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Key circulation find highlights Washington

A few U.S. coins have been disliked, and many taken for granted, even by collectors. Perhaps the coin most taken for granted is the good old Washington quarter, which has been minted since 1932. 

Quarters are the workhorse coin in commerce and have been for years.  Half dollars all but disappeared once the Kennedy half dollar came out in 1964 and hardly anyone uses dollar coins, but everyone handles quarters.

Even collectors neglected the Washington quarter for years; if a numismatist really wanted to do something different, he could specialize in that series.  Washington quarters were like that handyman in your apartment building who did a good job, but no one ever noticed him, and everyone took him for granted.

And then it all changed with the advent of the state quarters in 1999. 

Washington quarters had been around for 67 years at that point – past retirement age – and suddenly, they were discovered.  It’s nice when a series is appreciated after all that time, and nicer yet when a collector has enjoyed the series for many years and watches others jump on the bandwagon.

I began collecting Washington quarters in 1966. They were plentiful in change, seen every day and many silver issues still could be found. Even dates and mintmarks in the 1930s could be found with a little looking and some luck.

At the time, these coins had no serious problems, such as the date wearing off, and no major design changes, as the Lincoln cent had in 1959. They were fairly easy to grade and the design wasn’t that elaborate. There were a couple of scarce dates to keep a collector hunting, but no real show-stoppers, such as a 1916-D Mercury dime, or a 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent.

Regular people liked quarters. My grandmother, who also liked Wheat-back Lincoln cents, liked quarters, because a dollar amount accumulated more quickly.  If I did her a favor, such as cleaning out the pantry or weeding the garden, she would pay me in old quarters. Most of the dates I found were in the 1940s and early 1950s, and some were in really nice condition.

Back in the mid 1960s when the copper-nickel clad coins made their first appearance, quite a few silver coins could be found. The coin folder that held a “short set” of Washington quarters – from 1941 to 1964 – could be completed without much trouble. Many 1964-D and 1963-D quarters turned up in change, but most people spent them without a second thought. Some people might have saved them for the silver content, but they were common coins; who would ever collect them?

The Washington quarter series is a big set; it was in the late 1960s and many short sets could be formed from a basic date and mintmark set. The folder I owned as a young collector held a set comprised of the dates and mintmarks from 1941 to 1964. The folder ended when silver issues ended.

A set of every proof issue would include coins of 1936-1942, along with the 1950-1964 coins. I did purchase a few of the proof coins of the early 1960s to dress up my set, but a complete run, going back to 1936, was out of my range and my budget.

No one paid attention to cameo or frosted proofs in those days, so a Washington quarter fan with a few extra bucks to spend could have cherry-picked to his heart’s content, and come up with some beautiful coins.

I was happy with my silver set of quarters, and happy to see many of the holes in the album get filled without much trouble. Most of the quarters I found had the “D” mintmark, but there were many Philadelphia coins, too, and once in a while, one with the “S” mintmark would turn up.

I found many more quarters with the San Francisco mintmark than I did Lincoln cents.  Even the semi-key 1937-S turned up without much searching.

I recall finding many quarters dated 1943. None was in super-duper mint condition, but they were older World War II coins and showed some wear. I thought the numeral “3” looked funny on these coins, just as the “3” looked funny on the 1943 Lincoln cent.

Yes, these quarters circulated widely, and did the job they were meant to do.  Often I found silver quarters with the rim worn down into the lettering; this was especially true of the 1930s quarters.

I remember finding a 1934-D quarter in change with much of the reverse lettering worn away.  By the way, I have never seen this kind of wear on a clad quarter, even on the oldest clad quarters of 1965.  The 1965 quarters have circulated for almost 45 years, but have held up well.  Some of the silver quarters I found in the late 1960s, which had circulated for 30 years or so, showed a lot more wear.

Copper-nickel was supposed to be a harder alloy than the .900 fine silver and the results of circulation of the last two generations seems to have proved that point.

My best ever circulation find was a Washington quarter. I don’t remember what I bought, but when I looked through my change that evening, there was a well-worn quarter dated 1932. And when I checked the reverse – yes, there was the “D” mintmark.  I had found the key to the series and all I did was check my change!

Once I made that lucky find, I purchased a coin folder with spaces for every Washington quarter, going all the way back to 1932. I was convinced I would find a 1932-S sometime, and besides, I already had many of the 1930s dated coins.

As it turned out, the only quarters I had to purchase for my circulation set were the 1932-P and 1932-S.  I didn’t buy the San Francisco coin until much later, when I had fully upgraded my set.

When I did purchase the 1932-P, I bought a nice Mint State coin that wasn’t that expensive. Many of these first-year-of-issue coins were saved, so they weren’t hard to find in nice condition. Anyway, it feels good to lead off a set with a Mint State coin.

I found more than one 1936-D quarter in change, but all showed wear, and were not anywhere near Mint State. This coin is scarce in Mint State, but not all that rare in circulated condition. I recall seeing a good number of 1934-P and 1935-P quarters, but not that many dated 1940.  The 1940-D proved to be more of a challenge to find than the semi-key 1936-D.  Years later, when I upgraded my set, I found the 1940-D was still a challenge.

When I located a nice 1940-D at a local coin shop, I studied the coin carefully, and noticed a scratch near Washington’s nose, probably due to careless removal from a stapled 2×2 holder. No, I didn’t buy that one, and it took some looking before I found a nice 1940-D with no staple scratches.

Entire sets of Washington quarters could be found without much looking, and a short set from 1941-1964, even in Mint State, was quite reasonable.  No one paid much attention to these coins for many years throughout the early years of my collecting career.

Quite a few of the quarters in my album showed signs of toning around the rims from years of storage. Once in a while, I would see toned quarters; not as pretty as the Morgan dollars, but nice in their own way. Prices were not painful, even for proof coins, and there was almost zero demand for Special Mint Set coins of 1965-1967. Collectors wanted Morgan dollars, gold coins and type coins, not the familiar Washington quarters thought to be so common.

Many albums and folders stopped at the 1964 and 1964-D issues. No one wanted the modern clad coins; they weren’t silver. I saved one of each issue, and picked out the best ones I could find.

I remember the first time I saw a 1965 copper-nickel clad quarter with the red copper edge. I thought the coin was pretty. I was a small minority, but I didn’t realize it. The proof clad quarters could be quite nice, and side-by-side with a silver proof, the clad could hold its own. I once owned a 1968-S proof quarter with a distinct golden hue from the copper core.

The Bicentennial quarters, featuring a drummer boy, came in 1976 – which meant no quarters dated 1975. This was intentional. Dual-dated 1776-1976 quarters were produced for 18 months in 1975 and 1976.

I was not all that impressed with the design, or for that matter, with the Bicentennial coinage program. I felt that a lot more could have been done. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have changed the designs of all the circulating coins and used more creative designs?

Anyway, I did save a few to keep up my set. But others saved more of these coins. My former neighbor accumulated a shoebox full of Bicentennial quarters, because she liked the coins, and they were different.  She was convinced the quarters were genuine collector items, even after I told her that hundreds of millions were minted.

Picking out “the best I could find” was difficult for the 1982 and 1983 quarters.  Every one I saw looked like they’d been through a war. 

Then came a famous error coin, the 1989 with no mintmark. This coin was mentioned on national news, and non-collectors sought these coins, too.  Searching through your change for a collector coin was good to see, but the best was yet to come.

The state quarters began in 1999 with the Delaware coin.  The very first one I ever saw was acquired in change at the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando, Fla., while I attended the Florida United Numismatists show. I immediately went to the convention center, where I reported my find to a coin publication. I thought I’d be the first to report a state quarter in change. No, I was not the first, not even close.  Many had turned up that day, Jan. 7, 1999. That date was also the earliest I had ever found a coin with the new year’s date.

During the show, an employee of the U.S. Mint handed out samples of the new quarters in a special holder. Lots of young people came out for that and I got a quarter, too.  I told the Mint worker, “I’m saving this!”

I often received state quarters at coin shows where the most recent issue would be available. At one FUN show, one of my first purchases was a brand new rol
l of Tennessee quarters. The volunteer who registered me for the show said he was interested in the quarter, as he was originally from Tennessee. I gave him the top coin from the roll.

After all of the years of being forgotten, it was quite interesting to see so many people checking their change for the latest quarter design.  The statehood quarter would last at 10 years, so there was plenty of time to build a set. I knew many people who wanted to build sets for their grandchildren. A few became interested in the whole Washington quarter series and began serious coin collecting.

The collecting bug even bit my favorite waiter at my favorite restaurant. When he told me of his interest in the state quarters, I made sure to include a number of the quarters with the newest design when I tipped him. He eventually bought a folder to hold his collection and said his nephew became interested in coins, too.

A few of the state quarters appeal to collectors of other series, as the designs are similar. Check out the Connecticut quarter and the commemorative half dollar, along with the Massachusetts quarter and the Lexington-Concord half dollar.  Interest in state quarters can lead to interests in other series.

I paid close attention when the time came to pick a design for the quarter of my home state, Illinois. Of course, Lincoln had to appear on this coin. As a Lincoln buff, I thought of a number of older pieces depicting Lincoln. When I submitted my design idea, I used a full-length portrait of Lincoln, similar to a statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that stands in Lincoln Park in Chicago. My design was not in the finals, but I was glad to have some input.

The launch ceremony was held in downtown Chicago at the State of Illinois building. Of course, I was there, and picked up my first Illinois state quarter.  A few days later, I flew to Orlando to attend the Florida United Numismatists show – where my new quarter was part of an exhibit, “Medallic Portraits of Lincoln.”

At another major show, a dealer had two tables full of silver Washington quarters, most of which were Mint State and professionally graded. At the end of the day, his table was all but sold out. What a difference from only a few years ago.  Collectors had finally discovered the Washington quarter series and all it had to offer an interested numismatist.

Many Washington quarters in the silver series had high mintages, but no one can say with any certainty if these coins are really that common. A great number of silver quarters were melted during the silver rush of 1979-1980, when silver prices went up to $50 an ounce.  Perhaps a coin that has long been considered common is actually scarce.

not that high. Collectors beginning a set now won’t have that hard a time, even if he is picky about condition. In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad time to begin an all-new set of Washington quarters.
Silver coins cannot be found in change, as they were years ago, but a set of clad coins may very well be completed from spare change.

A new collector can purchase the older silver coins, and collect the others out of circulation, just as the old-timers did.  The Washington quarter set can be collected in a number of different ways, satisfying the serious hobbyist and the pure collector, young and old and in-between, with any kind of budgets.

Serious collectors of Washington quarters will have still more coins to collect.  The state quarter program is over and the Territorial issues concludes at the end of this year. They will be followed by a whole new set honoring the beautiful National Parks.

This new program will take 11 years, and after that, who knows? It could go on. Collecting Washington quarters can take another 40 years.            

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