History of U.S. coins honoring foreign leaders

Ken Marich

This article presents a brief history of the first three commemorative coins that were authorized and struck by the U.S. Mint and designed by Charles E. Barber. Charles was born in London in 1840 and was the Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint from 1879 until his death in 1917. He had a long and successful career in coinage, designing most of the U.S. coins produced at the mint during his time as Chief Engraver. In addition to the three featured coins in this article he designed the Barber half, quarter, dime and the liberty head nickel. Barber also designed foreign coins for the Kingdom of Hawaii, Szechuan Province of China and Cuba. The three U.S. coins featured in the article were issued between 1892-1900. These coins, now collector items, are the Columbian Half Dollar (1892/93), the Isabella Quarter (1893) and the Lafayette Dollar (1900).

The Columbian Half Dollar was issued to honor the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the New World. It was issued for the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1892/93. The coin featured the bust of Christopher Columbus on the obverse and the reverse (designed by George T Morgan) shows the Santa Maria ship. While Congress authorized five million half dollars to be struck, less than 400,000 were sold, 2.5 million were melted and the balance released to circulation.

In 1892 the Board of Lady Managers for the Chicago Expo requested funds to issue a souvenir quarter coin to show that women could successfully assist in the management of the fair. This coin became known as the Isabella Quarter. In January 1893, Congress authorized funds for the Lady Managers. The proceeds from the sale of these commemorative quarters was to help build a structure at the Expo devoted to the interests of women. The Lady Managers decided that the quarter should bear a portrait of Isabella I, the Queen of Castile in Spain who helped finance Columbus’s expedition. The reverse of the Isabella quarter depicts a kneeling female with a distaff and spindle, symbolizing women’s industry. Minting of the souvenir Isabella quarter began at the Philadelphia Mint in mid-June, 1893, six weeks after the exposition actually opened. A total of 40,000 coins were struck. The Isabella quarter sold for $1 each and did not sell well. Approximately 25,000 were sold to collectors, dealers, fairgoers and the Lady Managers while 15,000 were returned to the mint for melting.

The third commemorative coin designed by Barber was the Lafayette Dollar in 1900. The obverse shows the heads of George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. The statue on the reverse shows General Lafayette on horseback. This memorial coin represents a long history between Lafayette and General Washington. In 1777 at the age of 20, Lafayette crossed the Atlantic with a dozen men to support the American revolutionary cause. He earned a commission as a Major General in the Continental Army. Lafayette bravely served at Brandywine, Valley Forge and Yorktown. His Revolutionary war efforts and his effort to influence the French government to sign the Treaty of Alliance in 1778 with the fledgling U.S. earned him U.S. citizenship in 1784. France’s friendship with America was strong and in 1886, France gifted the U.S. the Statue of Liberty. The Lafayette commemorative dollar coins were authorized by Congress in March 1899. The Philadelphia Mint struck 50,000 coins to be sold at $2 each. Again, these dollars did not sell well and 14,000 coins were eventually melted in 1945.

All three of these commemorative coins were composed of 90% silver and 10% copper. Today these coins are actively sought by collectors and have significantly increased in value. The current market value of these coins in fine to uncirculated condition is as follows: Columbian Half $18-$40, Isabella Quarter $300-$420 and the Lafayette Dollar $400-$875.

The SaddleBrooke Coin Club meets the second Thursday of each month from 7:00-9:00 p.m. in the Sonoran Room in the MountainView Clubhouse. For more information contact Terry Caldwell at 719-246-1822 or [email protected]