Cincinnati Music Center Half Dollar
When the first silver
commemorative coins were produced in the United States beginning in 1892, they
were intended to celebrate specific historic events or to raise funds for the
advancement of a specific commemorative cause.
This purity of purpose, however, would last less than thirty years. By
1920, the striking of commemorative coins was considered primarily a fund
raising device, and the first of the so-called “nonsense” commemoratives
were minted. A perfect example
was the Alabama half dollar—authorized by Congress in 1920 as an
afterthought for a centennial celebration held in 1919 with coins struck in
1921. The trend toward increasing commercialization continued
throughout the 1920s and on into the ‘30s, reaching its zenith in 1936 with
the minting of the Cincinnati Music Center commemorative half dollar.
Ostensibly struck to celebrate
the anniversary of Cincinnati, Ohio “as a center of music,” and to
commemorate “its contribution to the art of music for the past 50 years,”
the real purpose behind this half dollar was to make money for a small group
of coin collectors and dealers, primarily Thomas G. Melish.
While it may be true that
Cincinnati has a long and rich musical heritage, nothing of consequence
occurred there in 1886 to warrant striking of these special fifty-year
anniversary coins. In fact, if
the Cincinnati Music Center Commemorative Coin Association actually had any
music lovers among its members, they would have known that the city’s
musical tradition began in earnest in 1873.
That was the year the May Festival Association, a choral group of 1,000
voices formed from music societies throughout the Midwest, was founded.
It was directed by the illustrious Theodore Thomas. In later years
Thomas took the Cincinnati Orchestra on nationwide tours, and was largely
responsible for the growing appreciation of orchestral music in late
19th-century America. Although
Thomas would have been a logical choice for a commemorative coin celebrating
fifty years of the city’s musical tradition, the anniversary years noting
that occasion would have been 1873-1923. But these dates didn’t work for Thomas Melish: This was
1936, and he was determined to get a commemorative coin approved, even if it
bore little relation to historical facts. Apparently, his motivation was
greed, pure and simple.
In fairness to Melish though, the
Treasury Department was fully aware of the dubious nature of the circumstances
behind this issue. The Commission
of Fine Arts, an advisory panel to the Secretary of the Treasury, wrote a
lengthy summation detailing the various reasons such a coin should not be
minted. Listing all the
historical inaccuracies and fabrications, the Commission particularly took
issue with the inappropriate use of Stephen Foster on the obverse of the
proposed coin. While Foster did
indeed live in Cincinnati in the 1840s, during the three years he resided
there, he was a bookkeeper in his brother’s firm.
It was not until he moved to Pittsburgh and later New York that he
wrote his most famous songs.
Melish enlisted artist Constance
Ortmeyer to design the coin. Ortmeyer’s bust of Foster on the coin’s
obverse was surrounded at the rim by the inscriptions
UNITED•STATES•OF•AMERICA and HALF DOLLAR.
Directly below Foster’s portrait is the caption STEPHEN
FOSTER•AMERICA’S TROUBADOUR: Apparently either Melish or Ortmeyer took
that phrase from a biography of Foster published in the early 1930s.
The reverse features a kneeling female figure, representing the Goddess
of Music. In her hands she is
holding an undersized lyre, ridiculed at the time by noted dealer B. Max Mehl,
who wrote it “must have been bought at a 5c and 10c store as it seems to be
only a toy.” The Commission of
Fine Arts was more tactful in its criticism of the reverse, calling it “not
a complete design ... the lettering ... is only sketched and barely that.”
The inscription CINCINNATI•A• MUSIC•CENTER•OF•AMERICA surrounds the
periphery, while the mottoes IN GOD WE TRUST and E PLURIBUS UNUM along with
the legend LIBERTY appear below the Goddess of Music.
Flanking the figure are the dates 1886 and 1936.
Melish and his Commemorative Coin
Association prevailed, however, and on March 31, 1936, Congress authorized the
striking of 15,000 coins “at the Mints.”
Ms. Ortmeyer’s initials, CO, can be seen in the left obverse field,
but may barely show on softly struck coins.
Originally, Melish wanted 10,000 pieces struck at the Philadelphia
Mint, 3,000 in San Francisco, and only 2,000 in the Denver facility.
This, of course, would have made the 1936-D coins instant rarities.
The Congressional Act, however, was amended to specify that the term
“at the Mints” meant that 5,000 pieces were to be struck at each of the
three mints (D and S mintmarks are found beneath the 1936 date).
Unlike previous commemorative coinage struck for sale to the general
public and available at a nominal fee (usually $1 for a commemorative half
dollar), the Cincinnati sets were issued at a costly $7.75 per set.
Very few sets were actually sold at this price, however, as the entire
mintage (which was distributed through Melish) was supposedly
after the coins were struck in July and delivered to the Music Association,
Melish began to sell sets on the secondary market for $45.
Demand and speculation soon drove the price of the sets to $50, and
Melish did provide collectors
with an interesting adjunct to the Cincinnati series: the first 200 PDS sets were specially prepared and assembled.
The coins were caught by a pressman wearing soft gloves who then
slipped the coin from that mint into a specially marked envelope, in the order
of manufacture. These coins were
then sent to the Association who inserted them in black leatherette holders.
A notarized statement (also signed by Melish) specifying the striking
sequence was attached to the three-coin set.
Only a handful of these numbered and notarized sets remain today, and
they are rarely offered for sale. The
remaining 4,800 three-coin sets were placed in the same kind of holder with a
celluloid strip to hold the coins in, but lacking the documentation. It is estimated that today fewer than 50 of these sets in
unnumbered holders remain intact. No bona fide proofs are known to exist.
As most Cincinnati halves went
directly to collectors, they are usually found in mint condition, generally
MS-60 to MS-63. Careless handling
at the mints, however, accounts for the frequent appearance of contact marks
and abrasions on these coins. Curiously,
for some unknown reason, the Denver pieces are more often found with cleaner
surfaces than those from the other two mints.
Friction is first evident on the obverse on Foster’s temple and
cheekbone, and on the reverse will first appear on the goddess’ breasts and
thigh. Counterfeits are known of
this issue: both are casts, with unusual surface textures. One shows raised, granular defects like “bubbles” around
the dates and mottos, and file marks around CINCINN. The second cast
counterfeit has minute pinholes around Foster’s ear and file marks around
the peripheral legends on the reverse.
Today, Cincinnati halves are
recognized not for the greed that created them, but rather as rarities in
their own right. They are
considered a challenge in high grades because of the large, open areas of the
coin and the smooth features on the central figures.
The exposed fields and smooth devices make it difficult for a bagmark
to blend in with the design, and as a result, gem examples are very elusive.
While the origins of the
Cincinnati Music Center half dollar are inextricably linked to the pursuit of
personal profit on the part of Thomas Melish, today few know or care. The coin
was legitimized by an Act of Congress, and the city of Cincinnati does indeed
have a long and proud musical heritage. Thomas
Melish succeeded to a far greater extent than he could have imagined in 1936.
Not only did he create a rarity for the immediate consumption of
collectors and dealers in the 1930s, but sixty years later his Cincinnati
halves are still actively sought as a rarity in the long and varied
Diameter: 30.6 millimeters
Weight: 12.5 grams
Composition: .900 silver, .100
Net Weight: .36169 ounce pure