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

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 4/10/2012

This month, Dave continues his look at the original reverse design of the Washington quarter.

After the major hub revisions of 1934 the Washington quarter achieved the basic form in which it would be coined for the next 30 years. Minor sharpening of the obverse hub occurred in 1938 and again in 1944-45, but these revisions were subtle enough to escape the attention of most collectors for a generation or more. The lack of transitional issues (date/mint combinations occurring with both old and new hubs) also renders them of little interest to collectors.

The quarters of the 1940s through 1964 have nothing to offer in the way of rarity, unless one is pursuing varieties or ultra-high grades. The stepped up economy of the World War II years prompted a much larger coinage and a corresponding increase in the number of dies needed. Hurried work resulted in a flurry of doubled-die varieties for the quarters in particular. Why this denomination was more susceptible to such flaws than the others is a mystery. The best of these are listed in the Red Book (A Guide Book of United States Coins), and they are also illustrated in The Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties, Volume II, so I won’t describe them here.

From 1932 through 1941 Washington quarters were generally well made, with fairly sharp impressions taken from dies that were not allowed to wear excessively before being replaced. All that changed with the stepped up production demanded by the wartime economy of 1942 and the next several years. Dies were pushed to the breaking point before being swapped for fresh ones. With the mints working three shifts and weekends, the finished coins were rarely inspected by trained eyes until the next day shift began. While it’s not hard to find gems of these high-mintage dates, the more discriminating collector will want to hold out for coins that display superior technical features, namely full strikes from fresh, unworn dies.

Though mintages began to decline in 1946, the quality of the dies only continued to deteriorate, as the US Mint launched a cost-cutting campaign that lasted for the next 15 years. Its management even commissioned motion studies to determine where labor could be reduced (wouldn’t it be great to find these films shot at the various mints in the late 1940s and ‘50s?). One method of reducing costs was to push dies beyond their desirable lifespan, and this seems to have been especially prevalent at the San Francisco Mint. This facility was the only one deemed too small physically to allow for the continuous production lines then being installed at the Philadelphia and Denver Mints. It was thus determined to close the San Francisco Mint in 1955, but the pressure on this facility to become more cost effective is clearly seen in its coins of the ten years leading up to this closure.

Collectors eagerly seek the highly prooflike coins sometimes produced at the SF Mint in the years 1946-50, but they don’t always appreciate the fact that these coins were the products of dies severely polished to remove the clash marks and heavy erosion lines which formed from excessive use. While indeed prooflike and visually distinctive, such coins are typically lacking in detail and may not appeal to all collectors.

A couple of popular varieties from this period are the 1950-dated quarters showing a D mintmark punched over an S and vice versa. There was evidently some confusion as to where dies would be needed in that recession year of diminished coinage, and both varieties are sufficiently visible to have broad appeal.

Proof coin sales had risen fairly rapidly after their introduction in 1936, and it was only the production demands of WWII that curtailed these issues in 1942. There was considerable resistance in the Mint Bureau to resuming this special coinage after the war, and it was not until 1950 that proof sales were announced.

In an effort to improve the quality of these coins, a distinctive reverse hub was created for sinking proof dies (Type B reverse). This is most easily identified by the clear separation of letters ES in STATES, these letters touching on the hub used for mass coinage dies (Type A). Non-proofs of 1956-64 are also known having the Type B reverse, and it appears that the Philadelphia Mint simply used the former proof dies to make currency pieces in an economy move. All of the dates from 1956 through 1964 are known with both the regular and proof reverses, the latter always carrying a premium value that varies from one date to the next. When unworn, most of the Type B currency coins are found prooflike to varying degrees.

A favorite variety of mine from this period is the 1964-D quarter having the Type C reverse intended for clad coins. Both silver and clad quarters were being coined during 1965-66, and one die intended for the unmarked clad coinage was punched with a D mintmark and used for silver quarters dated 1964. Though visually distinctive, this variety is not widely known, and examples are still being cherrypicked from rolls and hoards of common 1964-D quarters.

Next month I’ll take a look at the clad quarters made from 1965 through 1998. These, too, have a story to tell.

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