Illinois Centennial Half Dollar
The Illinois Centennial half
dollar is one of the few real success stories in U. S. commemorative coinage.
A superb piece of sculpting, its appeal as a work of art is just as
evident today as it was in 1918. The
entire authorized issue was sold; although many pieces remained on hand in
Springfield banks as late as the 1930s, none were ever returned to the Mint
for melting. Additionally, the
money raised from sales of these coins was actually used for the legitimate
and honorable purpose that Congress intended, never a certainty with such coin
programs. Last but not least,
collectors prize these half dollars, as they bear one of the most attractive
designs in over a century of commemorative coinage.
The most prominent feature of
this issue is the portrait of Abraham Lincoln, Illinois’ best known resident
(with the possible exception of Al Capone).
For that reason, some have called it the “Lincoln” half dollar, but
it actually celebrates the centennial of Illinois’ statehood.
What is now the state of Illinois was once a part of the vast Northwest
Territory. Its name is a French
corruption of the native word Iliniwek, which described a consortium of
Algonquin tribes. Captured from
the British during the American War of Independence, Illinois was included
within the new Indiana Territory in 1800.
Nine years later, it became the Illinois Territory, ultimately
achieving statehood on December 3, 1818.
Abraham Lincoln was not a native
of Illinois, arriving there as a young adult of 21 in 1830.
Still, he is indelibly linked with this state.
By a peculiar coincidence, his birth occurred just three days after the
establishment of the Illinois Territory.
Largely self educated, Lincoln is fondly remembered for his proficiency
in splitting rails, but it was as a lawyer that he achieved prominence during
the 1830s and 1840s. Several terms in the state legislature were followed by two
unsuccessful bids for the United States Senate. It was during his second campaign in 1858 that his skill as
an orator brought him national recognition.
Losing to Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln nevertheless impressed
his Republican Party enough to become its candidate for the presidency of the
United States in 1860. His
election led to withdrawal from the union by a number of southern states,
culminating in the Civil War. Lincoln’s
determination and strength saw the nation through that troubled time, but it
ultimately cost him his life. He
was assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer only a few days after the
war’s end. The Placement of his
portrait on this commemorative coin speaks volumes about the pride that the
people of Illinois take in calling him their own.
Legislation passed on June 1,
1918 authorized the coining of not more than 100,000 Illinois Centennial half
dollars. The proceeds were to
fund centennial celebrations being held by counties throughout the state.
As these events were already underway when the bill became law, the
expeditious coining of the Illinois half dollars was a must.
So the work of preparing models based on designs furnished by the
Illinois Centennial Committee was performed in-house:
The Mint’s Chief Engraver George T. Morgan sculpted the obverse,
while his newly-hired assistant, John R. Sinnock, completed the reverse.
Both artists ultimately designed many U. S. coins, although most of
Sinnock’s achievements were still some years in the future.
The Illinois seal, selected for
the reverse of this issue, depicts an eagle holding in its beak a banner
inscribed STATE SOVEREIGNTY and NATIONAL UNION. Despite instructions by Treasury Secretary William Gibbs
McAdoo that the Illinois motto be replaced with the United States motto E
PLURIBUS UNUM, the change was not made. Apparently,
the state committee’s influence in Washington was sufficient to block this
action. Still, the national motto
was added to the field in small letters, along with the other statutory
inscriptions. In a letter to the
superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint conveying the secretary’s
instructions, Acting Mint Director Mary O’Reilly placed particular emphasis
on the fact the the models must include the year of coinage.
This is interesting in light of the fact that only the date 1918
appears on the Illinois half dollar, whereas most anniversary issues included
both dates of the span, such as 1818 - 1918.
It may be that the original models bore the date 1818 alone or none at
all. The answer to this question
has not survived.
The obverse of the Illinois
Centennial half dollar features a right-facing bust of Abraham Lincoln.
He is beardless, looking as he did during his Illinois years.
This portrait is based on Andrew O’Conner’s full-length statue of
Lincoln unveiled at the state capital of Springfield in August of 1918, the
same month that the coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint.
The inscription CENTENNIAL OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS is arranged around
the periphery, while the mottoes IN GOD WE TRUST and LIBERTY appear in the
field. Below Lincoln’s bust is
the date 1918. The reverse
features Illinois’ state seal: A
defiant eagle is perched upon a rocky mound and the federal shield, clutching
in its beak a banner inscribed with the Illinois motto STATE SOVEREIGNTY
NATIONAL UNION. A rising sun is
at right, while an olive branch passes behind the shield.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and HALF DOLLAR are arranged peripherally and
separated by dots. The border, as
on the obverse, is comprised of a bead-and-pellet configuration, in similar
fashion to Hermon MacNeil’s Standing Liberty quarter dollar of 1916-30. Finally, the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM appears above the sun in
All of the 100,000 pieces
authorized were coined, plus an additional 58 which were reserved for assay
and later destroyed. Although
sales were strong, at least 30,000 coins remained on hand following the
centennial, as that number turned up in just one Springfield bank during
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Bank Holiday of 1933, when federal
auditors stumbled across quite a few hoards of forgotten, old coins.
Most of these Illinois halves were parceled out to dealers at a small
premium over face value, while the remainder were probably issued to
circulation as part of the regular coinage, joining the many coins of this
issue already spent by persons devastated by the Great Depression.
Because so many Illinois halves
were spent as money, lightly circulated pieces are quite common.
More heavily worn examples were probably pocket pieces at one time.
Still, the sheer number of coins issued has made this design plentiful
in uncirculated condition, as well. The
typical specimen encountered has attractive, frosty luster, although it will
likely have more than a few contact marks.
This is especially true of the obverse, both Lincoln’s portrait and
the field showing nicks and reeding marks of varying size and depth.
The complexity of this coin’s reverse tends to camouflage whatever
contact marks are present, and this side will often seem superior to the
obverse. For this reason, the
Illinois half dollar is usually graded more by its obverse than its reverse.
Most mint state specimens fall within the range of MS-60 through MS-63.
Higher grade examples are scarce.
Beware of coins which have been harshly cleaned or lightly circulated.
Points to check for wear include Lincoln’s cheekbone, jaw, eyebrow
and the hair above his ear. On
the reverse, examine the eagle’s breastfeathers and the grass beneath its
left claw. A few coins will show weakness of strike in these same areas;
the presence of luster distinguishes this from actual wear.
No official packaging accompanied
the Illinois half when it was
issued, but a number were fitted within shield-shaped badges worn by
participants in the centennial celebrations.
These have collectible value, and several varieties of ribbon colors
may be found. In addition, two
satin-finish proofs are known of this commemorative coin, and one or more
matte proofs are rumored to exist. Although
the regular-issue coins are usually well struck, these proofs are extremely
so. A very few pieces were coined
in off-metals as die trials. These
include copper (Pollock-2062), nickel (P-2063) and white metal (P-2064).
Diameter: 30.6 millimeters
Weight: 12.5 grams
Composition: .900 silver, .100
Net Weight: .36169 ounce pure