Since the early 1800s, coins were used to celebrate or mark special events. This is how and why most early “proof” coins came to be; they were struck in conjunction with some special circumstance. However, these proofs tended to be specially prepared versions of ordinary coins. That is, the coins would have the same format and basic design motif—but would be struck with polished dies and specially prepared planchets (blanks).
Towards the late 19th century, a new trend emerged: celebrating an event with an entirely new coin. Rather than just strike a special version of an existing coin, a brand new coin with altogether different design would be produced. This concept quickly gained popularity and a new genre of numismatics was born: the commemorative coin.
Arguably, America’s first commemorative coin was struck in 1848. That year the first batch of gold from the California Gold Rush made its way to Philadelphia. Realizing the importance of this event, a small batch of $2.50 Quarter Eagles were struck with the initials “CAL.” engraved into the reverse. These are extremely rarer and highly coveted by collectors; specimens trade for $50,000-$300,000.
Later, in 1892 and 1893, Congress authorized a special quarter and half dollar to commemorate the World’s Columbian Exposition. The quarter featured Queen Isabella while the half dollar depicted Christopher Columbus. The coins had a cost of face value and were offered for sale at $1 ea. The difference between face and $1 would be profit for the expo organizers. Unfortunately, the coins sold rather poorly; many were spent or even melted!
Despite the initial lack of success, the United States Mint continued to produce commemorative coins for various expos, anniversaries, special events, centennials, bicentennials, sesquicentennials, etc. Some were slow sellers, but many were wildly popular with mintages topping one million pieces! This trend continued until 1954.
More recently, the United States Mint has begun producing commemorative coins again—but this time the Mint itself is the retailer (not a separate entity or expo organizer). The program continues to be extremely well-received with collectors. As an example, many of the 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins sold out and soon began to trade on the secondary market for more than issue price!
In summary, America’s commemorative coins are a rich, diverse and fascinating branch of United States coinage. Although some issues saw limited success upon release, many of those same “commems” have become treasured and valuable items. Even today, well over a century since the first commemorative coins were issued, the program remains extremely popular among collectors.