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Quarter Dollar Still Going Strong
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
June 05, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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It began as an offshoot of the Spanish “two bits,” equivalent to 25 cents. More than 200 years later, the quarter dollar is still going strong. A one-of-each design collection, known as a type set, tells the story.

The Act of April 2, 1792 authorized the first U.S. coin denominations, including a silver quarter dollar. The Mint hadn’t been built yet. When it opened in 1793 priority went to other denominations. The first quarters weren’t struck until April 9, 1796.

The delay was probably a good thing. It meant the quarter didn’t have to suffer through some of the early design problems associated with other denominations.

The Mint director commissioned portrait artist Gilbert Stuart to improve Robert Scot’s Flowing Hair image of Liberty. According to legend, Stuart used Philadelphia socialite Anne Willing as his model. Assistant engraver John Eckstein translated the sketch into an engraving. Collectors know it as the Draped Bust design.

Initially, the idea was to have one obverse star for each state. The 1796 quarter had 15 stars, although Tennessee became the 16th state on June 1, 1796.

The first quarter dollar’s reverse depicted a young eagle framed in a wreath of olive and palm branches. It may have been a tribute to Mint Director Henry William DeSaussure’s Southern heritage.

The Mint struck only about 6,000 1796-dated quarters. There are an estimated 500 survivors. Some have a “low 6” in the date; others have a “high 6.”

E.H.R. Green owned more than 200 1796 quarters. Described as uncirculated or proof, they were sold in the 1940s at prices ranging from $90 to $125 apiece. The price guide in Coins lists a Mint State-60 1796 quarter at $83,000. A Good-4 example is valued at $12,000.

The last batch of 1796 quarters was struck on Feb. 28, 1797. Production of quarters didn’t resume until 1804. The Draped Bust obverse was retained, but the small eagle reverse was replaced by a heraldic eagle adapted from the Great Seal of the United States.

There was still no indication of the quarter’s value. Apparently Mint officials thought the coin’s size and silver composition were sufficient for identification.

Production of 1804 quarters was not much more than that of 1796s. The Mint’s output jumped to more than 120,000 in 1805 and about 200,000 in 1806 and 1807. Impressive as the figures may have been at the time, all Draped Bust quarters are scarce. A Fine-12 1806 or 1807 is valued at nearly $1,000.

Whether because of a scarcity of silver or the heavy mintages in 1806 and 1807, quarter production did not resume until 1815. The Liberty Cap or Capped Bust obverse and eagle-and-shield reverse were the work of engraver John Reich. Rumor had it he may have used is mistress as the model for Liberty. But it’s unlikely her appearance could have gone undetected by Philadelphians in the early 1800s or that Reich could have gotten away with such a personalization of the quarter dollar. The story reflected the general feeling the Liberty Cap quarter was not an improvement.

Because of a fire at the Mint, fewer than 90,000 quarters were struck in 1815. Production resumed in 1818. The Mint produced more than 360,000 quarters that year.

The quarter commanded a lot more respect in the 19th century than it does today. In 1821, The Republican Compiler reported that a man who had been knocked down by robbers offered them a quarter, all the money he had. They took it and let him go.

An ad in the April 6, 1835, issue of the Gettysburg Star and Republican Compiler offered Cambrian toothache pills for 25 cents a bottle. In the June 2, 1824, issue of The Republican Compiler there was an ad for Venetial carpets at 25 cents a square yard.

The Liberty Cap quarter did some advertising of its own, proclaiming “25 C.” on the reverse for the first time.

Liberty Cap quarters were a scarce sight in their own time. Today, one of the more common dates in Fine-12 grade sells for around $200.

In 1831 engraver William Kneass revamped the Liberty Cap quarter. He slimmed the Liberty figure and eagle, sharpened the features and reduced the size of the lettering, date and inscription. He also eliminated the ribbon with “E Pluribus Unum” above the eagle. The quarter’s diameter was reduced, and it had a more modern, machined appearance.

Kneass’ Liberty Cap quarter remained in production until 1838. It reached a peak mintage of nearly 2 million pieces in 1835.

The quarter’s purchasing power held up almost as well as the design. In 1837, Harriet Martineau wrote in Society in America:

“The lowest price given of late for land, that I heard of, was a quarter dollar per acre (for these are not times when 3,000 acres are to be had for a rifle, and a whole promontory for a suit of clothes). Some good land may be still had, at a distance from roads and markets, from those who want to turn their surplus land into money, for a quarter dollar per acre.”

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Years of circulation reduced the weight of quarters and other coins, raising concerns as to when they should be retired. In January 1831, Congress debated a proposal to set weight and age limits for the quarter and other denominations. In order to remain legal tender, the quarter would have been allowed to lose no more than “seven and sixty-eight hundredths per cent.” A “Report on Current Coins” explained:

“When our silver coins are diminished in any degree greater than these respective rates, they are destitute of the impression of the Mint, and for that reason alone are unfit for further circulation.

“Under the restrictions now proposed, our coins diminished only by ordinary use will be legal money during the following periods: The quarter dollar, about 57 years.”

The quarter dollar’s design was another concern. In 1838 the Liberty Cap gave way to a Seated Liberty. Inspired by the image on some British coins, the Seated Liberty figure was designed by portrait artist Thomas Sully. On the reverse, “Quar. Dol.” replaced “25 C.”

Christian Gobrecht engraved the designs. Sculptor Robert Ball Hughes made minor changes to the obverse in 1840. He received $75 for his efforts. The most noticeable modification was the addition of drapery to Liberty’s left elbow.

The same year, New Orleans struck the first branch mint quarters. An F-12 1840-O “no drapery” quarter is valued at $75, compared to $53 to $58 for an 1838 or 1839 quarter from the Philadelphia Mint. Common-date Seated Liberty quarters struck from 1840 to 1853 are valued at less than $35 in F-12.

The California Gold Rush disrupted the balance of gold and silver values. By the 1850s, the silver in four quarters was worth more than a dollar in gold. Silver coins disappeared from circulation.

An 1853 law reduced the weight of most silver coins, including the quarter. To distinguish new-standard from old-standard quarters, arrows were placed alongside the date and rays were added around the eagle. In his report for 1853 the Mint director wrote:

“The diminution of the standard weight of the half dollar and lower denominations of silver coins, authorized by the act of March 3, 1853, has been attended with good results. Under its operations we have had a large supply of silver bullion, and the silver coinage of the new issue has reached the sum of $8,654,161, which is a larger amount than was struck during the five years preceding.

“Several millions of silver coins have thus been added to the currency, and if the circulation of small notes could be excluded so as to render the supply necessary, in a short time the new coin would be in general use in every part of the country. The appreciation rendered the alteration necessary.…

“Some misapprehension has prevailed in regard to the alteration in the silver coin. The idea is erroneously entertained by many persons that the fineness of the silver used in the new coin is below the former standard. The only change, however, is in the weight.”

Rays were eliminated from the quarter in 1854 to cut costs in die preparation. Arrows were used through 1855. An F-12 1853 arrows and rays quarter is valued at $34.

Beginning in 1866, “In God We Trust” appeared on a ribbon above the eagle. Quarter mintages were low from 1866 until 1873. Many were melted. An F-12 1871 Philadelphia quarter is valued at $60.

The Coinage Act of 1873 increased the weight of silver coins and put them on a metric basis. Arrows appeared on quarters struck in 1873 and 1874.

A collapse in railroad construction resulted in the Panic of 1873. A joke from that year said: “If the eagle on the quarter dollar had life, and I was a state prison convict, I wouldn’t trade places with it, for my confinement would be far more preferable to being squeezed to death.”

The government had suspended specie payments (silver and gold coins) during the Civil War. Resumption in 1877 brought a flood of silver coins back into circulation. Quarter production was minimal from 1879 through 1887.

Admiration for the Seated Liberty design was declining. “The Secretary of the Treasury considers the propriety of beautifying the designs of our silver coins,” President James Garfield wrote in his 1884 message to Congress. “His conclusions in this regard are cordially approved.”

In 1890 the Treasury Department invited 10 leading artists to submit designs. They found the terms unacceptable. A public competition was held, but the judges rejected all of the entries. So the task of redesigning the silver coins went to Mint engraver Charles Barber.

“Our engraver at Philadelphia is the only competent person to prepare these designs,” Mint Director Frank Leech was quoted in the July 31, 1891, issue of the Boston Transcript. “Of course, he receives no additional compensation for this. It is part of his regular work.” “I do not see any prospect of getting designs elsewhere in this country,” Leech added. “We might get them in France, but the people of the United States would never forgive us if we went outside this country for designs.”

Barber’s Liberty Head dime, quarter and half dollar resembled French coins, which is exactly what Leech wanted. “It is said at the Treasury Department that the new designs are unquestionably very beautiful and a decided improvement upon the present designs,” the Nov. 6, 1891, issue of the Baltimore American said.

At first the critics agreed. The Chicago Tribune described the Barber coins as “radically different.” It said the Liberty head was “far more beautiful than any which have yet appeared on our coins.”

As the last Seated Liberty quarters were being struck in 1891, attention centered on the forthcoming Barber coins. Teachers’ World said:

“With the beginning of 1892, the National Mint will issue a new silver coinage of dimes, quarters and half dollars, the designs for which have already been approved and models made by the engraver at the Philadelphia Mint.

“In selecting the head of the Goddess of Liberty for the obverse, one closely resembling the figure used on the coins of the French Republic has been adopted, being slightly different in its lines from that on any of the other coins now used here.

“Liberty is represented looking to the right with a dignified and almost severe expression, and wearing a Phrygian cap. In the band or fillet over the front of the head is the motto ‘In God We Trust.’ Around the edge are 13 stars, representing the 13 original states, and at the bottom is the date.

“The reverse shows the eagle with the national motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’ and the usual inscription.”

Collectors soon distinguished Variety 1 and Variety 2 1892 quarters. On Variety 1 quarters, the eagle’s wing covers half the “E” in “UNITED.” On Variety 2 quarters, the eagle’s wing covers most of the “E.”

The Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco mints turned out Barber quarters in 1892. More than 11 million were struck. It was said that most of them were shipped to the Philippines.

Barber quarter production peaked in 1899 when the Philadelphia Mint struck more than 12.6 million. Common dates are valued at around $20 in F-12, but they aren’t easy to find. Barber quarters were heavily used. Most survivors grade only Good or Very Good.

The Barber coins were durable and practical, but they weren’t as artistic as government officials wanted. In late 1915 the Treasury Department staged a competition for new dime, quarter and half dollar designs.

Hermon MacNeil’s plaster models were selected for the quarter. According to the official description, the obverse of the Standing Liberty quarter depicted Liberty “stepping forward to the gateway of the country, bearing a shield in the attitude of protection, from which the covering is being drawn.” The reverse depicted a soaring eagle.

The Standing Liberty quarter reflected the nation’s mood. World War I was raging in Europe. Preparedness was the keyword. The New York Times said that Liberty on the new quarter typified “America Awake.”

The Times described the Standing Liberty quarter as a “silvern beauty.” But it saw in the design “some too darkly veiled allegory of the Woman’s Party and the suffrage movement.”

Other reviews were equally ambivalent. The Numismatist found MacNeil’s quarter to be “strikingly beautiful.” Yet it claimed, “The eagle on the reverse seems small and less majestic than that on the half dollar.”

The Feb. 6, 1917 issue of the Mansfield, Ohio, News said: “The new quarter and half dollar, which recently made their appearance, are fair to look upon. They would make beautiful medals.” As coins, the paper said, both would be “dirt collectors.”

The Philadelphia Mint struck 52,000 Standing Liberty quarters in December 1916. Newspapers reported that “sharpers” were selling them for a premium. The Treasury Department issued a statement that they were not rare and were worth only face value.

Most people didn’t see a Standing Liberty quarter until 1917. The Jan. 20, 1917, issue of the Mansfield News said:

“The first opportunity of Mansfield people to take a good long look at the new quarter, of which so many favorable and unfavorable comments have been heard from all over the country, came today when a small shipment of the coins arrived.”

The quarter’s design was modified during 1917. Liberty’s right breast received a covering. Details in her hair and shield were changed. The eagle was raised and three stars were moved below it.

Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo and Rep. William Ashbrook of Ohio reportedly instigated the changes. MacNeil called them “a great improvement.” He said that Liberty was “a bit more resonant and purposeful and solidly constructed.”

A more significant problem soon became apparent. The Standing Liberty design didn’t hold up in circulation, especially the date. In 1925 a depression was made in Liberty’s pedestal to protect the date from wear, but it was not very effective.

Standing Liberty quarter production ended in 1930. In April 1931 the government announced a plan to replace the “fast-wearing” Standing Liberty design.

“The design of the current quarter dollar has been the subject of considerable criticism,” Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon said. “It wears very badly and is a difficult coin to manufacture. The design is too elaborate for the small surface, and it is almost impossible to bring the details into proper relief.”

Mellon invited artists to submit designs for a Washington quarter. It would be released in 1932 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth.

The selection of the winning design rested with Mellon, but he was required to consult the associate director of the Washington Bicentennial Commission, Sol Bloom.

Mellon chose sculptor John Flanagan’s design. The Washington portrait was based on a bust by Jean Antoine Houdon. An eagle filled the reverse. The New York Times said it was the only familiar thing about the new quarter.

Production of Washington quarters began in June 1932. The first examples were released Aug. 1. Many banks set a limit of three per person.

The 1932-D and -S proved to be the scarcest Washington quarters, but 1932 Philadelphia quarters are fairly common. The Coins price guide lists an F-12 specimen at $7.

Describing the Washington quarter as an improvement, the Oakland Tribune said the design was simple and in good taste. The Helena, Mont., Independent judged the Washington quarter “far superior” to the Standing Liberty quarter and hoped it would be a permanent replacement.

It was. No quarters were struck in 1933. In 1934 the Washington quarter returned as a regular issue. The design was still going strong when Flanagan died in 1952. For the Bicentennial, it received 1776-1976 dating and a drummer boy reverse by Jack Ahr. The original design returned in 1977 and lasted until the 50 State Quarters series began in 1999. The America the Beautiful program started in 2010.

The quarter dollar has come a long way since George Washington’s time. Its design and metallic composition have changed. Its purchasing power has diminished. But the basic idea of a “two-bit” piece has survived the test of time and made memories that come alive in a quarter dollar type set.

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