Is that an historical artifact in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?
Let me put it another way.
For some reason, there are a lot of 50-cent coins amongst the loose change in the house, and stranger still, they appear to be different commemorative editions. Why are there so many commemorative editions of 50-cent coins in existence? Was there a minter (or coiner or jeweler or engraver or whatever you call a coin designer) who was particularly close to the treasurer's office? Was there excess budget to be spent on recasting the 50-cent coin every so often? What purpose does it serve? Who notices stuff like this - apart from perhaps the poor or unemployed, for whom all coins carry a greater significance?
Actually, the reason why the 50-cent has been the most frequent commemorative edition coin in this country is most likely two-fold, and I thank my mate Hayden for working this out instantaneously: when the first one was cast, it was before there were one- and two-dollar coins; so the 50-cent was the largest metal denomination. And it is also the largest physical coin, so there there is more of a ‘canvas’ to fill. I’ll buy that explanation for a dollar. Or two non-commemorative 50-cent coins.
The place to start is the rarest, most interesting (I assume) 50-cent coin - and the oldest. Decimal currency was first introduced in Australia on 14 February 1966 (there was even a song) and this coin was introduced then. Note that all the coins on this page appear larger than actual size.
So here is Australia's first 50-cent coin. Well, not the actual, necessarily, but one minted that year. I found it in a desk drawer at home, so my mum or dad must have been hording it somewhere. Its actual size is only slightly bigger than the 20-cent coin, which is why it was changed. Citizens apparently found it too easy to mistake the two, and back then, the difference of 30 cents was a lot of money. So a dodecagon shaped 50-cent coin was introduced, but, it turns out, not until 1969. Only because the initial coin was minted in 1966, and after that first run, no further 50-cent coins were made until 1969.
This is a recently minted regular 50-cent coin. The same design as the original, but shaped in a way that you can tell what it is as soon as you handle it in your pocket or purse - no need to even look at it.
The first special commemorative edition of the Australian 50-cent coin that I was aware of came out in 1977. I had begun school that year – Kindergarten at St Kieran’s, Manly Vale. My teacher was an agéd Pom. Queen Elizabeth II had been reigning singe 1952 and a special ‘Silver Jubilee Year’ 50-cent piece was struck to commemorate Her Britannic Majesty’s 25 years on the throne. Note the rim of overlapping crowns. Much harder to do in a time before Photoshop and Illustrator.
It coincided with a Royal Visit – of course you’d inspect all your property in an important year, when your tenants are gonna have to show the love. My teacher went to see her – at Hyde Park or wherever she appeared. I remember news footage of a ‘long hair’ being escorted from the throng by uniformed police. One held him by his feet, the other, by his hair. He was carrying a knife, apparently. Or just being young, unemployed and long-haired with malice aforethought.
The next special 50-cent coin I remember was issued in 1981 to commemorate the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. I don't have one of those, nor have I seen one in a while.
The next one that I have in my possession came out during my first year in big school. It was only 5th Grade: owing to limited space, boys would finish at St Kieran’s at the end of 4th Grade, no doubt separated from the girls before they became bumpy and interesting. So it was 1982, I was at St Augustine’s College, Brookvale, and it was the year Brisbane was hosting the Commonwealth Games.
The Commonwealth is what was formally known as the British Empire, and to pretend that it has any value or meaning at all long after it had ceased being a penal colony and a source of cheap primary resources, cheap labour and cannon fodder, every so often there’d be a CHOGM conference (pronounced ‘choggum’; it actually stands for ‘Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting’) and a mini-Olympics. As I write this, I wonder if CHOGM has stopped happening; I can’t remember the last one. And then I hear a news report that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is currently in the Caribbean, at the current "biennial meeting of the Commonwealth nation leaders" taking place in Trinidad and Tobago...
Of course, the best CHOGM was the one held during Edward Gough Whitlam’s term as Australia's Prime Minister: his New Guinean counterpart – who had a reputation for starting each day with a glass of his own steaming urine – was unfortunately absent from a day’s first session. Prime Minister Whitlam is said to have quipped that he’d obviously ‘been on the piss!’
I should talk more about the Commonwealth Games, but it’s sport, so I don’t particularly care about it. I guess Brisbane 1982 was a dress rehearsal for the Los Angeles Olympic Games. All I remember about the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games is that there was a swimmer called Dimity Douglas who was hot, in the opinion of 10-year-old Catholic boys.
Was there really a gap of five years between commemorative editions? No. But I don't remember the one that came out in 1991. It was an edition with a ram's head, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the introduction of decimal currency in Australia.
The next one came in 1994, 'International Year of the Family'. It features a kid’s drawing of a family. Or perhaps an adult engraver's approximation of what a kid's drawing of the same should look like. Note the mummy with the baby in her tummy. I assume she's pregnant, and hasn't just finished eating it whole like some snake consuming a mongoose.
I recall a conversation about this coin, back in 1994. I was at university and a dear friend who at the time was in the process of her first Sapphic dalliance, considered 'lady with baby in tummy' a reduction of 'the woman' or womanhood in general to essentially no more than merely the role of 'breeder'. I didn’t have the courage to argue the toss: that if the design was by, or supposed to be by, a child, the kid might actually see his mother, and indeed all mothers – though not be able to enunciate it thus – as the giver of life, the fertile matriarch from whom regeneration of humanity springs. And as such, it doesn't have to be reductionist.
Nowadays, my attitude is more in line with that of my friend. As if some kid designed the coin! It was deliberate government propaganda, designed to be carried around at all times to subliminally remind citizenry of what the most desirable familial construct is. If it truly reflected some random Australian kid’s drawing of his or her family unit, there'd be a sister and there'd be a baby in the sister’s tummy as well as the mummy’s. There’d be no father on the scene but there would be a creepy boyfriend standing between the mum and the sister. And even if he worked for DOCS (how do you think he met them in the first place?!) he’d still be standing a little too uncomfortably close. Nowaday’s, my friend’s attitude has also changed: she’s also carrying a baby in her belly.
In 1995 a special coin was issued marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. It bore the sentence 'They served their country in World War II: 1939-1945" and a portrait of surgeon and war hero Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop. I have no gags to make about Dunlop. Although, I always thought he was the legless war hero, and figured it was a cruel nickname – if I had to fight a war with no legs, I'd be weary, too. Only, that was Sir Douglas Bader. Note the barbed wire motif. This is war!
I was never big on history, so I have to do things like check Wikipedia to determine when Bass & Flinders circumnavigated Van Diemen's Land and thus ‘discovered’ – as the coin says –‘Bass Strait’. (What they discovered was that there was a strait, separating the island we now know as Tasmania, from the mainland. Too much information to fit on a coin, clearly.) According to Wikipedia, this discovery was made in 1797. So why not issue this coin 201 years later, Australian Mint?
A rather boring coin was released for the 'millennium year'. Or the year before it, actually, since the new millennium in fact began in 2001. Maybe we can borrow the extra year from the slightly mistimed discovery-of-Bass Strait commemoration. Would fewer people care about the correct date of Bass & Flinders’s circumnavigation than about the actual beginning of the millennium? Dunno. Who cares. Whatever. Stop bringing it up. No, you hang up. The important thing is, we’ve more-or-less entered the 21st Century, so a flag blows in the wind in such a way to suggest it is triangular rather than rectangular. Either that or it’s a very patriotic windsock. (Note to self: marketsouthern cross condoms on Australia Day – commemorative ‘socks’ for those dickheads who wear the flag as a cape – seeing as they’re f*cking the day up anyway…) There was a colour version minted for collectors – a much nicer coin. Too expensive to manufacture and circulate for the value of a mere 50 cents.
Okay, the triangular flag is clearly a ship’s sail – because the nation’s sailing into the new millennium. Still, if it was issued in 2001, it could commemorate Federation as well as the millennium – the sail tying in with First Fleet, invasion, etc etc… But that would be silly – there’s a whole other commemorative 50-cent coin to issue for the centenary of Federation: a much nicer design. It’s basically a more elegant, less ostentatious version of the original 50-cent piece. I assume it’s the original coat of arms from the actual time of Federation.
Not sure if we're celebrating windmills, water pumps or wind farms in 2002. Did we know about wind farms in 2002? It doesn't offer any comments about what may be of celebratory note that year.
But how cool is 2003's special edition 50-cent coin? I have no idea what's going on on the front of this psychedelic masterpiece, but it apparently celebrates 'Australian volunteers'. Why not? Jefferson Airplane had a psychedelic album called 'Volunteers'!
For 2005 there was another end of World War II commemorative coin, this time for the 60th anniversary. Well, they didn't bother to point out it was the Second World War, but the dates tell us that that's the occasion.
Have we had any more commemorative 50-cent coins since then? What should be commemorated next? The arrival of icebergs in New Zealand, on account of global warming? Our new Australian (boat people) citizens? Or perhaps it should mark the death of the Liberal Party. If Joe Hockey ends up leading, and the Libs come to power, we definitely need a commemorative 50-cent coin to celebrate him. It can be fatter than previous 50-cent coins. We can nickname it 'the Hockey puck'.
Suggest some of your own.