Tuesday, June 05, 2007

June 4, 1932:

The First Washington Quarters

The Lincoln cent, first produced in 1909 to mark the centennial of the 16th president's birth, was a break in tradition for US coinage. No previous coin meant for regular circulation had ever featured an actual person, though commemoratives did and so did paper notes.

Previously the most popular human figure on American coins was Liberty, who in fact remained on a circulating design until the Walking Liberty half dollar was retired in 1947 in favor of the non-presidential Ben Franklin half. Presidential circulating coin designs, with one exception, have proven remarkably durable in the history of US coins. In 2009, the Lincoln cent will mark its own centennial; the Jefferson nickel has been around since 1938; the Roosevelt dime since 1946; the Washington quarter since 1932; and the Kennedy half -- though it doesn't circulate that much -- since 1964. Among presidential coins, only the Eisenhower dollar had a short span, 1971 to 1978, victim more of the unpopularity of a dollar coin than anything else. The new presidential coins, only two of which have been released so far (Washington and Adams), may or may not change the apathy toward dollar coins.

Production of the Washington quarter began 75 years ago today in Philadelphia. Only about 6.2 million regular-strike quarters were produced that year. Most of those, about 5.4 million, were made in Philadelphia, with a comparatively paltry 436,800 made in Denver and 408,000 in San Francisco.

According to the Jefferson Coin & Bullion Inc. web site, "The coin came into being in the depths of the Great Depression –- so while its arrival was welcome, it didn’t occasion a national celebration... In the midst of all this gloom, those with a longer historical view saw that the nation was nearing a milestone with happier connotations, for 1932 would be the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth.... In point of fact, the Washington birth bicentennial spawned a whole series of special observances [but] perhaps, none was more universally visible, or went on to enjoy greater longevity, than the Washington quarter dollar. Billions of examples of this now-familiar coin have been struck in the intervening years, and have passed through the hands of virtually every American. And yet, in the beginning, this tribute was envisioned as a one-time memorial to the nation’s first president, to be issued in the year of his birth bicentennial and then produced no more. In short, it was intended as a circulating commemorative coin –- arguably the nation’s first.

"Actually, the coin was only half – though clearly the more important half – of a two-part numismatic birthday tribute. The plans drawn up by the Treasury Department, in conjunction with the US Commission of Fine Arts and the Washington Bicentennial Commission, also called for issuance of a Washington national medal. And in the initial planning, the coin being targeted wasn’t a quarter at all but a half dollar –- the vehicle normally used for US commemorative coins during that era. Congressional approval was needed to replace the regular design on the half dollar, even for a single year, because the version then in use –- the Walking Liberty type –- had not yet reached the statutory minimum of 25 years. Congress chose to authorize a Washington quarter instead, but the same regulation applied for the reigning 25-cent piece -– the Standing Liberty quarter. It had entered the coinage system in the very same year as the "Walker." Both kinds had first appeared just 15 years before, in 1916.

"The substitution proved to be a serendipitous one for the Treasury and the Mint, for the Standing Liberty quarter had been a troublesome coin. Its high-relief design, while popular with collectors, was prone to excessive wear. And the widespread popularity of the “one-year” Washington coin would give the government’s minters a chance to make the substitution permanent, sending the Standing Liberty quarter -- unmourned by its producers -- to a permanent place on the sidelines."

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