USA Coin Album: America’s Far-East Coinage

Posted on 2/9/2021

Philippine issues carry a dual identity.

There’s a topic about which I’ve written in these pages several times years ago, both as columns and feature articles, yet I’d like to revisit it for a new generation of collectors. This is the subject of the United States coinage for the Philippine Islands.

From 1903 through 1945, a distinctive series of coins was issued that proclaimed FILIPINAS on one side and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA on the other. They utilized dies prepared at the Philadelphia Mint and also were coined there, as well as at the mints in San Francisco and Denver. In fact, an entirely new mint was established at Manila, Philippines in 1920, adding its “M” mintmark to the roster. These coins are an extension of the US series and also quite collectible.

Commodore George Dewey’s defeat of Spain’s fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898 led to an American occupation of the Philippine Archipelago. The Filipinos were glad to be rid of Spain’s rule, but they were disappointed to trade one master for another. A commonwealth was established by the USA in 1935 as a first step toward complete independence, which was finally achieved with creation of the Republic of the Philippines on July 4, 1946.

At the dawn of the 20th Century, however, one of the highest priorities for the islands was the introduction of a practical currency. Congress replaced the old Spanish issues with a hybrid issue of notes and coins that incorporated Spanish denominations with American weight and fineness standards. Thus was born the Philippine peso (valued and exchangeable at two to the USA dollar) and its fractional divisions denominated in centavos. These included bronze pieces of half centavo and one centavo, a copper-nickel five centavos and silver fractions of 10, 20 and 50 centavos.

The coins debuted with the date of 1903 and proved to be immediately successful, with the sole exception of the half-centavo piece. Its coinage for circulation was discontinued after 1904, though it survived in the annual Proof sets produced from 1903 to 1906 and again in 1908.

1904 USA Phillipines Half Centavo
Click images to enlarge.

The obverse of the minor coins depicts a native boy seated at an anvil and holding a hammer, with the volcanic Mount Mayon in the background. Those same tools appear on the silver issues, but the boy is replaced with a standing Filipino lass and the iconic mountain behind. These designs were the work of Filipino artist Melicio (alternately “Melecio”) Figueroa.

The heraldic eagle-on-shield device which dominates the common reverse for all of these coins has been attributed to Figueroa, too, but some years ago I wrote an article that presented a strong case for it being the work of US Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber.

1903 USA Phillipines One Peso
Click images to enlarge.

The USA/Philippines coins display their mintmarks, if any, at seven o’clock on the reverse, beneath the legend stop. Another stop is at five o’clock, the two flanking each coin’s date. The early issues of this coinage were struck at the Philadelphia Mint (minors and silver) and the San Francisco Mint (silver only). When a law passed in 1906 permitted the branch mints to coin minor pieces, San Francisco took over sole responsibility for the circulating coinage. Thereafter, Philadelphia produced Proofs almost exclusively during 1905 through 1908.

When the new Manila Mint opened in 1920, the S mintmark disappeared from these coins. Initially lacking any mintmark, the Manila issues were finally identified starting 1925. There has been much debate over the status of the Manila Mint, but a careful reading of the legislative acts indicates that it was not really a mint of the United States. Its operations were not administered by the US Treasury Department and the Bureau of the Mint. Rather, it was under the Bureau of Insular Affairs, an organization created after the Spanish-American War to manage the nation’s growing roster of overseas possessions.

Though successful and widely accepted by the local populace, the USA/Philippine coinage was not without its growing pains. A crisis arose in 1905-06, when the price of silver, which had been at a historical low in 1903 when the series was established, began to rise. The Philippine peso actually contained slightly more silver than a Morgan Dollar, and this led to its bullion value exceeding its face and exchange values. As a consequence, the only silver coinage in 1906 consisted of 201,000 peso pieces that were mostly withheld from release and destroyed.

A rarity today, the 1906-S peso is highly sought by series specialists and is nearly unknown in Mint State. When I put together my own collection of the USA/Philippine coinage, the best I could find was a specimen grading XF that was lightly cleaned. In the 1980s, I paid only a fraction of its current value, and I wish I still had that coin!

New legislation was passed that reduced both the weight and fineness of the USA/Philippine silver coins, and an entirely new issue debuted in 1907. The peso went from .900 fine to .800 fine, while the fractional silver coins were reduced to just .750 fine silver. The bullion value of the new coins was sufficiently low to prevent their withdrawal from circulation, and in this form the series continued without incident for another decade.

Next month, my look at the most unusual of United States coins will continue.

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

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