After the Lafayette Silver Dollars were sold in 1900, it would take fifteen years for the next silver commemorative coin to be released. This was the 1915-S Panama Pacific Half Dollar, which represented only the second commemorative half dollar from the United States Mint. The half dollar was issued in conjunction with the Panama Pacific Exposition held that year in San Francisco. Several other commemorative coins were issued for the occasion including a gold dollar, a quarter eagle, and two $50 gold pieces. The Panama Pacific Half Dollar is considered to be one of the most attractive classic commemorative half dollars and has been popular since the exposition.
There were two primary reasons for the exposition: San Francisco’s recovery after the 1906 earthquake and completion of the Panama Canal. While unrelated at first, the Panama Canal would bring much commerce into the city and its harbor, essential for recovery following the devastating earthquake of April 18, 1906. The earthquake and subsequent fires had destroyed as much as 80% of the city, and it would take many years to recover. San Francisco’s economy took a hard hit as well, with many businesses completely destroyed. By 1915, however, the city had well recovered, and the exposition was held to show the renovated city to the world. The Panama Canal, the other reason for the exposition, was completed the year prior. Construction had been started by France in the early 1880’s before the United States bought the project (under President Theodore Roosevelt) in 1904. It would take another decade before one of the greatest engineering projects ever taken on by mankind was completed. From that point on, ships traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast no longer had to travel all the way around South America to reach their destination.
Like the first commemorative half dollar made in the United States (the 1892-1893 Columbian Half Dollar), the 1915-S Panama-Pacific Half Dollar was designed by Charles E. Barber (obverse) and George T. Morgan (reverse). The design is truly reminiscent of the time and of the place of the exposition. First of all, there is the obverse. We see a setting sun (in the west) with its rays taking up much of the background. In front of the sun, we see Columbia gathering flowers. Columbia, the name of the female representation of the United States, originates with the name of the “discoverer” of the America’s, Christopher Columbus. The use of Columbia meaning “the Americas” dates back to around 1740 and appears to have originated in England. It quickly became popular and was seen as the Latin name for the Americas because of the ending in –ia, commonly the two ending letters of Latin names for countries. She was soon given a visual appearance of a tall, blonde young woman, an appearance which became popular in the neoclassical style of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Right behind Columbia we see a cherub holding up a cornucopia filled with agricultural products, signifying abundant resources of the American West. Also called a horn of plenty (a literal translation of the Latin word cornucopia), its origin can be traced back to ancient Greek times, although the exact origin of it remains unclear. As the latter name implies it signifies abundant resources, in particular food, and is still seen in many different depictions, including the state flag of Idaho. It is also popular in the United States during thanksgiving time. Depictions of the horn of plenty have been popular in Europe since medieval times, sometimes included on coins from Roman times to the present.
The reverse is executed in a more classical style instead of neoclassical like to obverse. We see an eagle with its wings spread, viewed from the front, placed on a shield. To the left is an oak branch and to the right is an olive branch, signifying peace and stability as often encountered on American coins. The eagle is very similar to the eagle as seen on the Morgan Dollar, which (as the name implies) was also designed by George T. Morgan. Also interesting to add is that above the eagle is placed the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, which had first appeared on the two cent piece first released in 1864 but up to this issue had never been placed on any commemorative coin.
Even though a grand total of 200,000 silver half dollars were authorized for the exposition, total sales halted at only 27,134. Part of the reason might be that legislation for the commemorative coins was not enacted until a month before opening of the exposition, which meant that the coins were not available to the general public until three months after the opening of the exposition (which ran from February to December 1915). Also, expectations might have been unreasonably high, which might be partly to blame on the person responsible for the issue. Coin dealer Farran Zerbe was responsible for this unprecedented high number of commemorative coins issued for a single event. He tried many methods and combinations of selling the various denominations, including offerings that included customized frames specifically produced for banks. While these original frames (produced by Shreve & Co. from San Francisco) are now much sought-after, initial demand for them was low. Additionally the high face value and even higher sale price of the gold issues (in particular the two $50 pieces) did not help sales much either. Even though this did not have as much of an influence on the half dollar, it did restrict sales of complete sets, which were less than five hundred for all the different combinations.
In conclusion, the 1915-S Panama-Pacific Half Dollar is a very interesting and beautiful issue to study, not only for coin collectors but also for art students. Its design elements tell a story of devastation, invention and growth and might serve as an example for future generations. With a little research the issue can come to life as much or even more than any other commemorative coin.