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

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 3/13/2012

This month, Dave takes a more technical look at the Washington quarter series.

Quarter dollars never would have been struck in 1932 were it not for the desire to commemorate the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. The Great Depression had brought commerce to a near standstill, and the demand for additional coins was almost nil, as evidenced by the lack of nickels, dimes and halves bearing that date. The low mintages of quarters at the Denver and San Francisco Mints clearly reflected the fact that these coins were commemorative in nature. Just over 400,000 of each issue was produced, this evidently being the Treasury’s estimate of the number of persons who might wish to save a complete set of all three mints. In actuality there were just a few thousand coin collectors at the time, and only those who were not stressed by the economic conditions opted to assemble three-coin sets. The branch mint coins have been scarce in uncirculated condition ever since, though the rarity of worn 1932-D and 1932-S quarters has long been overstated. In contrast the Philadelphia issue enjoyed a mintage of more than five million pieces, providing a good distribution for the general public wanting to save just one example of the novel type.

As is usually the case with new coin issues, there were some technical problems remaining even after the first coins were produced for circulation. Both the obverse and reverse hubs of the 1932 quarters were distinctive and would soon be revised in subtle ways. The mechanical reduction of John Flanagan’s models left the motto IN GOD WE TRUST quite shallow, and it was evident that it would quickly be rendered unreadable after a few years’ circulation. When coinage resumed in 1934, only a small number of quarters were coined at the Philadelphia Mint having this original obverse. It’s possible that just two or three working dies dated 1934 were taken from that hub before it was replaced with one having sharpened lettering and a visibly different style of date. These so-called “Light Motto” 1934 quarters are scarce, especially in uncirculated condition, and they carry a premium that is too modest in my opinion.

The revisions made to the obverse early in 1934 included a sharpening of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, as well as a restyling of the coin’s date to more upright numerals. This so-called “Medium Motto” variety is easily spotted by the center strokes of letter W in WE coming to a peak just short of the two outer strokes. Yet a third obverse variety was prepared for 1934’s coinage which is known as the “Heavy Motto.” This has the center strokes meeting above the outer strokes, and the date style reverted to something more similar to that of the Light Motto coins. Philadelphia Mint 1934 quarters are known with all three obverse types, the Medium Motto being the most common, while the Light Motto is most rare. Denver Mint coins come with both Medium Motto and Heavy Motto, the latter being slightly more scarce but not enough to command a premium.

For reasons unknown the Medium Motto obverse hub was used exclusively for all three mints during 1935, while the Heavy Motto was used for all issues of 1936 and later years (there are no transitional varieties for these two dates). The obverse was modified in far more subtle ways at several points between 1936 and 1998, but these minor differences are of interest only to series specialists. The only really intriguing entry from this period is the 1937-S quarter, which is unlike any other in the series. The obverse rim is slightly deeper and broader than on other Washington quarters, actually intruding into the lower portion of the date. This feature is nearly unnoticeable on uncirculated or lightly worn coins, but it becomes plainly evident on well worn pieces.

A 1937-S quarter will retain a full obverse rim even when its reverse is worn down to Good (G-4), while on other coins the obverse rim will be worn into the lettering at this grade level. The only way to enlarge the obverse rim would have been to turn the dies on a lathe, cutting the rim to a greater depth and width. Was this done using a separate master die for San Francisco’s coins, or was the work performed on each of the working dies? Whichever occurred, why was it done solely to the San Francisco dies? The answer seems to be lost today. The 1938-S quarters also have a similar treatment, but it is not quite as distinctive. I’m still trying to determine whether any of this date have the conventional rims seen on the Philadelphia Mint issue.

Another little known aspect of these early Washington Quarters concerns the reverse hub. This, too, was changed between 1932’s coinage and that of 1934. The reverse rim of 1932 quarters is bolder than on later issues, and once again this feature was nearly unnoticeable until the coins became well worn. While typical Washington Quarters of 1934 and later lost their reverse rims rather quickly in circulation, those dated 1932 retained strong reverse rims and look quite different from other Washingtons in similar grades. Why this original and seemingly superior reverse was eliminated in favor of one that wore more quickly than the obverse is yet another mystery unique to this coin series.

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