The Caribou 25-cent piece is one of the iconic coins of the Canadian decimal series, having graced that denomination, with few exceptions, since the great coin redesign of 1937. However it has a history going back much longer, to the earliest days of the Royal Canadian Mint.
In 1910, just two years after the Mint, then classed as the Ottawa Branch of the Royal Mint, started operating, a new Currency Act was passed by Parliament. That law saw a coming of age of the RCM, as it called for the striking of gold coins, a silver dollar as well as the more common dates already being produced.
The dollar coin had been kicked around as an idea for some time, and preparations were begun that year for a striking of 1911 silver dollars. Eventually, the decision was scrapped and only a few patterns were produced. Only three are known to collectors today, one silver and one lead pattern are in the National Currency Collection, and a single silver pattern, which is in the hands of a private collector.
More than 20 years later, in October of 1934, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett announced that Canada would issue a silver dollar the following year. It was intended to mark the jubilee of King George V. Bennett’s motives were not entirely patriotic. It was intended that the commemorative coin would be purchased as a souvenir and the government would earn some seigniorage, at the same time stimulating the Canadian silver mining industry. At this time, the government was not making its usual profit on circulation coins, as there was a surplus of uncirculated coins, and many of those being issued were replacing worn coins being withdrawn from use.
There wasn’t much time to get a new denomination into production, particularly since at that time the RCM was unable to produce master dies, which had to be made in Britain.
In order to speed up production, Sir Robert Johnson, deputy master of the Royal Mint, suggested using the coat of arms design already used for the $5 and $10 gold pieces. However, before his message reached Ottawa, the Canadian government had already made a decision.
Coin design back then was a more formal process than now, but to save time Toronto artist Emanuel Hahn was invited to make a presentation in November. When he arrived, he had already worked up a sketch based on a caribou. A committee of government officials favoured the design, but were overruled by Finance Minister Edgar N. Rhodes. He had his own idea.
Rhodes told Hahn to work on a design using a canoe, with a voyageur or First Nations canoeist. Hahn quickly came with a design which Rhodes approved and returned to Toronto to work on a model which became the famous Voyageur dollar.
But the idea of the caribou stuck in the minds of some committee members, possibly J.H. Campbell, master of the Royal Canadian Mint.
Campbell was still in charge in January of 1936 when the death of King George V saw Edward VIII come to the throne. A new monarch meant new obverse designs. Campbell had long advocated new coin designs, which would end what he called “the sneering references to the numismatic art of the Dominion.”
His view prevailed, and he was given permission to redesign the country’s coinage.
It made sense. By tradition when a monarch dies, coins continue to be struck for the balance of the year, with the new monarch being introduced the next year. Canada had nearly a whole year to create new coins.
Canada was not alone. New Zealand, Australia and South Africa also underwent the redesign process.
An inspiration at this time was the coins introduced by Ireland when it became independent in 1928. Nicknamed the barnyard series, it featured indigenous animals, a subject well suited to Canada.
However artists were given a free hand when the competition was opened to 12 Canadian artists in April. Eventually 76 drawing were selected from the submissions, but all were rejected.
Bennett and then Finance Minister Charles A. Dunning rejected designs such as a polar bear and a Canada goose as unsuitable because they contributed to Canada’s image as an Arctic wilderness.
The competition was reopened, and this time several British artists were brought in to the process.
Things moved faster now, and in July a few designs had been proposed: a coat of arms for the 50-cent, a fishing schooner for the 25-cent, a mountain goat for the 10-cent, maple twigs for the cent, and Hahn’s caribou for the 5-cent.
The caribou design went through several revisions. The first design had a full profile, which was later modified to the head and antlers used today, but with the inclusion of the stars from the constellation the Big Dipper, and finally the stars were removed.
By September the schooner, the famous Bluenose, had been selected for the 10-cent piece, a beaver for the five-cent piece, and a caribou on the 25-cent piece.
Hahn was struggling to keep with the work, and did not have his final models completed until later December, which meant that the dies would not be prepared and shipped to Ottawa any sooner than March, 1937.
The other artists, not getting design approval until late September, were facing similar challenges.
Expecting a delay in getting new coins out, the RCM had stockpiled 1936-dated coins for the transition period.
But in December, 1936, Edward VIII announced his abdication, making the prepared obverse designs useless. The process would have to start over again for the new king, George VI, and that could not be done until official portraits were produced.
Concerned about shortages, the RCM struck 1937-dated one-cent, 10-cent, and 25-cent coins, adding a small dot to mark their posthumous status.
This coincidence gives the caribou design indirect links to two of the greatest rarities of Canadian coins, the 1911 dollar and the 1936 dot cent.
Since it was faced with a need to prepare dies for all the Empire and Commonwealth coins, as well as British issues, the Royal Mint had its hands full. The Canadian models were sent to the Paris Mint to produce matrices and punches. That Mint had experience with Canadian issues, having produced the tools for the 1927 medals for the 50th anniversary of Confederation.
Finally, the dies arrived back in Ottawa.
Introducing a new design often presents problems striking the coins. The large amount of metal needed for the obverse made it difficult to get a good strike on the reverse, and it took some trial and error to get good coins.
Johnson was so proud of the new issue that the RCM produced Specimen sets with a matte finish packaged in cardboard boxes for sale to the public. Higher quality coins were struck for private distribution and packaged in leather-covered cases.
The design, with the exception of a few years when commemorative 25-cent coins have been issued, has stood the test of time. It is a testament to Hahn’s work, as one of the few Canadian artists to get his work accepted during the early years of Canadian coins.
More recently it has been used for a gold 25-cent issue by the RCM for sale to collectors.