The proliferation of commemorative coins in the 1920s and 1930s had led to a number of abuses. First, many issues were produced at multiple mints over multiple years, leading to an excessive number of varieties for collectors to obtain a full set. For example, there are a total of fourteen varieties of the Oregon Trail Memorial half dollar. Low mintages of some of these varieties exacerbated the problem. Naturally, coin dealers delighted in the issuance of multiple varieties, which often proved extremely profitable for them.
In 1936, Cincinnati-based businessman and coin dealer Thomas Melish used his connections in Congress to secure authorization for a commemorative half dollar honoring Cincinnati as a center of the musical industry. The rationale for the Cincinnati coin was quite vague and was clearly just a profit-generating venture for Melish, but the legislation was nonetheless passed in March 1936. Melish hoped to press his luck with another coin commemorating the upcoming Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland.
Melish’s original proposal for the Cleveland Centennial half dollar called for multiple designs to be produced on multiple dates, leading to a maximum potential for profit. This time, however, Congress had grown wise to the questionable tactics of coin issuers. In hearings of the Committee on Banking and Currency, chaired by Colorado Senator Alva B. Adams, various testimony was given describing the abuses. The bill for the Cleveland half dollar was subsequently amended to require a single design, a minimum mintage of 25,000 to prevent scarcity from driving prices higher, and the coins to all be dated 1936 even if they were struck in future years.
Melish was also required to purchase 25,000 coins at one time, up to a total authorized mintage of 50,000. Melish ordered his first batch of 25,000 in July 1936, just as the Great Lakes Exposition was opening. The half dollars were sold for $1.50 each to fairgoers in Cleveland and at banks around Ohio. He also sent letters to his usual mailing list of collectors with warnings that other dealers were offering to purchase the full issue. He succeeded in selling the first 25,000 coins and ordered the second 25,000 in early 1937. These coins were identical to the first batch, bearing a 1936 date as required by law. Without the impetus of another variety, this later batch of coins did not sell as well.
The Cleveland Centennial half dollar commemorates the 100th anniversary of Cleveland’s incorporation as a city. Cleveland was actually founded in 1796 by Moses Cleaveland, a Connecticut land surveyor. At that time, the northeastern part of Ohio where Cleveland sits – the Western Reserve – was still claimed by the state of Connecticut under an older Royal land grant. Connecticut sold off the land in 1796 to a group of investors led by Cleaveland, who spent little time in Ohio and died in Connecticut in 1806. The name of the town was later shortened to Cleveland, reportedly for the satisfaction of an early newspaper which could not accommodate the additional letter in its machinery.