Even veteran Fiesta hagglers won’t be able to collect this 112-year-old recently discovered metal memento that San Antonio historians believe was the genesis of today’s medal mania.
The words “San Antonio Spring Carnival Apr 1905” are embossed on the 2-inch pressed bronze medallion featuring the profile of a masked person wearing two stacked sombreros. It surfaced unexpectedly at the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts a little more than a year ago.
“Fiesta medals are such a rich part of San Antonio culture now,” said Sean Knoll, who found the artifact. “Anyone can individually make their mark on Fiesta — to be able to see the very first one is very special.”
Knoll was working at the academy transferring artifacts of Italian-born, world-renowned sculptor Pompeo Coppini into digital files when he was “totally” taken aback by the discovery.
“It was a holy grail moment, being born and raised in San Antonio,” Knoll said.
The item was found at the bottom of a box along with Coppini’s Order of the Cross medal that the sculptor received upon being knighted by the king of Italy in 1931 for his artistic contributions to the U.S.
The University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute of Texan Cultures regularly features displays of Fiesta medals and has a digital database of official and unofficial medals. The oldest one in its database to date is a silver medal on a gold ribbon dating back to 1927. James Benavides, Institute spokesman, called the Coppini Academy’s new discovery “genuine.”
The original medals were worn by Fiesta royalty and special guests; in the 1940s, the reigning King Antonio started handing out commemorative coins to the public at parades and other Fiesta events. Soon, other organizations and businesses started creating and distributing their own.
“Before there were medals, organizations would have these coins made as promotional items,” said Leon Childers, owner of FiestaMedals.com, the official medal maker of the Fiesta Commission.
Childers, who is also something of a Fiesta medal historian, said that in the 1960s, Joske’s department store gave cardboard coin holders to schoolchildren, who would use them to collect the coins.
In 1971, there was a breakthrough: King Antonio XLIX Charles G. Orsinger and his commander punched holes in 250 of his King coins and attached red-white-and-blue ribbons. That one is considered the first official Fiesta medal. A few still exist.
Purists no doubt will claim that the medallion found by Knoll is neither medal nor coin — it doesn’t hang from a ribbon, but it does have a pin on the back. Still, it’s clearly an early ancestor of today’s glittery bangles.
Coppini was a leader of the Knights of Omala (Alamo spelled backward,) a group consisting of “up-and-coming-men of San Antonio,” according to San Antonio Express-News archives. Also known as the “Phunny Phellows,” Coppini and his organization were instrumental in the early years of Fiesta, which was established in 1891 and then known as the San Antonio Spring Carnival.
The medallion found by Knoll was created during the group’s inaugural year. The Knights hosted their own events throughout their 1905-1911 run, including the Knights of Omala Grand Spectacular Torchlight Parade, a “blazing spectacle of electric lights and fire,” wrote Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman in “Inventing the Fiesta City.”
The Phunny Phellows often dressed in masquerade costumes and carnival masks for the festival, which may be what the profile on the medallion depicts.
Fiesta medals were called “badges” during their early years. They were originally distributed at Knights of Omala meetings, then mailed to members who had paid “subscriptions.” By 1907, the badges were sold to the general public.
“It is expected that hundreds of San Antonians will be wearing them,” the Express-News said in a story published March 1, 1908.
Coppini went on carve his mark into the cityscapes of San Antonio and other U.S. cities with 36 public monuments, including the 60-foot-tall granite Alamo Cenotaph titled “Spirit of Sacrifice.” He also created the frieze that adorns the entrance of the Express-News building, as well as the bronze front doors of the Scottish Rite Cathedral.
The Coppini Academy, a nonprofit that operates out of the artist’s old studio, is in the process of finding a way to share the piece of Fiesta history with the city, said Charlotte Cox, the group’s president.
Staff Writers Rich Marini, Rene Guzman and Paula Allen contributed to this report.