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Do you have a set of Washington State Quarters? Were you one of the 140-plus million Americans the Mint estimated were trying to assemble a complete set? Or are you an old collector like I am who thought it might be fun (and challenging) to put together a 100-coin set of State quarters from circulation?

Of course, you didn’t have to try to find each state’s coins in your pocket change or at the bank. The Mint made it easy to buy each new issue in roll quantities, as long as you were willing to pay a premium over the coins’ face values. And if you happened to live in a locale with local coin shops, I suspect many dealers bought rolls of each new issue to offer their customers individual dates at retail.

But what if you live in a coin-shop desert like I do? Would it be possible to find each new issue as it appeared? If you missed some, would a search of mixed-date rolls enable you to complete your collection? These were questions I set out to answer when the State quarter program began in 1999.

If you wonder why 1999 was chosen as the starting date for the series, it’s important to note that George Washington was born in 1732 and died in 1799. With that information, it’s apparent why the Washington quarter began life in 1932, near the beginning of the Great Depression (1929-1941). That year marked the bicentennial of Washington’s birth.

The standard obverse design for the quarter which has been used since 1932. (Images courtesy of the U.S. Mint)

The standard obverse design for the quarter which has been used since 1932. (Images courtesy of the U.S. Mint)

Although the plan initially was to mint a 1932-dated commemorative half dollar to honor Washington’s bicentennial, the Depression’s terrible economy forced a change to the smaller denomination quarter dollar. Some online sources will tell you that the coin was supposed to be a one-year, circulating commemorative, with a return to the Standing Liberty quarter design after 1932. The evidence indicates, however, that this is not true.

A 1931 memorandum by the House of Representatives spelling out the purpose of the Washington quarter began with the following statement: “It would replace an unsatisfactory design now being issued.” And thus would continue after the bicentennial year. As an ardent collector of Standing Liberty quarters, I certainly object to the statement that it had an “unsatisfactory design.”

A couple of different design competitions for the new quarter produced the same winner, a design by Laura Gardin Fraser, wife of James Earle Fraser of Buffalo nickel fame. Despite this, Treasury Secretary James Mellon chose a design by John Flanagan, and that’s what we’ve been stuck with ever since. 

The obverse of the new American Women quarters which launched this year feature Laura Gardin Fraser’s design.

The obverse of the new American Women quarters which launched this year feature Laura Gardin Fraser’s design.

Laura Fraser’s design was used on the 1999 $5 gold commemorative issued to honor the bicentennial of Washington’s death. In addition, the quarters minted for the American Women quarters program beginning in 2022 will feature Fraser’s obverse design.

In addition to the $5 gold commemorative, 1999 saw the beginning of the 10-year program of State Quarters. With 50 states, the plan was for five different states to be featured each year, with the order of the states determined by when each state either ratified the Constitution or was admitted into the Union. 

According to the Mint’s website, “Each quarter was produced for about 10 weeks and will never be produced again. State designs are displayed on the reverse (tails) of the quarters, while the obverse design displays the familiar image of George Washington. But, to accommodate state designs on the reverse, the words “United States of America,” “Quarter Dollar,” “Liberty,” and “In God We Trust” all appear on the obverse.

Reverse designs were supposed “. . . to depict some aspect of history, tradition, nature, or fame” of the individual states. According to David Bowers’ Guide Book of Washington and State Quarters, design prohibitions “. . . included busts, state seals, state flags, logotypes and depictions of living people or of ‘organizations whose membership or ownership is not universal.’” 

The Delaware quarter was the first in the series to be released.

The Delaware quarter was the first in the series to be released.

The choice of reverse designs involved a process that included artistic submissions from a state’s citizens, review of the submissions by the state governor and advisors, and submission of the leading candidates to the Mint. There, “. . . artists would modify the art to their own specifications.”

If you’ve collected the State quarters, you know that some reverse designs appear superior to others. As I go through the different issues, I’ll give you my choices for best designs, which may not coincide with yours. As the saying goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Along the way, I’ll also mention a few that I consider duds. 

The first year of the program saw quarters for Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut, in that order. Delaware’s quarter depicts Delaware delegate Caesar Rodney on horseback riding to Philadelphia to cast the deciding vote for independence from England. As such, the coin “. . . was widely appreciated by collectors,” and Bowers considered it one of the best designs in the series. As he put it, “The artistic bar was raised high at the outset, and many later designs could not come up to it.”

My favorite design of 1999 is found on the reverse of the New Jersey quarter, the familiar image of Washington crossing the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. By Emmanuel Leutze, the 1851 painting from which the design was taken depicts Washington as appropriately heroic, standing in the boat on the way to an important battle in the Revolutionary War.

Connecticut’s quarter depicts a not very realistic image of the state’s famous Charter Oak, an elderly tree in which Captain Joseph Wadsworth concealed the Connecticut Charter from the British. The coin’s youthful tree received a great deal of criticism, including from a numismatist who said that the image was perhaps supposed to represent the root system of the tree, which was upside down!

The Virginia state quarter.

The Virginia state quarter.

The State quarters in 2000 were for Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Virginia. Of these, my favorite would have to be the coin for Virginia, as I’m partial to any designs containing ships. Virginia’s design features three ships on their way to the future Jamestown. On a visit to Jamestown in December 2012, my wife and I finished a walking tour of the reconstructions near the reconstructed ships, which we checked out.

Maryland’s quarter depicts the dome of the State House, which doesn’t look like anything significant or relevant to the state. Bowers wrote, “In the opinion of many collectors, Maryland . . . laid an egg with the design of this quarter dollar.”

In order, the five issues for 2001 were New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Kentucky. The North Carolina and Rhode Island quarters rank high in my estimation, with their depictions of modes of travel. North Carolina’s quarter features Orville Wright flying a biplane, with his brother Wilbur looking on. On the Rhode Island quarter, there is a sailboat that is based on the winner of the America’s Cup Yacht Race in 1903. The boat, Reliance, was built in Rhode Island.

If you like horses on coins, then Kentucky’s quarter is a winner, as it features a thoroughbred racehorse behind a fence. This is undoubtedly a salute to the Kentucky Derby, which has been contested annually since 1875.

In 2002, the five states were Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, and Mississippi. I’m from Louisiana but have now lived most of my life in Mississippi. In both locales, coins found in circulation tend to be those from the Denver mint, which is problematic when you’re also trying to find the Philadelphia issues.

Ohio state quarter.

Ohio state quarter.

As a longtime fan of science fiction and space travel, I like Ohio’s picture of a faceless astronaut who appears to be floating in space but is actually standing on the moon. To his/her left in the outline map of the state, is another depiction of the Wright Brothers’ biplane. The inscription below this reads “Birthplace of Aviation Pioneers.” Bowers noted that the inscription was warranted because Ohio was the birthplace of astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn and aviation pioneer Orville Wright.

Although Bowers considered the large magnolia flower on the reverse of Mississippi’s quarter “. . . an artistic success,” I can’t say that it appeals to me. I find the Louisiana quarter more appealing, with its image of the state bird (the pelican), a map of the U.S. showing the extent of the Louisiana Purchase, and a trumpet with musical notes to illustrate the jazz scene in New Orleans.

Next, we have the 2003 quintet of Illinois, Alabama, Maine, Missouri, and Arkansas. As you might expect, the Illinois quarter features a standing figure of a young Lincoln walking inside an outline map of the state. I tend to like anything with Lincoln’s image, as the 1918 Lincoln half dollar is one of my favorite classic commemoratives.

The reverse of the Alabama quarter is dominated by the seated figure of Hellen Keller, the multiply disabled person who overcame her disabilities with the help of Anne Sullivan. Apparently, this was an unexpected choice for the state, as many citizens didn’t consider the famous author and lecturer an emblematic icon. 

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis forms the centerpiece of the Missouri quarter. I am reminded of the time my wife and I visited St. Louis and rode a tiny, very strange tram elevator with a couple of other passengers to the top of the Arch. And by the way, the Arch does sway in the wind!

The reverse of the Arkansas quarter contains a hodgepodge of items supposedly emblematic of the state. There’s a mallard duck on the right facing rice stalks. Between these two is a stand of pine trees overlooked by a large diamond. The diamond refers to the Crater of Diamonds State Park, where visitors, for a fee, can search for real gemstones, including diamonds. You can keep any stone you find.

I’m reminded of a tour my wife and I took during the time we were working on our State Quarter collection. During a cursory glance at my change one day, I thought I had finally found the Kansas quarter we needed. It turned out to be Ar-kansas instead, which we already had.

Next, we have Michigan, Florida, Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin. The Florida quarter has a number of disjointed items: a Spanish galleon, palm trees, and a space shuttle. According to Bowers, the originally accepted artwork had a more unified theme, and public opinion of the Mint’s version was poor. Still, the galleon and the space shuttle on the coin gives it some merit in my book.

Kansas state quarter.

Kansas state quarter.

The Wisconsin quarter has a decidedly rural feel, with its cow’s head facing a wheel of cheese with a large segment missing. There’s an ear of corn above the cheese. The corn depiction resulted in three different varieties: normal version, extra leaf high variety, and extra leaf low variety. The more plentiful extra leaf low version catalogs in this magazine’s pricing guide at $135 in MS63 and $165 in MS65. The extra leaf high variety is worth $175 and $285 in the same grades.

In 2005, the states honored were California, Minnesota, Oregon, Kansas, and West Virginia. The California coin shows naturalist John Muir standing before a scene of Yosemite National Park with an endangered condor flying overhead. But there’s nothing indicative of the great California Gold Rush, which many citizens and perhaps all numismatists expected to appear. And where’s the Golden Gate Bridge? Or the giant redwoods?

The Kansas quarter definitely appeals to me, with its portrait of a standing bison (not buffalo). Other items considered for the coin were Native Americans, sunflowers, and outline maps of the state. Although not perfectly correct anatomically, one observer noted that the animal’s horns should be pointing up rather than forward, the bison gets my vote.

In 2006, the State Quarters program recognized Nevada, Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota, and South Dakota. As you might expect, I like the galloping mustangs on the Nevada quarter, but I’m surprised that there’s nothing on the coin indicative of Las Vegas and its gambling mecca. A slot machine, perhaps?

North Dakota’s quarter has not one, but two bison, one that’s running and another that’s grazing. Because the design chosen by the governor is called “Badlands with Bison,” I assume that the mesa behind the animals is somehow supposed to represent the Badlands.

South Dakota, a state that my wife and I really liked when we visited, is represented by the state’s most famous monument: Mount Rushmore, with its Gutzon Borglum-created heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Bowers pointed out that the design for the quarter was not all that different from the design on the 1991 Mount Rushmore commemorative dollar, and “. . . a lot of time and effort could have been saved by simply modifying that motif.”

Idaho state quarter.

Idaho state quarter.

The next five states were Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. All but one of these (Utah) feature something to do with animals. There’s a bison skull for Montana, a jumping king salmon for Washington, a peregrine falcon for Idaho, and a bucking horse for Wyoming. Of these, my favorite is the falcon, which Swiatek’s Encyclopedia of the Commemorative Coins of the United States indicated was “. . . one of the fastest birds in the world.” 

Wyoming has one of the worst designs, in my opinion, as there’s absolutely no detail in the bucking horse and rider. This led a Colorado collector to state, “an excellent concept executed poorly; a simple design of a cowboy with no definition or major detail, leads to the Wyoming state quarter as the ‘ugliest’ of all the state quarter program.”

Utah’s quarter shows the golden spike between two railroad locomotives. The spike joined two railroads and formed the connection between the East Coast and the West, thus transforming the country. The inscription “Crossroads of the West” is particularly apt.

The final five quarters were for the states of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii. My wife and I traveled quite a few times to New Mexico so we’re quite familiar with the Native American influences. The state quarter’s design shows a Zia Sun symbol atop a topographical map of the state. Personally, I would have liked to see something indicative of Santa Fe on the coin, but no one asked my opinion.

Arizona, the Grand Canyon State, appropriately has a design that’s supposed to be reminiscent of the state’s greatest landmark. When we visited, our view of the Canyon was marred by a snowstorm that prevented us from seeing the opposite side of the canyon.

Hawaii, the Aloha State, was the last state admitted to the Union, and the last one my wife and I visited to meet our goal of visiting all 50 states. The quarter’s design shows King Kamehameha I with outstretched arm over the major islands of the group that comprises the Hawaiian Islands. If you get a chance to visit Hawaii, I advise taking a tour that goes to more than one of the main islands. We visited Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii (Big Island), each of which was decidedly different from the others.

I have a few observations to make about our experience collecting the State Quarters. As I indicated earlier, given our location, finding the coins from Denver was not a problem. The Philadelphia pieces were often problematic, however, and were often found when we traveled out of state.

At some points during the years the quarters were minted, I got mixed rolls from the bank and went through them. When we were missing several pieces, this search often proved quite rewarding. When we got down to only a few holes in our album, the finds were few and far between.

Even though all the coins in the rolls were clads and fairly recently minted, going through them took me back to the “good-ole-days” when roll searching was something I did on a daily basis in my youth. 

Finally, I can say that my wife and I did complete a set of all 100 State Quarters, and we did it the old-fashioned way: We got them out of circulation for only 25c apiece!