MEDAL COLLECTORS in America look forward to presidential elections every four years for good reason. Irrespective whoever wins – Democrat or Republican – they know they will have another fine art medal to add to their collection.
These medals bear a portrait of the incoming president – by the best medallic artist in America at the time – often a sculptor of renown reputation. The medals are also the best that American medallic industry can produce. Private medal makers have made these medals for more than a century except for two times, when these were struck by the U.S. Mint, in the middle of World War II and when an official of the Mint was on the Inaugural Committee.
The medal becomes “official” by an unwritten imprimatur granted by the Inaugural Committee, a powerful political board that immediately springs into existence with final election results and a winner is certain. It exists for a short time, often less than six months, but performs a very important function. It oversees and manages a ceremony that dates back to the inauguration of George Washington with roots similar to the coronation of a new royalty in countries that are monarchies.
The inauguration ceremony is funded – not by government money – but entirely by ticket sales to the numerous balls. Plus the sale of merchandise the Inaugural Committee authorizes as official. American manufacturers line up to offer their wares desirous to get the nod from the Committee. The merchandise changes for each president, Royal Dalton got the nod for a Toby Mug in the shape of Ronald Reagan’s bust. Or a cut crystal jar full of Jelly Beans. A Tiffany silver bowl, and a Boehm porcelain rose, came from some high-end manufacturers.
But more often than not are the usual items of every price range: commemorative plates emblazoned with an image of the Capitol as the Inaugural’s logo, D.C. license plates (good on your vehicle only until mid-March), first-day covers, plus jewelry items: cuff-links, tie-tacks, lapel pins, bracelet and necklace pendants and charms. Other utilitarian objects have been offered from time to time, like scarves or umbrellas. All designed for the special event with image or caption.
The medals, however, are the keystone of the royalty- generating merchandise. Medals have a heritage of being issued for every presidential inauguration back to 1889 for the centennial of George Washington’s Inauguration. All George got at the time of his Inauguration was a button with his initials on it as the only “official” inauguration memento.
Die-struck fine art medals exert a very important characteristic trait – they last forever. They will survive for ten thousand years in contrast to the empty Jelly Bean jar in quick time, or a broken plate or crystal object. American Presidential Inaugurations will be documented by medals far into the future as we have similar evidence of fresh crowning of kings on coins and medals five thousand years ago. Well at least coins since medals were first used for this purpose in the 15th century.
Decades ago, as late as the Harry Truman Inaugural Medal in 1949, medals in bronze and silver were adequate to supply the public and gender enough royalties for the Inaugural ceremony. The same die was employed to strike the gold medal to be given to the president, destined for deposit in his Presidential Library.
With the Dwight Eisenhower Medal of 1953, medals of different sizes (each requiring a new die) were made, each size to fill a need for a segment of the market, as a smaller size for jewelry items. This proved satisfactory, the practice continued, even increased somewhat with an additional need, as a coin relief medal to accommodate a First Day Cover.
One practice did change. The bronze medal had to be a different size from the silver medal. Because of the popularity of the silver medal unscrupulous people silver-plated the bronze medal and sold this as a genuine silver. This occurred for the Kennedy 1961 medal. It affected the Nixon 1969 Inaugural Medal and all others issued after that date.
Another change occurred. Gold was permitted to be sold to American citizens December 31, 1974, after having been prohibited since March 1933. Gold Inaugural medals were struck for the first time for the Second Nixon Term. It was struck in a size smaller – and obviously different – from all other composition Inaugural medals (to prohibit goldplating subterfuge).
A typical schedule of Inaugural Medal sizes and compositions are:
- Gold 1¼-inch
- Silver 2½-inch antique finish
- Silver 2½-inch proof surface
- Bronze 2¾-inch antique finish
- Bronze 1½-inch coin relief
From these sets were made of the following:
- 5-Piece Inaugural Medal Set (all of the above)
- 4-Piece Inaugural Medal Set (all but the gold)
This schedule changed somewhat over the years as planners believed other items would sell, as some form mounting of medals made into desk pieces would be popular. But the above basic schedule has endured.
A problem, it should be noted, for all those manufacturers, is that their merchandise must be made so quickly. Designed, approved, modeled, sometimes molded, or dies made, often with extensive production runs. Accepted finished product must be completed and delivered to Washington DC in time for Inauguration Day, January 20th.
Every manufacturer wishes for the “old days,” prior to 1934, when Inauguration Day was March 15th (for 60 days more time).You can also add thousands of parade participants who often catch a severe weather on that January day and must spend the entire day outside wishing for a warmer clime. But the date is set in concrete and the quicker the new president is in office the better.
For the makers of this merchandise it means some long days in all of December and early January. Round the clock production with three shifts of employees, and a missed holiday or two around the first of the year. You can’t take shortcuts, this must be your best quality. After all its for the president of the United States.
To speed up processing in the finishing department at Medallic Art Company in the past the heat lamps were turned up higher to dry the lacquer on medals quicker. It seems every fourth year this caused a fire as the lacquer ignited. Fire departments were called with the inevitable news article the next day’s paper “Fire at Local Medal Manufacturer.”
Another problem at the manufacturer is that other work must be set aside as all manpower is exclusively dedicated to inaugural medal work. Other clients must be consoled their medal job has been delayed and might not be completed until after January 20th. Production scheduling becomes a nightmare during this period.
Medals are required in large quantities for art medals, often in the thousands. Another problem is not knowing the demand in advance – how many to strike of each kind. Finished product with proper cases or holders intact must be stocked and ready. Ideally, you would like to have on hand in Washington DC a sufficient quantity to fill every order, every purchase, on that date. Residual orders could be struck and fulfilled at a later time.
Logistics and division of labor are other problems. Where should mail orders be sent? Who should fulfill? And a distribution problem: which retail outlets need to be serviced? Woodward & Lothrop, a department store in DC has been a distributor in the past. Should other outlets, as jewelry chains, be accepted as distributors?
All of this activity must be compressed into less than a two-month period. This requires management of incredible capability.
Since this activity has increased with each succeeding inauguration I would like to offer a solution. The job of manufacturing the medals is almost too large now for one firm to produce in the time required. In the past this has been the case, one firm gets the okay from the Committee to make the medals, but must subvert all its other normal business for at least six weeks, often longer.
My solution suggestion is to form a consortium of medal manufacturers. There are a handful of excellent ones in this field, despite its relative small size as industries are measured.
One firm should be the prime contractor and be responsible for all Inaugural Medal activity. Perhaps it should be responsible for making all the patterns, hubs and dies. It should sub-contract out the striking and finishing of each of the separate kinds of medals to other medal firms, supplying the dies all from the accepted “official” Presidential Medal design.
- Perhaps one firm should produce only the gold medals.
- Another the proof silver.
- Another the antique silver.
- Another the bronze with the antique patina.
- Another the medals in coin relief.
- Another for jewelry items.
All product would be shipped to a rented warehouse near the Washington DC area. Here final inspection and packaging would take place. Orders would be shipped, or even delivered from this location.
Fulfillment of mail orders would take place at this location. Reorders would be serviced here.
The facility would have a fixed period of activity as orders dwindle after March 1st.
Obviously, Medallic Art Company is the ideal candidate to be such prime contractor. It has the facilities as for die making at two locations, a sales force in place in the Washington DC area, plus a past record unequalled by any other firm. Its experience and heritage should place it at the top of the list to be considered.
It has the respect of the other firms in the field, and certainly the willingness to work with such other manufacturers. There is enough work to go around for all in this field for this one exceptional job. All would benefit.