The United States in the early 1930s suffered under the effects of a widespread economic depression that followed the 1929 stock market crash. The crisis was made worse by severe agricultural stress caused by land erosion and southern plains dust storms, a result of several years of drought combined with poor framing practices. Against this backdrop was the 200th anniversary in 1932 of George Washington’s birth, and the Treasury Department proposed a half dollar to commemorate the event. There was precedent for this remembrance: the cent had been changed in 1909 to mark the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. A design competition was undertaken, with a rule that the coin be based on a classic bust of Washington by Jean Antoine Houdon, considered the greatest European portrait sculptor of the last half of the 18th century. Houdon’s piece was done in 1785 from a life mask of Washington he had taken during a trip to Mount Vernon, a visit promoted by Benjamin Franklin, whose portrait Houdon had sculpted in 1779.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Exercising its authority in coinage matters, Congress changed the denomination for the Washington commemorative to the quarter, but it was Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon who most compromised the process. Mellon was a wealthy but controversial banker and industrialist in the early 20th century, a foremost art collector, but also known for his stubbornness. He refused the accept the Laura Gardin Fraser design chosen by the Washington Bicentennial Commission, not once but twice, instead favoring New York sculptor John Flanagan. Mellon left the Treasury Secretary position in early 1932 but his successor, Ogden L. Mills, refused to change Mellon’s decision regarding the quarter. Though Flanagan’s low-relief design was easy to strike, the motto was weak on the 1932 and early 1934 issues (no quarters were minted in 1931 or 1933), necessitating changes in the dies to strengthen the impressions. The Washington design proved to be popular with the public, however, and instead of being a one-year commemorative issue as originally intended, it has continued to the present day.
On the obverse a left-facing portrait of Washington dominates the surface. Inside a flat rim is the word LIBERTY at the top, and the date at the bottom. IN GOD WE TRUST is placed to the lower left of Washington, the words arranged in two lines. The designer’s initials JF are on the right side of the base of Washington’s neck. On the reverse a centered eagle with outstretched wings rests on a tightly bound bundle of arrows. The eagle’s wings curve on the outer edges to form a arc concentric with the raised rim. Between the wings and the rim, around approximately the top half of the coin, is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and below that text but above the eagle’s head is E PLURIBUS UNUM, also in two lines. The denomination QUARTER DOLLAR follows the rim at the bottom, and two short olive branches curve above the denomination but below the eagle, leaves partially overlapping other design elements. Silver Washington quarters were minted in Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco; D and S mintmarks are located below the crossed ends of the olive branches, above ER in QUARTER.
Thousands of business strike Washington quarters have been certified, including a few prooflike pieces. Prices are moderate for most issues through Premium Gem, and even as Superb Gem for many dates. Lower mintage 1932-D and 1932-S quarters are considered key, with the Denver issue expensive as Select Uncirculated and finer and very expensive as Gem and finer. Other higher priced issues are the 1934 Doubled Die Obverse, 1935-D, 1936-D, 1937 Doubled Die Obverse, 1942-D Doubled Die Obverse and Doubled Die Reverse, 1943 Doubled Die Obverse, 1950 D over S and S over D, and 1964 Special Mint Set coins. The 1937 DDO is the highest priced issue, expensive as Select Uncirculated and finer. Several hundred proof Washington quarter have been certified, many as Cameo or Deep Cameo from the early 1950s forward. No proof quarters were minted from 1932 through 1935 or from 1943 through 1949. Prices are modest for many dates up to and including Superb Gem. Higher priced coins include the proofs from the 1930s and 1940s, and Cameo and Deep Cameo examples from the early 1950s forward, some of which are very expensive at grades finer than near-Gem.
Designer: John Flanagan
Circulation Mintage: high 704,135,528 (1964-D), low 408,000 (1932-S)
Proof Mintage:high 3,950,762 (1964), low 3,837 (1936)
Denomintion: $0.25, Twenty-five cents, Quarter Dollar, (25/100)
Diameter: ±24.3 mm; reeded edge
Metal content: 90% silver, 10% copper
Weight: ±6.25 grams
Varieties:Many known, including 1934 Light Motto and Heavy Motto (IN GOD WE TRUST); 1934, 1936, 1937, 1942-D, and 1943 Doubled Die Obverse; 1950 D over S and S over D; 1953 proof Doubled Die Obverse; and other minor die variations.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
A Guide Book of Washington and State Quarters. Q. David Bowers, Whitman Publishing.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.