USA Coin Album: A Look Back at Washington Quarters, Part One

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 2/14/2012

This month Dave takes a nostalgic look at the original reverse design of the Washington quarter.

In reviewing the list of all the national parks and monuments to be honored on quarter dollars over the next several years, it occurred to me that a return to the original reverse design of the Washington quarter is now extremely unlikely. By the time this current program ends in 2021, it will have been well over twenty years since the 1932-98 reverse was used. This seems like reason enough to take a look at this durable coin series that had been the only type known to most Americans for so many years.

I started collecting coins from circulation around 1965. It was not until the late fall of that year that the first clad quarters appeared, and silver pieces remained fairly common through 1967. It wasn’t until the following year that they seemingly vanished within months. I believe it was the end of silver certificate redemption in June of 1968, followed by a small but immediate spike in the price of silver, which led to their total removal. By then even the Treasury, which had vowed that silver coins would circulate side-by-side with clad coins for decades, began to systematically withdraw them. I was blissfully unaware of these economic developments at the time; I knew only that it was getting much harder to fill my quarter folders.

Since neither of my parents collected coins and I had very little money, the searching of rolls from the bank, which was a staple for so many collectors, was not an option. Instead, I relied solely on whatever surfaced in my or my parents’ change, though I also pestered relatives to search their pocket change, too. In this manner I was able to complete perhaps 80% of the set from 1932 through 1964. After three or four years of collecting I had all of the Philadelphia coins except 1949, 1955 and 1958; these I later learned had been hoarded by speculators. I also secured the San Francisco coins from 1940 onward (living near the San Francisco Mint gave me an edge over many collectors in other parts of the country). It was the Denver Mint coins before 1950 that proved the most elusive to me, as they lacked the high mintages of the Philly issues and the geographical proximity of the ‘S’ Mint quarters. Most of these slots remained empty long after the neighboring ones were filled.

Around 1970-71 I was making some pocket money from mowing lawns and other odd jobs, so I set about completing the set though coin shop purchases. At that time coin shops were quite appealing to kids and hole-fillers in general. While these days most shops focus almost solely on bullion trading, with perhaps a few proof sets in their display cases, before 1980 the typical neighborhood coin shop was a wonderland that could provide just about any 20th Century USA coin in any circulated grade. Metal trolleys filled with plastic tubes of each and every date/mint combination were commonplace, and many shops also had shallow boxes filled with mixed dates and mints at a fixed price. Every other Saturday my collecting friends and I would spend a couple hours sifting through these treasure chests, doing our best to find the real plums. It was through this means that I filled nearly all of the remaining Washington Quarter slots in my folders at 45 cents apiece. Another box in my favorite shop was marked 75 cents apiece, and this furnished the scarcer coins, which included all the mintmarked issues from 1934-39, as well as the elusive 1949(P) and 1949-D. Finally, there was a box marked $1.25, and this included the scarce 1937-S amid a selection of Barber and Standing Liberty quarters.

A topic on which I’ve dwelled a number of times, but one that still bears repeating, is just how quickly silver coins wore in circulation. I suspect that a majority of the people reading this column are not old enough to remember circulating silver or were simply not collecting during those years, but it was the norm for early Washington quarters to be worn nearly slick by the 1960s. Among the coins I secured from my mother’s supermarket change only weeks apart were two 1932(P) quarters, which at that time had been circulating for about 35 years. Both were worn down to the bottoms of their peripheral legends, with only the tops of the date numerals still readable. Even quarters from the late 1950s, then about ten years old, could not be found grading higher than Fine. Contrast this with our circulating clad coinage, which is found in a similar grade after some 40 years of usage.

For awhile I saved the clad issues as they appeared, but these never held much appeal for me. In fact, they still don’t, though they are just as much a part of our numismatic heritage. I suppose anyone who was collecting when silver coins were commonplace has always thought of the clad issues as unwelcome intruders that spoiled the hobby. Later generations of collectors have found much of interest in these scorned coins, which are known to include numerous condition rarities. Next month I’ll put nostalgia aside and take a more technical look at the Washington quarter series.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.