The 1848 $2 gold piece with “CAL.” on the reverse is regarded by many as the first commemorative coin ever released. Made to mark the Philadelphia Mint’s receipt of native gold from the California Gold Rush, this coin (of which only 1,389 were minted) was the smallest gold denomination in use at that time.
Many lists of classic U.S. commemorative coins begin with the World’s Columbian Exposition Half Dollar, which was released in 1892 and 1893 and produced in silver. The latter year also saw the first and only issue of the quarter dollar honoring Queen Isabella I of Spain. The first commemorative dollar was released in 1900 and featured George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette.
The year 1903 marked the appearance of two types of gold dollars—one featuring Thomas Jefferson and one featuring William McKinley—celebrating the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Although almost 250,000 of these coins were struck, only 35,000 or so were offered to the public due to circulation abuses and inefficient processes, issues that would continue to plague future commemorative releases.
In 1904 and 1905, the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition Gold Dollar appeared, followed in 1915 by the Panama Pacific International Exposition five-coin series. The Panama Pacific series included a silver half dollar, a gold dollar, a gold $2.50 coin and two $50 gold pieces.
The U.S. Mint released numerous coins in the coming years to commemorate historic U.S. dates and occasions. The classic commemorative era of coins ended after the 1954 Carver-Washington Half Dollar.