In an age that witnessed the first skyscrapers, inter-city telephone service and moving pictures, the magnificent 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was a fitting tribute to the progress America had made and the seemingly unlimited promise of its future. Dubbed the Columbian Exposition in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, the fair’s sparkling buildings, wide lagoons and massive boulevards thrilled over twenty-five million visitors with idealized images of a utopian American city. During its short, six-month run, the fair was replete with marvelous exhibits of art, industry and science. The first “three-rail” elevated railroad, the huge Ferris wheel, Edison’s Kinetoscope and the mile-long midway with exotic sights such as South Sea “cannibals,” medieval villages and Egyptian belly-dancers, awed the throngs of visitors who poured in from all over the world. Scheduled to open in the Fall of 1892, but delayed because many exhibits were still incomplete, the Exposition received its first visitors on May 1, 1893, when President Grover Cleveland ceremonially opened the gleaming, electrified “White City” to over 150,000 cheering onlookers.
The Exposition would play a part in a new role for women, one in which they had an active voice in the administration and presentation of exhibits dealing with “female interests.” Women’s suffrage advocate Susan B. Anthony had passionately petitioned both houses of Congress for a “Board of Lady Managers” to oversee and coordinate women’s activities and exhibits at the fair. Congress went along, appropriating funds for a Women’s Building and related expenses in the Sundry Civil Appropriation Law of March 3, 1893. The newly appointed Chairperson of the Board of Lady Managers, Mrs. Potter Palmer, following the lead of the souvenir Columbian Exposition commemorative half dollar, lobbied the Appropriations Committee to authorize that $10,000 of the allotted money be in the form of 40,000 commemorative quarters. In keeping with the all female theme, Mrs. Palmer, the acknowledged “Grande Dame” of Chicago Society and wife of the hotel tycoon who owned the exclusive Palmer House, insisted on a female likeness on the coin, fittingly that of Queen Isabella of Spain, Columbus’ benefactor.
On March 17, 1893, Mint Director Edward O. Leech advised the Board of Lady Managers to forward an image of the Spanish Queen, thereby saving time and funds. Reportedly, Susan B. Anthony advised Mrs. Palmer to ignore the Mint Director because there was no female engraver at the Mint. The Board had succeeded in having a woman design the Women’s Building and wished to maintain all female input in the design of the coin. Mrs. Palmer selected Caroline Peddle, a New York artist and student of famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to create designs. By ignoring and sidestepping the professionally territorial Chief Engraver Charles Barber, Mrs. Palmer lost all chance of having Peddle’s sketches approved. Ultimately, Barber prepared the models and dies for the new coin himself, apparently from sketches by the artist Kenyon Cox, who had painted several murals and illustrations at the fair.
Barber’s obverse design portrays a fanciful portrait of the crowned bust of a young Queen Isabella. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surrounds the bust, and the date (1893) is located in the right field. The reverse design, symbolizing what was then thought to be women’s major industry, depicts a kneeling woman, grasping in her left hand a distaff used for holding flax or wool for spinning, while holding a spindle in her right hand. Encircling the inner border is the inscription BOARD OF LADY MANAGERS and COLUMBIAN QUAR. DOL.
The Philadelphia Mint started production of the 40,000 coins on June 13, 1893. The authorizing legislation provided that a majority of the silver used to strike the issue was to be melted from outdated subsidiary Seated Liberty coinage. Just like the Columbian half dollar issue, the 400th, 1,492nd and 1,892nd coins were all double struck proofs. These special coins were documented by the Mint and sent to the Board of Lady Managers in Chicago. The 400th coin was symbolic of the time between the year of discovery (1492) and the anniversary year (1892). Experts believe that as few as 40 and as many as 103 proof coins were struck. Many proof-like early business strikes are mistaken for genuine proofs, but in addition to wire rims, square edges and proof-like surfaces, authentic proofs must show evidence of being struck with two or more blows from the coining press.
Only a small quantity of the quarters were sold at the Women’s Building on the Exposition grounds, at $1 per coin. According to recollections of those who visited the fair, the Columbian half dollar at $1 was a better buy than the Isabella quarter offered for the same price. Souvenir buyers felt that they would rather get 50 cents back for their dollar instead of 25 cents. The public and dealers purchased only about 15,000 of the quarters, mostly through the mails. Mrs. Palmer and her associates later purchased 10,000 pieces at face value. Some of these sold for as little as 35 cents after the fair closed, and the rest were ultimately parceled out via coin dealers and others over the next 35 years. Unfortunately, 15,809 pieces were returned to the Mint to be “reincarnated” into future silver coinage, leaving a net mintage, including proofs, of 24,191 pieces.
Surfaces for this issue will run the gamut from deep mirror proof-like to dull and satiny. On the obverse, wear first shows in the area of the crown’s central oval jewel and on Isabella’s cheek. Reverse wear will first be noted on the strand of wool resting on the kneeling spinner’s thigh. Due to die wear, raised or sharp definition of the strand of wool is not the norm. This area can display a slight weakness of strike, which is par for the design and should not be labeled wear. Currently, no counterfeit examples of this issue are known to exist.
This very popular commemorative, the only one of its denomination (excluding the Washington quarter which was intended to be a commemorative but became a regular series), is also the first U.S. coin to portray a particular individual and is the only one to depict a woman on both sides. It is not too difficult to locate in any grade from XF to gem uncirculated, but proofs are quite rare in any condition. Sought after as part of the commemorative series and often as a “type” quarter, Isabellas continue to enjoy strong collector demand.