the first place. But the Great Lakes Exposition (held on Cleveland’s waterfront from June to October 1936) was a much more legitimate reason to issue a commemorative half dollar, withthe pieces to be sold at the exposition for $1.50 each, as well as by the mail to coin collectors around the country.
Cleveland, Ohio was originally named “Cleaveland” by members of the Connecticut Land Company, after their leader, General Moses Cleaveland. As far as Connecticut might be from present-day Ohio, back in the late 18th century Connecticut claimed a tract of land known as the “Western Reserve” until as late as 1800. The idea came from the notion that the original States on the Atlantic seaboard stretched across the continent, all the way to the Pacific Ocean, even though nobody really knew how far that might be. While most States never acted on these claims, the company from Connecticut actually did send an expedition to the southern-shore of Lake Erie in 1796, which led to the name “Cleaveland” given to a proposed capital city of the region, including a plan laid out to build such a city. While Connecticut gave up claims to the region a few years later and the first settlers did not arrive until 1814, the name stuck, eventually dropping the “a”, and in 1836 the city of Cleveland was incorporated, eventually growing into a major transportation hub of the Great Lakes and today a modern city in the American Midwest.
Brenda Putnam, mostly known for her sculptures and writings, designed the commemorative half dollar released in the centennial year of the city’s incorporation. On the obverse it featured a bust of Moses Cleaveland, facing left. MOSES CLEAVELAND is above the bust, with LIBERTY in front of it, separated with three dots. Along the rim there is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and the denomination, HALF DOLLAR. The designers initials, BP are near the truncation of the bust, unlike the other lettering on the coin the initials are incused.
The reverse features a map of the Great Lakes region. Nine stars are placed at the location of the region’s major cities: Duluth (MN), Milwaukee (WI), Chicago (IL), Detroit (MI), Toledo (OH), Buffalo (NY), Rochester (NY), Toronto (Canada) and Cleveland. A large compass is placed over the map, pointing to Cleveland. Along the top is GREAT LAKES EXPOSITION, with IN GOD WE TRUST placed below. In the upper right field is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. At 3 o’clock and 6 o’clock are the dual dates 1836 and 1936. Finally, along the bottom rim is CLEVELAND CENTENNIAL.
After the issuance of the coin had been authorized by Congress under the Act of May 5, 1936, Melish moved quickly to ensure that the coin could be sold at the Exposition. Models by Putnam were approved by the Commission of Fine Arts in early June, and in July 25,000 coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, half of the authorized mintage of 50,000 coins. They were promptly sent to the exposition, which had opened on June 27, and sales continued until the exposition closed on October 4, 1936. Sales were brisk and an additional 25,000 pieces were struck at the Philadelphia Mint in February of 1937. Even though law required coinage to be dated the year it was struck, the act authorizing the issuance of the Cleveland half dollar had stipulated that the coins must be dated 1936 regardless of the year in which they were struck, and as a result there is only one variety of the Cleveland half dollar today.
The exposition reopened on May 29, 1937 for a second summer, and once again the commemorative half dollars were sold to the general public. Yet, when the exposition closed for good on September 6, Melish had plenty of half dollars still on hand, and the coins continued to be distributed for quite some time, mostly through Ohio banks. The lack of circulated coins in the marketplace indicates that unlike other commemoratives issued in the 1930s, very few were released into circulation at face value, which means that eventually the entire mintage of 50,000 pieces was distributed to collectors and the general public.
The coins were distributed in cardboard holders as well as envelopes, and the majority of pieces that survive today do so in uncirculated condition. Gems are easily found, and even MS-66 pieces are generally available, and the price difference between circulated coins and nice MS-66 pieces is relatively low. Many coins come with a plethora of different colors, perhaps the result of the envelopes in which they were originally issued, and most MS-67 graded coins will feature original surfaces with nice color and satin to semi-frosty luster. A number of very nice rainbow-toned pieces exist in as grades as high as MS-68, but at this grade level the coins becomes a major rarity and auction appearances of coins graded that high are very infrequent.