The "Lincoln" commemorative half dollar turns 100 this year. I thought I'd share a few words about the coin's beginnings.
On January 16, 1918, Loren Edgar Wheeler (R-IL) introduced in the House of Representatives HR 8764, a bill calling for a "50-cent piece in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of the admission of the State of Illinois into the Union." Read More: Commems Collection
Illinois became the 21st state on December 3, 1818. The area that became a state was carved out of what was then the Illinois Territory; it was the southern portion of the Illinois Territory. The Territory also included all of what is today Wisconsin, the northeastern region of present-day Minnesota and the western portion of the upper peninsula of Michigan. At the time, the new State had a population of approximately 35,000.
Wheeler's bill called for 200,000 half dollars of standard specifications with a design to be "fixed by the Director of the Mint." The bill was immediately referred to the House Committee on Coinage, Weights and Measures for discussion.
The Committee held a Hearing on March 5, 1918 to discuss a bill calling for the standardization of metal screw threads, but Rep. Wheeler was called upon to make a statement ahead of that discussion on behalf of the Illinois Statehood coin. He began by reporting that Illinois' was already actively celebrating its centennial throughout every county in the State and then presented the Illinois Centennial Commission's desire to have a souvenir 50-cent piece struck to further its commemoration; he reported that they would like to have the special coins "along about June" so that they could begin distributing the coins to the public.
Before coming to the Hearing, Wheeler had discussed the coinage proposal with the Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo and Director of the Mint Raymond Thomas Baker. He informed the Committee that the Treasury Department had no objection to the bill but that it did express its concern over the potential of large numbers of the coins being returned to the Mint for melting (as had happened with some previous commemorative / souvenir coins). To address this, Rep. Wheeler stated that he would have no objection to reducing the number of coins specified in his bill to 100,000 and promised that as the coins would be handled by local banks and the State Treasurer's office none would be returned to the Mint.
Wheeler was asked by the Committee Chairman, William Ashbrook, if the coins were to be sold at a premium. He responded "No, sir." This is interesting, of course, as the coin was being sought to help the Centennial Commission defray the costs of staging Illinois' centennial celebrations and to do so they would need to charge more for the coin than what they were required to pay - the face value of fifty cents. Clearly, Wheeler was not yet wise in the ways of the commemorative coin!
The coinage bill was reported out favorably by the Committee on March 12 with just a few changes. The amended bill added a specification that the coins would be silver, that the maximum mintage would be 100,000 (vs. the original 200,000 request) and that Illinois would be required to pay "the expense of making the necessary dies and other preparation for this coinage."
The amended bill was briefly discussed in the House on April 6, 1918 and passed without challenge. The bill was sent to the Senate where it was subject to minor wording change before it was approved and sent back to the House on May 21. The House concurred with the wording change and passed the amended bill on May 25.
The bill was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on June 1, 1918.
With nearly half of 1918 gone, the Mint had to work quickly to get the new coins designed, struck and distributed to the Illinois Centennial Commission before the end of the year.
George T. Morgan was responsible for the coin's obverse design, a right-facing portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The portrait is based on the "Lincoln of the Farwell Address" sculpture created by Andrew O'Connor. The design of the coin's reverse is based on the Seal of the State of Illinois; it features a strong, left-facing eagle. The reverse design was created by John R. Sinnock
The Mint completed its work in time to deliver 100,000 coins to the Centennial Commission in September; the coins were distributed to the county-level commissions shortly thereafter. Each county was allotted coins to sell based on its population as per the 1910 census. The overall Centennial Commission set the selling price for the coins at $1.00 each. (I wonder if Mr. Wheeler took notice?) The county commissions were to use the profits generated by their coin sales for local celebrations.
Roughly 70,000 of the coins were sold by the various commissions during the centennial year. As promised, the Centennial Commission did not return the unsold balance to the Mint. The majority of the coins were stored in a Springfield bank until President Roosevelt's "Bank Holiday" in March 1933. Most of these coins were subsequently sold to dealers at a small advance over face value; a small number were also released into circulation.
Below is the Illinois Statehood Centennial half dollar I have in my collection. It is a brilliant piece with wonderful cartwheel luster and clean surfaces. Unfortunately, my scans do not do it justice.