Many consider the 1848 2 ½-dollar gold piece with “CAL” on the reverse to be the first commemorative coin ever issued. Commemorating the Philadelphia mint’s receipt of native gold from the California Gold Rush, the mintage of 1,389 was the smallest gold denomination then in use.
Most common lists of classic US commemorative coins start with the World’s Columbian Exposition half dollar issued in 1892 and 1893. Also issued in 1893 was the first and only quarter dollar commemorating Queen Isabella I of Spain. The first commemorative dollar was issued in 1900 featuring George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. These were all coined in silver.
1903 saw the introduction of two gold dollar varieties commemorating the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The first featured Thomas Jefferson and the second William McKinley. Nearly 250,000 were struck, but only about 35,000 were sold due to distribution abuses and wasteful procedures that would be repeated with many future commemorative issues. The 1904 and 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition gold dollar was next, followed by the Panama Pacific International Exposition five-coin series of 1915. This series consisted of a silver half dollar, a gold dollar, a gold 2 1/2 dollar and two fifty dollar gold pieces.
Many commemorative coins were minted thereafter, in recognition of important US dates and events, sometimes received with criticism over the US Mint’s seemingly endless runs. The classic commemorative period ended with the 1951 to 1954 issue of the Carver/Washington half dollar.