Since 1848, the United States Mint has produced a large number of commemorative coins, to mark various events and honor key persons, places and institutions. These may not be intended for general circulation, but are legal tender. This differentiates US commemorative coins from commemorative medals, which do not have a face value and are not legal tender.

In the past 165 years, dozens of commemorative, collectible coins have been issued by the Mint. Here’s a few of the most popular and important coins in that history.

The first commemorative coin: 1848 “CAL” quarter eagle

The first commemorative coin issued by the US Mint was the “CAL” quarter eagle. It commemorated the discovery of gold in California, and differed from standard quarter eagles (face value $2.50) only in that “CAL.” was stamped on the reverse of the coin.

The first official commemorative coin: 1892 Columbian half dollar

The only modification to the 1848 quarter eagle was the addition of the CAL. stamp, it is often excluded from lists of US Mint commemorative coins. Many such lists of United States commemorative coins start instead with the 1892 half dollar, issued to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to America. This was followed by the Columbian Exposition quarter dollar in 1893, which featured Queen Isabella of Spain.

The first non-circulation commemorative coin: 1915 Panama-Pacific half union

Five Panama-Pacific commemorative coins were issued in 1915 to mark the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world fair held in San Francisco upon the completion of the Panama Canal. Three of these US Mint commemorative coins were intended for circulation:

  • Silver half dollar
  • Gold dollar
  • Quarter eagle

Silver Panama-Pacific half dollars are popular US silver commemorative coins. In addition, two $50 pieces were launched: one round and one octagonal. The latter is the only coin issued by the US Mint that is not circular.

These half union coins remain the highest denomination coins minted by the US Mint, barring modern bullion coins. Perhaps for this reason, demand for these coins was very low and very few coins were struck. Rarity of these United States commemorative coins drives collector demand today.

The first commemorative coin intended for circulation: 1921 Peace dollar

The Peace dollar, issued in 1921, was originally intended to commemorate the first anniversary of the end of World War I. It was produced until the end of production of the US commemorative silver dollars in 1935, and revived for a modern run in 2021 to mark 100 years of the Peace dollar.

The first coin featuring a living person: 1921 Alabama Centennial half dollar

Alabama joined the Union in 1819. Slightly belatedly, the 1921 Alabama Centennial half dollar was minted to mark the 100th anniversary of the state’s admission. The obverse of the coin bears the images of Governors William Bibb and Thomas Kilby, the first Governor of the state of Alabama and the Governor of the state at the time of minting. The half dollar is also remarkable in that it is the first coin designed by a woman, Laura Gardin Fraser.

The controversy

During the 1930s, the US Mint faced criticism for over-issuance of commemorative coins. They were accused of issuing irrelevant or non-significant commemorative coins, with extremely long runs. Due to lowered interest in these coins, the demand for commemoratives dropped post the 1950s. The last issue among the early commemoratives were half dollars honoring Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. These were repeatedly discounted and finally entered circulation. Post this failed launch, the Department of the Treasury opposed commemorative coin proposals, including the 1975-76 Bicentennial coins, which were issued as circulating coins rather than non-circulating US commemorative coins. The program was really only picked up again in 1982.

The first modern commemorative: 1982 George Washington 250th Anniversary half dollar

The US Mint commemorative coin program was resumed in 1982, with the George Washington 250th Anniversary half dollar. This coin is considered the first of the modern commemorative coins. In this period, the number of coins minted was significantly reduced, which automatically increased demand for these collectible coins.

First bimetallic coin: 2000 Library of Congress Eagle

Issued in 2000, the Library of Congress ten-dollar coin is a bimetallic eagle. It’s the first bimetallic coin issued by the US Mint, struck in a combination of gold and platinum. This modern US commemorative coin was issued at the asking price of $425 for the proof version and $405 for the uncirculated version.

First coin paired with a foreign currency: 2017 1,000 króna coin

In 2017, one dollar silver commemorative coins were issued to commemorate the one thousandth anniversary of Leif Ericson’s discovery of the New World. In addition, Iceland also authorized a 1,000 króna coin to mark the same event. This pair of legal tender coins marks the first time that commemorative coins were released jointly by the United States and any other country. The US Mint struck the 1,000 króna coin on the same planchet as that of the US commemorative silver dollars.

Bicentennial circulating commemorative coins: 1975-1976

Various series of commemorative coins have been issued over the years. This includes the Bicentennial coins: a specially issued Washington quarter, Kennedy half dollar and Eisenhower dollar issued in 1975 and 1976. Though struck over a period of two years, the coins all bear the double date ‘1776-1976’ on the obverse. There are no coins dated 1975 in any of these denominations.

Set of 50 State commemorative coins: 1997-2009 State Quarters

With the passing of the 50 States Commemorative Coin Program Act in 1997, the US Mint was instructed to create 50 US commemorative quarters to honor the unique Federal structure of States. These are extremely popular collectors’ items. Five quarters were released each year (one every ten weeks), in the same order that the States were admitted to the Union. In 2009, the program was extended to include the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the United States Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. This program has been a grand success, with roughly half of the US population collecting these coins.

Presidential dollar coins: 2007-2016

In 2007, a series of coins was launched to commemorate the deceased Presidents of the United States. One Presidential coin was issued every three months, and the first run of the program ended in 2016. As President George HW Bush died in 2018, the coin honoring his memory was released in 2020. US Presidents become eligible for the program two years after their passing.

America the Beautiful Quarters: 2010-2021

Five US commemorative quarters are issued each year under the America the Beautiful Quarters program. This program was launched to recognize America’s National Parks. The series includes fifty-six quarters in all. All quarters in the series have a common obverse design, depicting George Washington.

American Innovation $1 Coin Program: 2019-2032

The American Innovation $1 Coin Program was launched in 2018 with a planned run from 2019-2032. These coins commemorate inventors or inventions from each state and US territory. These coins are not intended for circulation as demand for dollar coins is low. This may change in the future depending on demand.

American Women quarters: 2022-2025

The American Women quarters program features notable American women. It was launched to mark the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote. The Mint will issue upto five designs a year, from 2022 to 2025. The obverse of the coins depicts George Washington, while the reverse of the twenty coins honor different women who have made special contributions to the United States across fields.

Commemorative coins, minted in short runs, are highly collectible. They have marked several major occasions and act as a numismatic record of US history. If you’re into coin collection or just getting started, 2023 commemorative coins are a great way to get started. Contact our team today to learn more about 2023 commemorative coins and get started.

This entry was posted in U.S. Coins on October 17, 2023 by Daniel Clements