The George Washington Quarter Dollar


As we discussed before, during the early years of the Great Depression far fewer coins were minted. An economy in a tailspin meant that coins were circulating less and fewer people were collecting them. The exception to this coin dearth in those early years was the 1932 quarter dollar minted in honor of the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth.

Originally, the Treasury Department intended to strike a half dollar, and in cooperation with the Commission of Fine Arts and the Washington Bicentennial Commission, it held a competition. Entrants were to design the obverse of this new coin using the celebrated bust of Washington sculpted by Jean Antoine Houdon as inspiration. Laura Gardin Fraser, talented artist and wife of sculptor James Earle Fraser, was a prolific medalist. In 1932 she designed the George Washington Bicentennial medal, and she entered this contest along with 97 other people. The Commission chose her design unanimously – but the U.S. Treasury declined to use her design on the coins it produced.

If you’re American, you know what a Washington quarter looks like, just as you’re familiar with the Lincoln cent. In the low-relief design, Washington faces left, his hair powdered and in a queue, his head taking up most of the surface area of the coin. Above him is the word LIBERTY and IN GOD WE TRUST is in the left field. The date is below the base of his neck.

On the reverse a heraldic eagle perches on a branch, wings outspread. At the top of the reverse are the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and below are QUARTER DOLLAR. Right above the eagle’s head is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM.

How did this design make it to the quarter and not the Commission’s choice? Because Andrew Mellon, the Treasury Secretary, liked John Flanagan’s design better, and he pulled rank. Fabulously rich, Mellon was used to getting his own way, and even though he left the Treasury before the coin was produced, the new Treasury Secretary, Ogden Mills stood by his decision. The new design was easy to mint as its low relief made only one strike necessary, but it caused problems as well. On some 1934 coins, the motto can barely be read, even on uncirculated coins. Adjustments were made over time to correct this.

Washington’s face still appears on our quarters, although the eagle has been replaced by a design for each of the 50 states since 1999. The coin has proven to be hugely popular, and its regular printing has resulted in many coin variations. Over the years, four mints have struck it: Denver, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and West Point, and the total adds up to over 21 billion business strikes and 60 million proofs. There is so much to collect, with one memorable modification: in 1975-1976, the coin was minted with a “Drummer Boy” reverse designed by Jack Ahrs in honor of the Bicentennial.

If you’d like to know what Laura Gardin Fraser’s original design for this coin looked like, you are in luck. It was not lost to history. In 1999 the U.S. Mint issued a $5 gold commemorative using her image for its obverse. To locate this coin or any variant of the Washington quarter, call Grand Rapids Coins. We would be happy to help you find the coin that was such a ubiquitous part of Americans’ 20th century life.

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