The significance of commemorative coins is rooted in history far before the conception of the United States. During the ancient times of the Greeks and Romans, commemorative coins served record-keeping purposes ranging from honoring important events to relaying the daily news. Thus, their popularity and cultural influence originate from the building blocks of modern life and are deeply embedded in our nation's history.
Commemorative coins play a fundamental and distinctive role in United States coinage due to the fact that along with their aesthetic and monetary value, each possesses a critical historical meaning. This element of commemorative coins appeals to the historical aspect of numismatics, and often attracts individuals who do not usually partake in coin collecting.
Congress considers the reports of congressional committees - the Committee of Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, the Committee on Banking and Financial Services of the House, and the Citizens Coin Advisory- to authorize commemoratives as U.S. coinage. Furthermore, the role of commemorative coins is two-fold. These coins are either created to commemorate important events or to provide payment for historical monuments or commemorative celebrations. Commemoratives are often sold in advance of the coin's face value and usually are offered by the commission responsible for the commemorative event, monument, or celebration for a historical person, place, or thing.
Designed by Charles E. Barber, these coins were the first souvenir gold coins and were authorized for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition held at Forest Park in St. Louis from April 30 - December 1, 1904. Two versions were created of the gold dollar. One version boasted the head of Thomas Jefferson, the president during the time of the Louisiana Purchase, while the other portrayed the head of William McKinley who sanctioned the exposition on March 3, 1901. McKinley's portrait was created from life when he sat for his portrait on Charles E. Barber's presidential medal. The coin was sold for $3.00 a piece at the exposition.
With the dates 1904 and 1905, these souvenir issue gold dollars were authorized to honor the 1905 Portland, Oregon Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. Charles E. Barber artistically renders the heads of the two historical explorers on either side of the coin, making it the United States' only two-headed coin. Contrary to the coin's design, Lewis and Clark were not the coin's exclusive honorees. The sale of these gold souvenir coins also financed a bronze memorial of the exposition's famous Indian guide, Sacagawea, which was also erected in Portland.
This gold dollar was authorized to commemorate the 1915 San Francisco exposition held to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. Designed by Charles Keck, the coin's main focal attraction is the obverse representation of a male head, intended to portray a Panama Canal laborer. The reverse reads ONE DOLLAR and the phrase is encircled by two dolphins intended to represent the meeting of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Charles E. Barber and George T. Morgan were responsible for the quarter eagle design. While an American eagle adorns the reverse, the obverse displays Columbia with a caduceus in her left hand seated on a hippocampus, a rendering intended to represent the purpose of the Panama Canal.
Robert Aitken designed the fifty-dollar gold piece, which was issued in both round and octagonal shape. The reverse bears the symbol of wisdom, the owl, while the helmeted head of Minerva is displayed on the obverse. Designs within the octagonal version are slightly smaller to fit the different shape, and dolphins decorate each of the eight angles on the coin on either side. The gold coins of the Panama-Pacific Exposition set include the $1, $2.50, $50 round and $50 octagonal.
The McKinley Memorial dollars were authorized to pay for the erection of a memorial building in honor of President McKinley in his birthplace of Niles, Ohio. Charles E. Barber designed the obverse of the coin, which bore the profile of the martyred president, while George T. Morgan conceived the reverse design of the memorial building.
The Grant Memorial coins were created to honor the one hundred year anniversary of Ulysses S. Grant's birth on April 27, 1822. Designed by Laura Gardin Fraser, the reverse aptly bears the frame house in Point Pleasant, Ohio where Grant was born. The gold dollars were initially issued with a star next to Grant's profile on the obverse, which bore no significance and was removed in later issues.
Congress authorized the creation of these coins to aid in funding the 1926 international fair held in Philadelphia to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. John R. Sinnock designed the gold quarter eagle. A female figure symbolizing Liberty adorns the obverse, and she holds a scroll that represents the Declaration of Independence in one hand, and the Torch of Freedom in the other. The Independence Hall in Philadelphia illustrates the reverse.
* images not to scale