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Commems Collection: What If? 1926 Stephen Foster Half Dollar

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 Posted 04/09/2020  5:05 pm Show Profile   Bookmark this topic Add commems to your friends list Get a Link to this Message
The 1936 50th anniversary of Cincinnati as a music center commemorative program is likely among the Top 5 most maligned among the classic US commemorative coin series. It attains this lofty position mostly based on two key issues:

1) You would be hard-pressed to find a local event in 1886 that signaled Cincinnati's start as a "center of music" (as stated in its authorizing legislation), and

2) The coin's main subject, Stephen Foster, has only limited musical links to Cincinnati - he is much more appropriately linked to Pittsburgh, PA.

You can read more about these issues in one of my previous Cincinnati posts here: 1936 Cincinnati Half Dollar.

A much more appropriate commemorative half dollar with a focus on Stephen Foster was proposed in 1926, however, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the songwriter's July 4, 1826 birth. Representative Stephen Geyer Porter (R-PA) proposed the Foster half dollar on March 9, 1926 on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, Inc. of Pittsburgh, PA.

Foster wrote the vast majority of his songs while living in Pittsburgh between 1850 and 1856. In 1937, on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, a memorial hall was dedicated to the memory of Foster.

Porter's bill noted that Foster was a "great composer of more than one hundred and sixty songs and musical compositions, which have become famous the world over" including "Old Folks at Home" (aka "Swanee River"), "My Old Kentucky Home," "Old Black Joe," "Massa's in the Cold, Cold Ground" and "Old Dog Tray." Being unfamiliar with all but "Swanee River" and "My Old Kentucky Home." I turned to Google and YouTube, to give the songs a listen. All I'll say is that if I were listing Foster's popular songs in the bill, I would have included "Old Folks at Home"/"Swanee River," "Oh! Susanna," "Beautiful Dreamer," "Camptown Races" and "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" vs. those Rep. Porter included. (Note: I recognize that the correct name for the river is "Suwanee" vs. "Swanee" but the song title is most often listed without the "u" included and so I adopted this convention.)

A great biography of Foster can be found on the web site of the Songwriters Hall of Fame; I encourage you to read it here: Stephen Foster Bio. Foster died at the age of 37 on January 13, 1864 in New York City.

Porter's bill called for up to one million 50-cent coins of standard specifications to be struck. The bill did not specify that just one mint could be used, so all three Mint facilities (Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco) could have struck the coins.

The bill's sponsor, the Chamber of Commerce of Pittsburgh, was the only organization that could request and receive the coins. The proposal's language would have allowed the Chamber to request delivery of the coins "all at one time or separate times, and in separate amounts, as it may determine." As there was no provision to limit the Chamber's request(s) to 1926, requests for the coin could have been made over the course of multiple years, from one to three mints in any given year and for any amounts (up to the authorized maximum) the Chamber desired. The wording of the coin's legislation allowed for the same potential abuse as was seen with the Oregon Trail Memorial, Arkansas, Daniel Boone and Texas coin programs - namely, small annual mintages in years well past the original issue year in an effort to keep collectors on the hook for more!

The bill was referred to the House Committee on Coinage, Weights and Measures where it died for lack of action; no Committee report was issued nor was the bill returned to the House for a vote. While I can't say for sure why the bill failed, I believe a big part of the lack of action on the bill was the simple fact that it was introduced less than four months before the anniversary of Foster's birth and would not have given the Mint much time to prepare designs, create dies and strike the coins.

Of course, bad timing did not stop all commemorative coin bills from being approved. Consider the Alabama Statehood Centennial coin as an example, Alabama's statehood anniversary was in 1919 but its coin bill was not introduced and approved until 1920 and its coins were not issued until 1921! That said, the Foster bill's late introduction most certainly did not work in its favor. Another possible factor, the Treasury Department was beginning to voice opposition to most commemorative coin bills by the mid-1920s, such may have been the case here (though it was likely behind the scenes as no letters voicing such opposition were sent to the coinage Committee).

I have yet to find a circa 1926 privately-struck medal for the centennial of Foster's birth, so the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce appears to have turned its attention to other commemorations for one of its favored sons.

I've included images of a much more recent Stephen Foster medal, the medal noting his inclusion in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

Collecting history one coin or medal at a time! (c) commems. All rights reserved.
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 Posted 04/09/2020  6:16 pm  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add Coinfrog to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
Great write=up as always, thanks!
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 Posted 05/25/2020  12:28 am  Show Profile   Bookmark this reply Add freddo30 to your friends list Get a Link to this Reply
It's fun to play songs attributed to Foster today without running the political correctness eraser across his lyrics. One of my other hobbies is far less expensive than numismatics : antebellum music and period correct instruments. People sometimes get a bit wide eyed when hearing the unadulterated Foster.
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