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A New Look at Old Quarters

For decades now, the quarter has been one of the four real workhorse coins of everyday commerce within the U.S. The cent, the nickel, the dime and the quarter are what pops out of our pockets for almost all of the small change transactions we undertake. And yet, way back when a young Congress finally got around to authorizing a Mint in Philadelphia, quarters appear to have been something of an afterthought. None were made at all until 1796, and even then, the total output was the tiniest of trickles. Let’s look then at some of our early twenty-five cent pieces and see just what sort of collection of them we might be able to assemble today.

1818 Capped Bust
An 1818 and 1835 Capped Bust quarter. (Courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

An 1818 and 1835 Capped Bust quarter. (Courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

What beginning?

While Julie Andrews was the one who famously sang that it was good to “start at the very beginning – it’s a very good place to start,” we’ll tweak the idea of beginning a bit, and look at the date 1835. This was the beginning of what we might call a common quarter. In that year the Mint pounded out just over 1.95 million of them, making them pretty common by our count today. This was right in the midst of the Capped Bust design, which ran from 1815 up to 1838.

Curiously, a bit of disappointing news is that the 1835 Capped Bust quarter is not any less expensive today than any of the others in the series, alas. This is probably because there are not all that many collectors who try to assemble a full date run of this early series. This means that even the most common of Capped Bust quarters will cost several hundred dollars for an example in an upper, circulated grade, like VF-20 or EF-40. That’s not impossible to afford; but it’s not cheap either.

Interestingly, if that price tag was not too frightening, it may be possible to land several more of the Capped Bust quarters for roughly the same cost, in the same grade. The 1818, for example, saw only 361,174 minted, yet costs just under $500 in a grade like VF-20. So, as we said, this series can be considered expensive, but not impossibly so.

1807 Draped Bust quarter with a heraldic eagle reverse. (Courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

1807 Draped Bust quarter with a heraldic eagle reverse. (Courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

Going older

We can look farther back among our quarters, to the Draped Bust design with a heraldic eagle reverse, made from 1804 – 1807. None of the annual outputs in this short span of years even made it up to that of the just-mentioned 1818, and thus, all tend to be considerably more expensive today, with thousand-dollar-plus prices not being uncommon. And as for that 1796? Well, a handsome looking specimen of that may not cost a king’s ransom, but the price will probably qualify as a down payment on his castle. It looks like we may have to look in a different direction when it comes to classic quarters.

1838 was the first year the Seated Liberty design found its way onto the quarter. (Heritage Auctions)

1838 was the first year the Seated Liberty design found its way onto the quarter. (Heritage Auctions)

Liberty take a seat, going younger

If the oldest quarters are out of reach of many collectors, maybe we should take a peek at some of the younger siblings among the denomination. Mr. Christian Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty design took over in the late 1830’s, for all the silver coins of the U.S., first appearing on the quarter in 1838. By this point, annual production figures are much higher than they were for the Capped Bust design. They first approached the one-million mark in 1843, with the output of the branch facility in New Orleans, but didn’t get over it until the 1853 production of 15.2 million from the main Mint absolutely shattered it.

A note or two about the official mintage of 1853 might be in order here. First, that number is large enough today that we would think any collector who wants one should be able to get one. Agreed, but our current longing for mint state coins brings us to point number two: these most definitely must have been working coins in their day, since an example in EF-40 costs about $175, yet an MS-60 version of the same costs a whopping $1,000. Clearly, there were not many of these stashed away for decades, never being used. And third, despite this production figure that dwarfs everything before it, and all but a few years of what came after it, these could not have been particularly common quarters in their own time. To make a comparison, the 1850 United States Census – the 7th recorded by law, to determine seats in the House of Representatives for the next decade– recorded 23,191,876 people living in the growing nation. So, while 15.2 million quarters for 1853 sounds pretty good, it still doesn’t even equal the number of folks who might have used one that year.

The facts of history do not take away from the fact that an 1853 Seated Liberty quarter is a two-bits piece that we could add to any collection of early silver today. The 1854 also sports a hefty mintage of just over 12.3 million, making this early duo good candidates for any growing collection. But this wide span of years in which the production of these coins was usually lean makes any collector wonder: just what did people use back then, when they needed to make change that involved a quarter or two?

A 1776 Mexico 2 reales (Heritage Auctions)

A 1776 Mexico 2 reales (Heritage Auctions)

Our southern neighbors, the Spanish colonial 2 reales

The answer to what people used when they spent twenty-five cents right on the dot is actually just south of us, in what was originally Spanish colonial Mexico, then later the independent nation of Mexico. If the twenty-five cent pieces of the young United States simply seem to be scarce from 1796 all the way to 1853, we might wish to keep in mind that the Mint in Mexico City – the Casa de Moneda – had been in the business of turning gold and silver ore and bullion into coins starting way back in 1535. To get a grasp on that number of years we can say truthfully that by 1792, Mexico had been producing silver coins for use in the New World and the Old for more years than the U.S. Mint has been producing them from its first year to today! Plus, there were more Mints south of our young nation than just that one in Mexico City, all of them producing gold and silver. While aficionados of world coins know that the 8 reales pieces of these countries – the big, silver-dollar sized pieces – are the most common today, they will also tell us that there were plenty of 2 reales pieces produced as well.

A U.S. quarter from 1796 or from 1804 will be an amazingly expensive coin today, as we have just seen. But there is something to be said about seeing what sort of 2 reales pieces can be added to any collection of early U.S. quarters, perhaps with the portraits of the different Spanish monarchs on them. After all, it is quite likely that these are silver pieces that saw quite a bit of use north of the cities in which they were made.

Just two bits.

The old sports cheer that runs, “two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar; all for our team stand up and holler!” is probably not thought about too deeply among the athletes who still use it, but oddly, this chant has a connection to our search for early quarters. A neat piece to add to any collection of early quarters would be a cut fraction of a Spanish colonial 8 reales, chopped into a wedge shaped like a quarter of a pie. It will take some searching to find a coin like this, and with the pandemic having shut down shows for a time, we may have to be patient before we can even hunt for one. But back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was not unheard of to take a big, silver coin and cut it into as many as eight pieces, for each to serve as some fraction of a dollar. This may seem absurd to us today. But remember, before the advent of the automobile, every town of any size had at least one blacksmith in it, someone who shoed horses and did plenty of other metal work. These men had the big hammers, the heavy blades, and the anvil needed to take a piece of silver and chop it up. And when small change was hard to come by, they did.

Spanish colonial and Mexican coins actually circulated in the U.S. until 1857, when the 34th Congress declared, “That the pieces commonly known as the quarter, eighth, and sixteenth of the Spanish pillar dollar, and of the Mexican dollar, shall be receivable at the treasury of the United States, and its several offices…” They went on to state that coins that were received would be re-melted and made into U.S. coins. We can imagine then that plenty of the cut pieces were turned in and took their final bath in a melting pot. But some have survived and can make a wonderfully historic addition to any collection.

1892 Barber

Collections today

It looks like any assembly of U.S. quarters that feature some kind of date run will probably have to start with the Barber design, first unveiled in 1892. We have seen that all the designs which came before can be quite expensive, with only a few exceptions. But if we are willing to add some of the Spanish colonial and the Mexican pieces that circulated in a growing United States to our group, it looks as if a fascinating collection of early quarters is indeed possible for any serious collector.