The 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition Half Dollar

February 25, 2015 By ekr


The Money Museum celebrates the centennial of an historic event and coin issue

John Steinbeck described San Francisco as “a golden handcuff with the key thrown away,” and 100 years ago the City by the Bay captivated a nation and world as host of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The event celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal, and symbolized the city’s rebirth from the 1906 earthquake.

From February to December, 19 million people visited the city’s northern shore to view exhibits and grand architectural marvels like the Tower of Jewels and the Palace of Fine Arts,  which survives today. The event featured the first transcontinental phone call (between Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Watson and President Woodrow Wilson, just before the Expo opened), an assembly plant that produced Ford cars, and the Liberty Bell – its last journey outside Philadelphia.

The first United States commemorative coin, the Columbian half dollar, was first produced in 1892 to raise money for the following year’s World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The U.S. Mint released coins to commemorate the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the 1903 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, and the 1904-05 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland. For the San Francisco exposition, the San Francisco Mint created 60,000 silver half dollars, 25,000 $1 gold coins, 10,000 gold quarter eagles, and 1,500 each of an octagonal and round $50 gold coin. The coins became the first U.S. commemoratives produced at a branch mint, and thus feature a mintmark (on the half dollar, left of the date on the obverse).

The Pan-Pac half dollar’s obverse was designed by Charles Barber and features Columbia scattering flowers with a child behind holding a cornucopia – a symbol of the American West’s abundance – and the Golden Gate and setting sun with rays in the background. The coin’s reverse, designed by George Morgan (and possibly Charles Barber; the two also designed the Pan-Pac quarter eagle), features an eagle with wings raised, perched on the Union Shield, with oak and olive branches around.

The half dollar is the first commemorative coin to feature “In God We Trust” (above eagle), and the first to feature Liberty (as Columbia). The half dollars were originally to be minted at the exposition’s U.S. Mint exhibit, and the idea was to continually produce and melt the coins to give visitors an educational experience while adhering to the authorized 200,000 net mintage limit. However, diverting too many resources away from the official Mint building caused concern, and the coins were all produced at “The Granite Lady.” 

Overall sales of the half-dollar and gold issues were sluggish. Former ANA President Farran Zerbe served as manager of the event’s Coin and Medal Department, and was in charge of the coins’ retail distribution at the fair. Zerbe displayed his “Money of the World” exhibit near the Palace of Fine Arts, and here he sold the majority of the coins here singly ($1 for a half dollar) or in sets. Although Zerbe remained in San Francisco to sell the coins through May of 1916, many thousands of the commemoratives were still unsold and some more than 32,000 half dollars were melted, along with substantial portions of the gold commemoratives.  

The Panama-Pacific Exposition was a resounding success, and is today remembered as being the most incredible celebration of art, sculpture and design at any world’s fair before or since. Noted numismatic sculptors James Earle Fraser, Adolph A. Weinman and Augustus Saint-Gaudens were among the prominent artists to feature their work. Its numismatic legacy is also substantial; in addition to the modern popularity of the Pan-Pac commemoratives, a stunning official medal was struck at the Mint Exhibit at the fair, and a wide range of so-called dollars, many produced by states before the event to raise funds for their exhibits, continue to enthrall collectors today.        

The theme for 2015 National Coin Week, April 19-25, is “Building Tomorrows: Inspiration and Innovation at World’s Fairs,” celebrating the history of World’s Fairs and the 100th anniversary of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. The ANA is holding two activities for its members and the grand prize for each competition a 1915-S Panama Pacific Exposition commemorative half dollar, donated by ANA Board members Jeff Garrett and Gary Adkins. The Edward C. Rochette Money Museum will host a free open house on April 26 featuring a display of U.S. and world commemoratives, and a variety of activities for young and old. A wealth of educational content and fun activities about World’s Fairs is available at   

Return to top