Souvenir pesos were privately struck in Philadelphia beginning in 1897 to help finance the Cuban revolution. It shows a personification of Liberty on the obverse. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)
By Gerald Tebben
Can you name a silver piece minted in Philadelphia in 1897 that has the designer’s initial “M” on the reverse and not on the obverse? Here’s a hint: It’s not the Morgan dollar, which has a tiny “m” for U.S. Mint Engraver George Morgan at the base of the bust on the obverse and in the bow on the reverse.
And the “m” doesn’t stand for Morgan, and the “mint” where the piece was struck usually produced railroad parts.
The 1897 Cuban souvenir peso is an extraordinary item. Issued by Cuban revolutionaries, it is at once a statement of national aspiration, a way to raise funds for the liberation effort and a unit of exchange.
The piece, which shows a personification of Liberty on the obverse and the coat of arms on the reverse, was designed by Phillip Martiny. He placed a tiny m on the shield on the peso’s reverse.
The first few hundred pieces were struck at Philadelphia’s Dunn Air-Brake Co. For decades, the peso’s “mint’s” location has been described as the southeast corner of 19th and Spring streets. However, the two streets don’t intersect. If they did, they would intersect in the middle of Swann Fountain in Logan Square. A more likely location for the plant was 19th and Spring Garden streets.
In the late 19th century, much of the city’s Cuban population lived in the Spring Garden neighborhood. The city’s Spanish Chapel is just a few doors from the intersection of 19th and Spring Garden Streets.
The piece was the brainchild of Andrew J. Cobe, a New York investment banker, who proposed a “souvenir of about the same size, weight and fineness of the Columbian half dollar” that would be sold for $1 apiece to raise funds for the revolution.
The reverse of the souvenir peso shows the coat of arms. The coin, designed by Phillip Martiny, features a tiny “m” near the bottom point on the shield. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)
On May 11, 1897, a contract was signed with Gorham Manufacturing, but the silver company was not immediately able to produce the pieces. Dunn, using planchets and dies provided by Gorham, struck the first 828 pieces in July. These pieces are distinguished by a widely spaced date and command a considerable premium.
In August, Gorham struck an additional 9,142 pieces at its Providence, R.I., mint.
The United States declared war on Spain after the battleship U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, and liberated Cuba in August.
The 1897 pieces have no statement of denomination and bear the legend “souvenir” to avoid possible counterfeiting charges. In 1898, the Cuban liberation movement contracted with Gorham for an additional 1,000 pieces. These give the denomination as “un peso.”
Today, uncirculated 1897 Dunn pieces retail for about $2,500, Gorham 1897 pieces start at about $300 and 1898 pesos fetch $3,500.
In 1902, when Cuba formally gained independence, all 1897 and 1898 pieces were accepted as legal tender.
Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.
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