1915 Panama Pacific Exposition Coinage: San Francisco Mint Half Dollar

Mark Helton


PanPac Half Obverse

1915S Panama Pacific Half Dollar Obverse (photo: )

 

In 1915 the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was held in San Francisco to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and San Francisco's emergence from the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906. To help finance the fair, Congress authorized the San Francisco mint (known as "The Granite Lady" after surviving the '06 quake) to issue a series of five commemorative coins. Minted were the 1915S silver Panama-Pacific half dollar and four gold coins in denominations of 1 dollar, 2½ dollars (quarter eagle), a 50 dollar round coin, and an unusual 50 dollar octagonal coin. Also produced for Exposition fund raising were a series of commemorative medals, an award medal, a souvenir medal, and diplomas. Past president of the ANA Farran Zerbe oversaw the Exposition's official Coin and Medal department.

This example of a 1915S Panama-Pacific ("Pan-Pac") half dollar came to me and my family handed down from my grandfather. I was never able to talk to him about his hobby, but he evidently collected many of his coins as a young man in the early 1900s. He moved to San Francisco in 1923 and it's possible that his exposure and proximity to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition encouraged him to collect a Pan-Pac commemorative coin.

The obverse of this coin shows Columbia scattering flowers from a cornucopia held by a small child towards a sunset on the Golden Gate (prior to the construction of the now-famous bridge). Initially Paul Manship, a noted sculptor and medalist, was to be the designer of the half dollar, but Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo was persuaded to keep the work within the mint and gave it to Chief Engraver Charles Barber. Barber is credited for the obverse design while the reverse is credited to his assistant George T. Morgan, designer of the Morgan dollar . The reverse of the coin appears to be a slight modification of the eagle first used on the silver dollar in 1878. Here the eagle rests on the union shield with an oak branch to its left, for stability and strength, and an olive branch to its right, for peace. The Pan-Pac coins have the distinction of being the first commemorative coins to bear the motto "In God We Trust", and were also the first commemoratives to be struck at a branch mint.

I have a special personal attraction to this coin. Besides being a legacy from my grandfather it also serves as a reminder of the five and a half memorable years that I lived in the Panama Canal Zone while my father was stationed there during the Korean War.

My grandfather's small collection of coins were held in individual paper envelopes noting the date and the amount he paid for them. This coin shows no wear, and it probably was only handled on rare occasions. The fine detail of the eagle's breast, wings, and claws, and on Columbia's figure, is superb. The electric blue green toning on the coin is evenly spread over both surfaces, probably resulting from nearly ninety years of storage in a sulfured paper envelope.

 

PanPac Half Reverse

1915S Panama Pacific Half Dollar Reverse (photo: )

 

Congress authorized 200,000 half dollars to be minted but by the end of the Exposition only 60,030 coins had been struck, 30 of these for assay purposes. Only 27,134 total pieces were kept; the balance of the coins were turned back to the mint and melted down. 25,034 gold dollars were minted, with 34 coins going to assay and the balance all successfully sold. 10,017 quarter eagles were struck, 6750 sold, 3250 melted, and 17 used for assay. Only 1,509 octagonal $50 pieces were struck, 646 sold, nine used for assay, and 854 melted. The 50 dollar round coin had 1510 total pieces made, 10 for assay, 483 sold, and 1017 melted down.

Few varieties of the Pan-Pac half dollar exist, with the most common being a double punched mintmark. Extremely rare are the two satin proofs and one matte proof. Also quite rare are the Philadelphia Proof Die Trial pieces (lacking any mintmark). Possibly less than twelve silver die trial pieces were made, only two in gold, and four in copper.

Pan-Pac half dollars usually have a satiny luster and grainy surface texture making them difficult coins to grade for those not familiar with this commemorative. Coins with unaltered surfaces can still show lots of luster. Wear becomes most evident on the eagle's breast or on Columbia's shoulder. Weak strikes can detract from the obverse detail on Columbia's cap, head, arm, or body. On the reverse a weak strike will cause lost definition to the finer points on the eagle's breast or claws. Professional graders also note that an indentation seen near the periphery of the rim on either side is a mint problem that should not factor into the grading of the coin.

The Pan-Pac half dollar was sold at the Exposition to the public for one dollar.

Panama-Pacific International Exposition commemoratives are very desirable collectibles, and I treasure this piece for both its numismatic importance and as a family heirloom..

 

Specifications:    
  Diameter: 30.6 millimeters
  Weight: 12.5 grams
  Composition: .900 silver, .100 copper
  Edge: Reeded
  Net Weight: .36169 ounce pure silver



References and sources for more information about Panama-Pacific Half Dollars

Heritage Coins: Panama-Pacific Half Dollars

Coinsite.com: Panama-Pacific Half Dollars

Harry Bass Sale (scroll 2/3 of the way down the page for an article on the Pan-Pac coin set)

 

Copyright © 2005 Mark Helton and the Willamette Coin Club