America's Overseas Coinage

Posted on 4/1/2004

Not all coins bearing the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA were intended for circulation within this country. From 1903 to 1945 the USA-made coins were inscribed with both our nation’s identity and that of one of our overseas possessions.

David Lange

Not all coins bearing the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA were intended for circulation within this country. From 1903 to 1945 the USA-made coins were inscribed with both our nation's identity and that of one of our overseas possessions. The Philippine Islands were administered by the United States during this period, and the legend FILIPINAS appeared in conjunction with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The Spanish name was used, as that was the primary language of educated Filipinos at the time.

I've written about this unique series of coins in past articles going back some 15 years, but there have been some major developments in the collecting of these coins that merit a fresh look. By 1988, the USA/Philippines series was dropped from A Guide Book of United States Coins due to space restrictions imposed by the growing number of new commemorative issues. Ten years later these fascinating coins reappeared in that book, and for the first time they were listed not only by types, but by date and mint. In recent years they've been included within a couple of new books, too, Krause Publications' U.S. Coin Digest and Coin World's Comprehensive Catalog & Encyclopedia of United States Coins. With all this exposure has come a commensurate rise in values, though these coins remain within the reach of most collectors.

The United States acquired the Philippine Islands through an 1899 treaty with Spain, following the brief Spanish-American War of 1898. A popular misconception is that the archipelago was seized by the USA as a war prize, but the fact is that this Far East possession was purchased in gold. No one, however, consulted the Filipino people about this trade. Soon they were fighting with America to obtain the independence they thought they had just won from Spain. The resulting guerilla war lasted some three years, but the capture of Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo in 1901 permitted the establishment of a civil government under United States direction. Among its tasks was the creation of a suitable currency that was mutually acceptable to the Americans, Spanish and Filipinos.

The solution was found in a unit of value that was both familiar to the locals and convertible to United States currency. The Philippine peso, created in 1903, was valued at two to the United States dollar. It was divided into 100 centavos, and bronze coins of one centavo and one-half centavo were issued that year. These were accompanied by a copper-nickel five-centavos piece coined on the same planchets used for the United States nickel. Silver issues consisted of the peso and its divisions, which were valued at 50, 20 and 10 centavos, respectively. The 20-centavos piece was a concession to the familiar Spanish/Philippines coin still in circulation at the time. All of these coins were designed by Filipino sculptor Melecio Figueroa, though it appears that the final models were likely sculpted by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber.

As silver was at an historic low price in 1903, the peso actually contained more silver than a Morgan dollar, yet was valued at just half as much. This serendipitous situation came to an end in 1906, when a rise in the price of silver drove these coins from circulation. They were soon recalled, and an entirely new series was released beginning the following year. Though bearing the same designs, the 1907 coinage was of uniformly smaller size and weight, and their finenesses had been reduced. This harder and baser alloy caused these issues to blacken more readily, and they never struck up quite as fully as the earlier coins.

By this time the half-centavo piece had become unpopular, and its coinage was stopped for circulation after 1904. Only proofs were minted in 1905, 1906 and 1908 before production of this denomination ceased altogether. Further problems arose after the 1907 reduction in size of the 20-centavos piece gave it nearly the same diameter as the five-centavos coin. This led to some mismatching of the dies, since both coins shared a similar reverse design. Such coins are known as mules, and muling of the five/20-centavos coinage occurred in 1918 and 1928. Finally, in 1930, the diameter of the five-centavos issue was reduced to prevent further occurrences.

The Filipino people attained limited self government in 1935 with the establishment of The Commonwealth of The Philippines. Full independence was set for 1946, by which time it was believed the principles of democracy would be firmly understood by the population. A three-coin set of commemoratives was issued in 1936 to mark the transition to a commonwealth, and these, too, bear the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The commonwealth arms was adapted to all pieces coined subsequently for general circulation, and it remained in use through the last USA issues in 1945.

This fascinating series of coins was long overlooked by American collectors, yet it has much to recommend it. Besides the simple fact that these are United States coins, they were made at the familiar mints of Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco. From 1920 to 1941 they were coined exclusively at the Manila Mint, and such coins are necessary for a collector to have a complete assemblage of all United States Mints.

David W. Lange's column USA Coin Album appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.