The United States Mint in Philadelphia was founded under the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, one of the first legislative accomplishments of the young American Republic. At the time coins were only produced when citizens deposited silver to produce them, and the first coins struck that year, silver half dismes, were believed to have been made with silver from Martha Washington’s silverware.
Transactions in colonial America and later the American Republic were often conducted with Spanish-American coins denominated in Reales or Escudos, which were widely-used trade coins in North America and Asia. One real was created by cutting the coins into eight pieces and was worth 12 ½ cents. Two of them, or two bits, were the equivalent of a quarter dollar. However, quarters were not needed in the first couple years the U.S Mint operated, in part because the Spanish-American coins still circulated, as they would through the 1850s.
Quarters were first struck in 1796. They were Draped Bust obverse coins that carried a small eagle on their reverse and were both designed and engraved by Robert Scott, the first U.S. Mint Chief Engraver. They were required under the 1792 law to feature “an impression emblematic of Liberty” and an inscription to that effect. Both silver and gold coins had to carry the national bird, the American Eagle, on their reverse.
After those quarters were issued, no more were produced until 1804 when they again carried a Draped Bust obverse, but were paired with a Heraldic Eagle reverse, which Scott adopted from the Great Seal of the United States. On the coin the Eagle appears with the Union Shield on its breast, holding thirteen arrows and an olive branch in its claws, and E PLURIBUS UNUM (Latin for “Out of many, one”) is inscribed in a scroll held in its beak. Above the eagle are thirteen stars. This variety was only issued until 1807, and no more quarters were struck until 1815.
In 1815 Capped Bust quarters debuted and were the work of John Reich, who was born in Germany. At the time he created this design, Reich served as assistant engraver at the Mint under Mr. Scott. The Capped Bust design was first used in 1807 on half dollars and featured a side profile of Liberty wearing a turban – a design that was used on gold quarter dollars from 1795 to 1834.
It comes in two main types –large diameter (issued from 1815 to 1828) and small diameter (produced from 1831 to 1838). Both sizes carried an eagle on the reverse clutching arrows and olive branches in its claws, but only the larger size featured the motto, E PLURIBUS UNUM. The same design was used on Capped Bust dimes and half dollars except for some differences in inscriptions and the lack of a lettered edge.
At the time coinage production was very intermittent until 1838, when the Liberty Seated quarter was introduced and produced consistently until 1874. This coin exists with several different varieties or sub-types, which are a favorite of collectors because they can still be found today even in mint state conditions at reasonable prices apart from the rare dates and top grades. The main distinction among Liberty Seated quarters is between those that do not carry the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM, which were issued until 1865, and those issued from 1866 to 1874, that do feature it.
These coins, created by the third Chief Engraver Christian Gobrecht, featured an obverse design of Lady Liberty wearing a flowing dress and seated on a rock. She also wears a Phrygian cap and holds a Liberty pole in her left hand and a striped shield with a diagonal banner reading LIBERTY, in her right hand. Both the seated design and the cap design trace their historic roots to ancient Greece and Rome, although the seated design was also influenced by Britannia coinage in Great Britain. The cap was a symbol of liberty and freedom and had been worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome. The reverse shows an eagle perched on a laurel branch and holding three arrows.
Liberty Seated quarters produced from 1838 to 1852 featured thirteen stars around Liberty for the 13 original colonies, and in 1853, when the weight of the coin was reduced, arrows were added on each side of the date, while rays were added on the reverse above the eagle. In 1854 the rays were removed, and from 1856 to 1865 the first variety was resumed. Then in 1866 the motto was added on the reverse above the eagle. From 1873 to 1874 arrows were again added on each side of the date to indicate the weight was increased slightly, and finally from 1875 to 1891, the arrows were removed.
In the late 19th century the public had grown tired of Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty designs. The next United States Mint issued quarter would be designed by Charles E. Barber, who originally hailed from England and who also had designed the Liberty Head nickel that debuted in 1883. His designs were utilized following a failed competition from the United States Mint to produce new United States Mint coinage that produced no clear winner in the end. Augustus St. Gaudens famously objected to every design submitted.
At the time Barber served as Chief Engraver and created the same design for dimes, quarters and halves that featured a right-facing profile of Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap with a laurel and LIBERTY inscribed on a band above her forehead. Six stars appear to her right, and seven to her left. The reverse has a Heraldic Eagle that is holding an olive branch and arrows in its talons, symbolizing the desire for peace, while also being prepared for war.
These coins were issued on an annual basis at Mints in Philadelphia, Denver, New Orleans and San Francisco (not at each mint every year) through 1916 and remained in circulation until the 1950s.
In 1916, amid growing calls for the United States to enter World War I, the silver dime, quarter and half dollar designs were all changed. This was part of a major revision of most American coinage that began at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt when he was in office (1901 to 1909), as well as the influence of members of the numismatic community who believed it was time to make our coins more attractive.
One of the coins that came out of this effort known as the “Renaissance of American coinage” is the Standing Liberty quarter designed by sculptor and engraver Hermon A. MacNeil that featured a design of Liberty with her head facing eastward, bearing an upraised shield in her left hand and an olive branch in her right hand. The reverse features an eagle in full flight with its wings extended.
This design was intended to show that Liberty wanted peace, but was prepared to defend itself against the problems happening to our east in Europe. Issued from 1916 through 1930 except for 1922, there are two versions of the design, whose first version featured Liberty with one of her breast’s exposed and was issued in 1916 and 1917. The second version, which debuted later in 1917, had chain mail covering the breast.
A model and actress named Doris Doscher was the designer’s inspiration for the Liberty on the coin, which was produced until the Great Depression, when fewer coins were needed for commerce and halted production in 1930. Even high-grade examples of most issues are still obtainable. However, finding coins with good strikes, especially on the head of Liberty, is difficult.
Although very popular today, Standing Liberty quarters were viewed by many when they circulated as an unsatisfactory design, because of their low relief and tendency to wear down quickly. As the bicentennial of the 1732 birth of George Washington approached in the early 1930s, there was a move to create a commemorative half dollar and medal that was vetoed by President Herbert Hoover who felt they would harm the integrity of the monetary system. The Congress then moved to make it a quarter dollar and regular issue, not a commemorative. The Washington quarter, which features a left-facing bust of President George Washington by New Jersey sculptor John F. Flanagan on its obverse, debuted in 1932.
The coins are made of 90% silver and 10% copper like all previous quarters issued through 1964. Since then, they have been made of a 75% copper-10% nickel alloy plus a 99.5% copper core, commonly known as a cupro-nickel composition. Silver versions are still produced for annual collector sets, which through 2018 were made of the same composition as pre-1965 quarters, but are now composed of .999 fine silver.
With an obverse in higher relief than the coin it replaced, the design features a bold eagle with wings stretched perched on a bundle of arrows in a style many view as art deco. The coin was issued unchanged until 1976 when a special one-year only reverse was used for the nation’s bicentennial that featured a colonial drummer. No coins were issued in 1975.
The series then continued with the original 1932 design until 1999, when the 50 state, also known as statehood, series debuted. This was the first modern circulating coin program to feature a new reverse on each coin. The series saw the issuance of 50 quarters – one for each state – through 2008 in the order in which they either ratified the U.S. Constitution or were admitted into the Union.
The obverse was also modified by adding details to Washington’s hair curls, moving the inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and QUARTER DOLLAR from the reverse to the obverse, and moving the placement of LIBERTY and IN GOD WE TRUST, from above and below the portrait of Washington, to the sides.
In 2009 the state quarters were followed by a related series of coins issued for the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories. Due to less need for coinage during the extended economic crisis on this period, these issues include some of the lowest mintages of modern quarters.
In 2010 a new series with one coin for a national park or major historic site in each state and territory debuted called the America the Beautiful (ATB), or national parks, series. These coins are also issued in a 5 oz silver bullion version and a second version with a vapor-blasted finish and “P” mint mark for the Philadelphia Mint, where all ATB silver coins are produced. The final and 56th coin of this series will be issued in early 2021.
In 2019 the Mint delighted quarter collectors with the first quarters struck at the West Point Mint that carry a “W” mint mark with a mintage of just two million for each of the five 2019 coins. They are only available in circulation.
The legislation that authorized the national parks series states that it could be extended for another round of 56-coins on other park and historic sites at the discretion of the Secretary of the Treasury. If he opts not to do that, the obverse design would revert to what it was before the state quarters, while the reverse would feature a new design of Washington and his men in a boat crossing the Delaware River.
A Guide Book of United States Coins Mega Red 3rd edition, Whitman, 2017
Q. David Bowers, A Guide Book of Barber Silver Coins, 2nd edition, Whitman, 2019; A Guide Book of Mercury dimes, Standing Liberty Quarters and Walking Liberty Half Dollars, Whitman, 2015; A Guide Book of Washington Quarters, Whitman 2017
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Author Name: Louis Golino
Louis is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing on modern coins. He has been writing a weekly column for CoinWeek since May 2011 called “The Coin Analyst,” which focuses primarily on modern U.S. and world coins and developments at major world mints. In August 2015 he received the Numismatic Literary Guild’s award for Best Website Column for “The Coin Analyst,” and in August 2021 the column received the NLG award for best column on modern U.S. coins. He has also received other awards for his writing. He is also a contributor to several magazines, including Coin World, where he writes a bimonthly feature;The Numismatist, the American Numismatic Association’s monthly publication, where he writes a monthly column on modern world coins; and and other publications. He began writing about coins in 2009. He is a founding member of the Modern Coin Forum hosted by ModernCoinMart and has written articles for MCM since 2014. He has collected classic and modern U.S. and world coins since he was about 10 and first joined the ANA in the 1970’s. He has been writing professionally since the early 1980s.