Uncovering America's Heritage... Coin by Coin
1915 Panama-Pacific Octagonal 50-Dollar Coin
This month’s coin comes in a shape you don’t see in coins very often: octagonal (eight-sided)! This 50-dollar coin was the first octagonal coin that the United States Mint ever released. But it was never a coin that people generally carried with the change in their pockets. That’s mostly because it was not a circulating coin, but a commemorative coin.
What did it commemorate? As it says on the back of the coin itself, it was made in honor of the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. San Francisco was host to this international exposition or “world’s fair” in 1915, though the city was still rebuilding after the great earthquake and fires of 1906. (You can visit this earthquake in the Time Machine!)
At the same time, the Panama Canal had just been finished, linking the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. The canal was important because it meant that ships no longer had to go all the way around South America to move between the oceans. Thanks to this waterway through Central America, goods, travelers, and troops can save weeks or months of travel time. (After all, they don’t have a time machine!)
This coin was actually only one of five different coins created for this commemoration. Besides the 50-dollar octagonal coin, there was a 50-dollar round, a two-and-a-half dollar coin or “quarter eagle,” a dollar (all four coins made of gold), and a silver half dollar. The round 50-dollar version has a similar design, but the octagonal coin has something extra to remind us of the water passage that the canal created: a friendly dolphin in each of the angles. In 1915, artists liked to use classical figures like Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and other things. All in all, I find this a pretty cool coin!