Article by Alexander Noran
The Spanish suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of combined insurgent and American regular forces in the Spanish-American War (1898), one which would result in Spain ceding many of the remnants of its colonial empire to the United States. One such territory was the Philippine island group, where an insurgent movement turned against its former American allies, and continued waging guerilla warfare until 1901.
Following the capture of insurgent leader Emilio Aguinaldo, the socio-political situation on the islands began to settle down, and so the American administration began to turn its attention to building state structures, with a view to eventually granting independence. One of the institutions necessary for an independent Philippine state would be a mint to enable the tangible implementation of fiscal policy, and so in 1902, a bill was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt authorizing distinct coinage to be struck for use on the islands. The legislation further specified that the coins should be struck at Manila if possible, or barring this, in U.S. mints.
By 1903, production of new specie became a progressively more critical issue, as the last Spanish issues in the territory were made in 1898 – and even these were made in quantities notorious for not even satisfying local demand. In light of the mounting problem, the decision was taken to mint Philippines coinage at the San Francisco and Philadelphia mints, as it was deemed unfeasible to set up a proper minting facility in Manila in time to meet demand. That year, coins designed by Filipino sculptor Melecio Figueroa went into production.
This practice continued until 1918, when the Philippine legislature passed a bill allocating 100,000 pesos to acquire machinery built in Philadelphia for a new mint. Clifford Hewitt, then chief engineer of the United States mint designed and constructed the hardware, and it was shipped via the Panama Canal to Manila. In November 1919, Hewitt oversaw the installation of the machinery and trained the Filipino employees of the mint. On July 15, 1920, the only US mint established outside of the continental United States was opened.
This event gave birth to a series of unusual and interesting medals designed by Hewitt (shown above), and struck in bronze (mintage 2,200), silver (mintage 3,700), and gold (mintage of 5 pieces). To American numismatists, these pieces are referred to as the “So-Called Wilson Dollars,” but despite being similar in size and weight to a contemporary US dollar, the silver specimens served no monetary purpose – they were retailed for $1.50. The obverse is emblazoned with a portrait of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, and the reverse depicts Juno Moneta (goddess of money and minting) kneeling and watching over a nude youth who is pouring planchets into a press.
The medals were still available for sale as late as the mid-1930s (the bronze variant had sold particularly poorly), with remaining stocks being stored in the Philippines Treasury. With the Japanese capture of Manila imminent, the remaining treasury deposits (17 million Pesos in silver) as well as all remaining mint medals, were first moved to Corregidor, and then dumped in the city’s harbor so as to make recovery by the invading forces more difficult. This has resulted in a fair number of ‘shipwreck effect’ examples being offered on the market – most of which were recovered between 1945-7 by both the US navy and private contractors.
All in all, today these fascinating medals represent a window into an interesting chapter of both Filipino and American history – perhaps the reason that they are so sought after today.
Alexander Noran is chief numismatist at PCGM and foreign markets consultant for IAP Capital Group.