Commemorative coinage plays an important part in American numismatics, highlighting the people, places, and events that shaped the country. The classic commemorative coins struck between 1892 and 1954 feature a wide array of creative and sometimes enigmatic designs not found elsewhere within the nation’s coinage. These coins were struck in silver or gold across a range of different denominations. Among the vast array of issues are the 1915-S Panama Pacific $50 Gold Pieces, which stand apart for their size, shape, beauty, and extremely limited mintage. These coins were issued together with a silver half dollar, one dollar gold piece, and 2 ½ dollar gold piece, to mark the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition.
The Panama Pacific Exposition was a world’s fair held in San Francisco from late February to early December 1915. The purpose of the fair was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, but it was also seen as an opportunity for the city to showcase its recovery from the devastating earthquake of 1906 and subsequent fire. The exposition would serve to reinforce San Francisco’s status as one of the leading cities in the world.
Highlights of the exposition included the Liberty bell, which was moved from Philadelphia for the occasion, the last time it would leave that city. A phone line was laid from New York to San Francisco, so that the residents of the former city could hear the Pacific Ocean. The grounds where the exposition took place are now called “The Marina” although all of the original buildings of the exposition have been broken down. The so-called “Tower of Jewels”, which was covered with glass “novagems” in various colors, was rebuilt in the 1960s and still stands to this day. Replicas of these novagems were sold as souvenirs at the exposition with some of them having become highly collectable.
The Panama Pacific $50 Gold Pieces were the first $50 gold coins issued by the Federal government. While such a coinage had been proposed in the 19th century, it was never produced and the only $50 gold pieces that had circulated in the United States where privately struck pieces that circulated in gold-rush California in the 1850’s (which were authorized by law but issued by Augustus Humbert). One of the Panama Pacific $50 Gold Coins was octagonal, the first and only United States coin issued by a federal Mint that has held this distinction.