Hobbyists collect early commemorative coins because they celebrate
popular or historic occasions, while others enjoy the series because,
for certain coins, individuals or events depicted have only tenuous
Two such coins — the 1936 Cincinnati Music Center half dollar and
1936 Bridgeport, Conn., Centennial half dollar — fall into that latter
category. However, for these two coins, each displays something else
special that might appeal to hobbyists.
The Cincinnati coin was minted to honor the city’s 50th
anniversary as a center of music. But folks have a difficult time
knowing what, precisely, happened 50 years prior to earn that distinction.
Moreover, the obverse features a bust of American songwriter
Stephen Foster, known for such folksy tunes as “Oh! Susanna” and “My
Old Kentucky Home”; Foster is depicted on the coin despite having
spent only a very brief time in the Ohio city.
The commemorative originally appeared in a three-coin set,
featuring Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mint pieces, with a
low mintage of 5,000, selling for $7.75 (or about $123 in today’s
money), at a time when the average yearly income was $1,700.
Worse, promoters purportedly held back thousands of the sets,
creating demand, and then sold sets for as high as $50 each, or $795
in today’s cash.
Unlike the Cincinnati half dollar, the Bridgeport coin celebrated
something of a bonafide occasion, the 100th anniversary of the city’s
charter in 1836. The Bridgeport coin, too, depicted an individual who,
while linked to the community, played no role in the event being commemorated.
The coin’s obverse shows former mayor and showman P.T. Barnum,
credited with saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Odd to
associate that with a U.S. coin, no? Normally we anticipate
individuals on coins known for more positive sayings.
The Cincinnati and Bridgeport coins display intriguing art-deco
designs, which appeal to many hobbyists today, and both are affordable.
A low-Mint State Cincinnati half dollar costs about $300, rising
to $700 in MS-65, according to Coin Values. Bridgeport half dollars
sell for about half of those amounts.
Sculptor Constance Ortmayer designed the Cincinnati coin, whose
clean reverse depicts a kneeling allegorical figure with lyre.
Sculptor Henry G. Kreis designed the featherless eagle on the
Bridgeport reverse. (Kreis also designed the obverse and reverse of
the 1935 Connecticut Tercentenary half dollar.)
While stories about these coins still entertain, their designs are
remarkable because both sculptors did something special artistically
that differs from other circulating or commemorative U.S. coinage.
They stacked the official mottoes IN GOD WE TRUST, E PLURIBUS UNUM and
LIBERTY in a specific order on top of each other, in small font on the
reverse, making room on the planchets for the allegorical eagle and
Michael Bugeja, a coin collector since childhood, is a professor
at Iowa State University and also a member of the Citizens Coinage
Advisory Committee. He is a nationally known author, journalist and educator.
Editor's note: An editing error resulted in the misspelling of
Henry G. Kreis' last name in an earlier version of this column.