By Mark Benvenuto
Quarters have been a mainstay of small change and small cash transactions for so long now that it’s tough to imagine a time when the 25-cent piece was not used and seen just about everywhere.
Since the Mint began changing the reverse of the quarter back in 1999 at the direction of Congress, it seems like a river of quarters has come out every year, often sporting some beautiful artwork.
It’s tough to think that there was a time when quarters were scarce. Yet during the early years of the Mint, they were just that. Let’s take one of those fun strolls through history and see just what might be available when it comes to making a type set of United States quarters, and to see what could be good starting points for some greater collection.
Draped Busts, eagles
An early Congress signed off on a Mint for our young country in 1792. But that didn’t mean the folks running it got around to quarters right away. Indeed, it was 1796 before a single quarter was minted, and since only 6,146 of them were entered as the official tally, they are furiously expensive pieces today. When it comes to making some kind of type set, most of us will probably have to pass on this date.
It wasn’t until 1804 that the Mint got back to quarters and again did so in a tiny way. The eagle on the reverse had gone from what we now call a flying one to a heraldic one, but still this second year of issue is amazingly expensive. And while quarters were produced for the next three years and mintages did make it up into the low hundreds of thousands, each of these early quarters is still very costly today.
Okay, with this less-than-good news right up front, one can be forgiven for wondering just what sort of quarter from these years we can add to any type set we want to make. The answer is a Spanish one. More specifically, one of the 2-reales pieces of colonial Mexico or of the Spanish lands farther south. Silver coins of all sorts had been scarce in the young U.S. since before independence. Indeed, the 1800 U.S. Census indicated there were over 5.3 million people living in the country at the time. So even the 220,643 quarters listed as the total for 1807 could not have been too common to those folks. Yet commerce went on, often with coins from the Spanish colonial lands. Interestingly, since fewer people concentrate on these Spanish colonial coins than on the various U.S. series, the prices are much, much more affordable. It might be worth adding a 2-reales piece to any quarters type set.
The Capped Bust series
If adding something like a 2-reales silver piece to a collection is too foreign for your tastes, there’s some good news, as the United States Mint made a third attempt at minting quarters, starting in 1815. Once again, the denomination came out in a trickle and not a flood, and once again, there were some missing years in the series. But this series – the Capped Bust series – finally cracked the 1 million mark, although it was 1835 when that happened.
It won’t take a fortune to get our hands on a good-looking Capped Bust quarter, although Mint State specimens can be pricey. The 1835, and several of the other dates in this series, can be purchased as VF-20 or EF-40 examples for a few hundred dollars. All that’s really needed is the patience to find an example that still retains some eye appeal.
It was 1838, and the new Seated Liberty design – the artwork of Christian Gobrecht – becomes the next image we might gravitate toward when looking to add to a quarters type set. Aficionados of the Seated Liberty design know that it was on more denominations of United States coin than any other. And it was changed in some way more than just about any other design, and it stayed with us through a longer period of time than any U.S. coin design that had come before.
Because the series runs from 1838 all the way to 1891, it is tough to collect an entire date run or date and mintmark run. It doesn’t help that the 1873-CC from our “wild west” Mint in Carson City is known today to have only six existing specimens. But even discounting this super-rarity, there are quite a few years when a total mintage was down there at a few tens of thousands from any one Mint facility.
Once again putting some bad news behind us, there are plenty of years and even some mintmarks within the Seated Liberty quarter series that are downright common. The 1853 and the 1854 each saw over 10 million coined. That makes those very affordable today. Actually, the prices for decent-looking Seated Liberty quarters may prove to be low enough that we can first snag an attractive piece at an equally attractive price, then go gunning for others that are at the same price point. We won’t end up with a complete series, but we can certainly assemble a beautiful set without steamrolling our wallet.
Mr. Barber’s design
In 1892, the Barber design was unveiled on U.S. dimes, quarters, and half dollars, and it stayed there until 1916. When it comes to our 25-cent pieces, this is the first series for which we might claim there are more common dates than uncommon ones. That in turn makes finding a Barber quarter to add to a growing type set rather easy. The first year of issue saw over 12 million come out of the facility at Philadelphia, another 2.4 million come out of the branch Mint in New Orleans, and almost a million more roar out of the West Coast facility in San Francisco. And, to quote someone famous, “We’re just getting started!” Several years after saw mintages as high or higher than the just-quoted number from Philly. It should be no problem for a determined collector to find a handsome Barber quarter he or she likes. It may even be possible to gather in a Mint State piece, since several of them cost only a few hundred dollars in the lower Mint State grades.
Now Liberty is standing
The tail end of 1916 saw the Barber quarters ushered out (as well as the Barber dimes and halves), and a radically new design, the Standing Liberty, ushered in. The artwork of Hermon MacNeil, this new image was a break with the traditional bust of an allegorical figure of Liberty, although the idea of featuring Liberty was retained. Fans of this series know that the 1916 is expensive, and know that there is what might be called a split point within the series: the year 1925. Prior to that year, the date was something of an elevated design element on the obverse, and it wore quickly. That makes high-end examples of these coins expensive today. In 1925, the date was recessed into the exergue – that little wedge upon which Liberty stands – and thus made much more durable. Examples of this quarter in the recessed date variety can be obtained for about $125 in a grade such as MS-60. That’s not bad.
Washington takes his place
The year 1932 was a pretty miserable one for many Americans, since it was the fourth year of what we now call the Great Depression. But it was also the bicentennial of the birth year of our first president, Mr. Washington. That prompted some folks in charge to think that a commemorative piece might be in order. It turned out that the design would become the quarter we still use today, one that now has a longer history to it than any other quarter design.
Perhaps obviously, it’s easy to find good-looking Washington quarters for any type set collection. There are plenty of more modern ones that can be had as high-end proofs for less than $100. A somewhat more advanced challenge might be to see what grade of 1932-D or 1932-S we can find. These are the two keys from series that pre-date any changes in the reverse. And while they are key coins, and thus cost a bit, they were made in large enough quantities that we might still be able to afford them.
All in all?
Our humble 25-cent piece spans more than two centuries of issue, and a wide range of mintages, from the extremely rare to the absolutely common. Putting together a type set can be a fun endeavor in and of itself, or it can be the starting point for something bigger. Here’s a salute to any of us who give it a try!
This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.
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