You probably haven’t given a lot of thought about why quarters are part of the US coinage, but there’s actually an interesting story behind it. And it starts in Spain.
By the end of the 16th century, Spain had extended its dominions worldwide and needed a reliable way to conduct trade. Large deposits of silver had been discovered in the Americas, and King Phillip II saw that coining it reliably would facilitate that trade.
He established a royal mint to make a silver 8-real coin that became known as the Spanish dollar. It also became the basis for the US dollar when the country authorized its own money in 1792.
Two Pieces of Eight
Because the Spanish dollars were easily split into eight pieces—giving them the colloquial name “pieces of eight”—when Congress decided on denominations for fractional coins, they chose 2/8ths or 1/4 of a dollar as one of the units, and the quarter was born. And because the eight pieces of the Spanish dollar were called “bits,” the quarter got its nickname, two-bits.
Production at the new US Mint began in Philadelphia (then the US capital) in 1793, but quarters weren’t minted until 1796 due to higher priority given to both smaller and larger denominations—and a controversy over the initial coin designs.
A Scrawny Eagle Gets the Boot
The first quarters were made of 90% silver and carried the Draped Bust Liberty design on its face. It had a scrawny eagle on the reverse and was roundly criticized. Known to collectors as the Draped Bust, Small Eagle quarter, only a few thousand were made, two are known to survive today in mint condition, making it one of highest-prized quarters.
The scrawny eagle was soon replaced by a heraldic eagle sporting the US motto, E Pluribus Unum, on a banner held in its mouth. It’s known as the Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle quarter and remained in production until 1807.
Liberty Gets a Hat
Minting of quarters was suspended from 1808 until 1815 due to low demand. When production resumed, a new design, known as the Capped Bust was used. Lady Liberty’s head was turned from right to left and she sported a soft Phrygian cap with the word “Liberty” on its band. From 1815 through 1828, a scroll with the national motto floated above a new heraldic eagle design on the reverse. Production stopped for two years, and when it resumed in 1831, the scroll was eliminated. High quality examples of these coins are fairly rare, but circulated coins are relatively common, depending on the date.
Liberty Takes a Seat
In 1838 a new portrait of Lady Liberty debuted. Her full figure sits in a full dress on a rock, a Liberty pole in her left hand. Her right hand rests on a striped Federal shield, and she’s surrounded by thirteen stars. A heraldic eagle design is on the back. This coin remained in production for over fifty years, with several minor changes, causing collectors to recognize seven different varieties, ranging from rare to fairly common.
An Uncontested Winner
By the late 1800s, artistic tastes had changed, so Mint Director Edward Leech decided to hold a competition for a new coin design among a handful of specially selected artists. But only the winner would get paid for their work, and the artists boycotted the contest. So Leech instructed the Mint’s chief engraver, Charles Barber, to come up with a suitable design. After some changes and lobbying by Leech, President Benjamin Harrison approved the coin, and it went into production in January 1892. Millions of the Barber quarters were made through 1916 with no significant varieties, making them fairly easy to collect. There are a few key dates, though, that command a premium. They include low mintages of 1896, 1901 and 1913 quarters from the San Francisco mint, and the 1906-D quarter from the Denver Mint’s opening year.
A Racy Lady Covers Up
Barber’s design had both proponents and detractors, so when its legally-mandated run expired, a new, better accepted design was sought. Hermon A MacNeil’s Standing Liberty was approved by the Mint, but when some influential individuals noted that Liberty’s right breast was exposed, they promptly insisted it be covered. After several midifications were rejected, MacNeil covered the offending anatomy with a coat of chain mail. The new, more modest design remained in production from late 1917 through 1930 with only a few changes. The early bare-breasted 1916 and 1917 designs are understandably rare, as are coins with the intricate details well struck, known as “full head” coins. The initial raised date was subject to excessive wear, so in 1925, the date was lowered for better durability. Generally affordable, key dates of 1921 and 1923-S, and the 1918-S 8-over-7 date restrike are the most valuable.
George Takes His Rightful Place
The elaborate Standing Liberty design had been fraught with production problems from the beginning, and the Mint was looking for a replacement. With the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth coming up in 1932, a Washington Bicentennial Committee was formed and began lobbying for the first president to be featured on new coins. A design competition was launched and won by Laura Fraser, wife of James Earle Fraser, designer of the Buffalo nickel. But it was not to be. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon felt his department had been left out of the decision and called for resubmissions. After considerable wrangling, Mellon chose a design by John Flanagan based on a 1786 bust of Washington sculpted by French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon. It was the same model used by Fraser and led to accusations of male chauvinism that were vigorously denied, including by modern historians.
Billions of Washington quarters have been produced since the coin was reintroduced in 1932 after a brief hiatus for quarters in 1931 due to low demand at the start of the Great Depression. Originally composed of 90% silver like its predecessors, the Washington quarter lost its silver when the precious metal was removed from all circulating US coins in 1965.
In production for over 80 years, the Washington quarter is one of longest-running US coins with too many variations and key dates to list here. We’ll cover them in a separate article, coming soon. Stay tuned!