Front and back of a 90% silver Columbian Exposition Half Dollar (1892-1893) in circulated condition.
90% Silver Columbian Exposition Half Dollar (1892-1893) - Circulated

When promoters of an exposition to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America went to Congress in search of funds, the lawmakers balked at the $5-million-dollar request. Instead, they agreed to issue a half-dollar coin promoting the Chicago Expo that would sell for $1, with the profits going to support the event. The bullion for the 90% silver coin would come from scrap and obsolete coins already held by the Treasury. It was the first commemorative coin ever issued by the U.S. Mint.

Coin Design and Strikes

Although the Mint was willing to allow the expo company some input on the coin’s design, after considerable bickering, it was decided to use a right-facing bust of Columbus based on a 16th century painting on the face and the inscription “Columbian Half Dollar’ to distinguish it from regular currency in circulation. The reverse had a port-side view of the Santa Maria above two hemispheres flanked by the date 1492. "World's Columbian Exposition Chicago" encircles the edge with the date of striking at the bottom.

Just over five million of the coins were struck, one million carrying the 1892 date and the balance dated 1893, the year the exposition opened to the public. In typical political rhetoric, Iowa Senator William B. Allison proclaimed that, "they would not only be souvenirs for this day and generation but would be transmitted ... to the 200 million that were to dwell here in the future. Children would cry for them and the old men would demand them."

The idea was a flop in spite of numerous ads and stunts to promote it.

Unpopularity Due to 1893 Depression and Bad Press

Part of the reason was the onset of the Panic of 1893, one of the worst depressions in U.S. history. At a time when the average fair-goer only spent $1.18 in total, and fifty cents could feed an entire family, few people were inclined to spend a dollar to get a coin worth half that much. Even those who did often ended up spending it as hard times set in.

Aside from general grousing about the fact that the coin was selling at a 100% premium, several newspapers editorialized about the coin’s design. In one particularly snarky commentary, the Boston Globe opined, "The first view of the new Columbian souvenir coin inevitably leads to expression of regret that Columbus wasn't a better looking man.” 

Highly Collectible

Today, the 90% silver Columbian Exposition half dollar isone of the most collectible of all U.S. coins, and The Great American Coin Company® is pleased to offer our clients this remarkable piece of American history. These guaranteed genuine coins are 90% silver, in circulated condition, and carry dates of both 1892 and 1893. They are available individually or in rolls of 20 coins and are randomly selected. Due to market fluctuations in silver prices, the price of these items may change without notice.

Collecting coins and currency is a fascinating and rewarding hobby, but you need to know what you’re buying and choose a dealer you can trust.

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Great American Coin Company