Die-Pressed Wooden Medals & Plaques of the 1876 Centennial Exposition

July 29, 2015 By ekr


Editors note: An updated version of this e-book for 2015 is now available for download. We’ve republished this members-only blog post with a new date so that it’s easier to find the updated e-book. An excerpt appears below. An abbreviated version of this e-book was first published as an article in the July 2014 edition of The Numismatist. 

By Dr. Donald G. Tritt

(ANA 1030065, TAMS 6257, CSNS 11467, Medal Collectors of America)

United States Centennial Exposition, 1876

The Centennial Exposition of 1876 was held in Philadelphia, May 10 to November 10, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Though initially planned to be a display of innovations and products of the United States only, the Centennial soon became an International Exposition with the official title, International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine. All nations having diplomatic relations with the U.S. were invited to participate. Strong support by Philadelphians urged city council to permit use of Fairmount Park through which flowed the winding Schuylkill & Wissahickon Rivers.

The Congress of the United States, by an act approved March 3, 1871, provided that the centennial anniversary of the promulgation of the Declaration of American Independence should be created in Philadelphia. On March 3, 1872 the U.S. Centennial Commission was established with Gen’l Joseph R. Hawley (1826-1905), the 42nd Governor of Connecticut, as President. Soon afterwards the United States Congress, on June 1, 1872 created a Centennial Board of Finance with representation from each state and territory to oversee the raising of funds by offering subscriptions of capital stock not exceeding $10 million divided into shares of $10 each. Capitol stock certificates were issued April 21, 1875. To oversee fundraising and to provide overall administration, Alfred T. Goshorn (1833-1902) was named Director-General. Goshorn was well known as a Cincinnati businessman and successful organizer of the 1870 to 1888 Cincinnati Industrial Expositions. On July 3, 1873 President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) issued the official proclamation creating the Centennial Exposition. 

Beginning July 4, 1874 (with completion by April 1, 1876), more than 200 buildings ranging in size from the giant Main Exhibition Building (21 ½ acres) to tiny booths were constructed on the 236 acres set aside for the Exposition. Twenty-six states (out of 38) and thirty-five nations were represented. The Opening Address was given by President Grant on May 10. By the time the Exposition closed on November 10 more than 10 million had visited the Exposition, nearly 25 percent of the population of the United States.

Dates in the numismatic history of the1876 Centennial and the appearance of wooden medals & plaques

Anticipating a market for mementoes of the Centennial Exhibition, independent designers Thomas Hartell and John Letchworth of Philadelphia, between April 1874 and April 1875, filed for and were granted four Patents for the Design of Medals showing the exteriors of the Machinery Hall, the Main building, the Memorial Building and the Horticultural Hall.

The United States Congressional Act of June 16, 1874 authorized that official “…medals with appropriate devices, emblems, and inscriptions commemorative of the Centennial Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence be prepared at the Mint at Philadelphia for the Centennial Board of Finance, subject to the provisions of the fifty-second section of the Coinage Act of 1873, upon the payment of a sum not less than the cost thereof, and all the provisions, whether penal or otherwise, of said Coinage Act against the counterfeiting or imitation of coins of the United States, shall apply to the Medals struck and issued under the provisions of this Act.” Striking of official medals began in October of 1874. Even though striking of Centennial medals began in 1874 and continued throughout 1875 and 1876, this catalog will label issues related to the Centennial under the year 1876. 

The January 1875 issue of the American Journal of Numismatics reported that the United States Mint had made its first delivery of:  

medals struck by authority of Congress for the Centennial Commission, and protected by the Coinage Laws. They are beautiful in design and execution, and are intended as memorials of the great commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of the nation’s birth, and will be sold at $1, $2, $3, and $5 each, according to their respective styles, by the Centennial Board of  Finance, and the proceeds will be applied toward defraying the expenses of the national celebration. The Mint will now turn out  these Medals rapidly, and the board will be able to supply the great demand for them that is pressing from all quarters.

Concerned that private companies were advertising their medals as “official,” the United States Centennial Board of Finance on March 24, 1875, found it necessary to issue the following notice

Official Centennial Medals, “having been prepared and issued, are now being sold by the Centennial Board of Finance and its agents, and the profits arising therefrom strictly applied in aid of the preparation for the celebration of the anniversary which the Medals commemorate. They are the only Medals relating to the great events of 1876 officially issued, and may be readily distinguished from any of the tokens styled Centennial Medals, and issued by private parties for their individual profit, from the fact that in addition to the design and other wording, the larger Medals have stamped upon them, ‘Act of Congress, June 1874,’ and the others, ‘By the authority of the Congress of the United States’.” (In violation of this, the wooden medal 1876 [1] was produced.)

“These official Medals are of four kinds – small gilt at $1; large bronze at $2; coin silver at $3; large gilt at $5; or all enclosed in one case at $11. Cautionary notice is hereby given that the Centennial Board of Finance intends to avail itself of the protection and privilege granted by the Acts of Congress above mentioned, and that the highly penal provisions for publishing, counterfeiting or imitating the authorized official Medals will be strictly enforced against all infringement and violation.”  

In April and May 1875 independent designer John H. Schreiner of Philadelphia filed for and was granted two Patents for the Design of Medals depicting Joseph R. Hawley, Alfred T. Goshorn, the Main Building and the Memorial/Art Gallery.

The first portrayal of an authorized Centennial medal appeared in the April 1875 issue of the American Journal of Numismatics. Depicted there was the now iconic “Independence Centennial Commission Medal” in silver, gilt and bronze. Listed were two sizes. The size 36 (55mm) medal showing on its reverse “Act of Congress June 1874” and the size 24 medal (38mm) showing on its reverse “By Authority of the Congress of the United States 1876.”

In June 1875 the independent designer Israel Y. Knight of Philadelphia filed for and was granted a Patent for the design of a medal, later to be known as the Magna est Veritas medal or the Washington Cherry Tree medal listed here as 1876 [2].

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