Dancing with Dates, Part Four

Posted on 1/19/2009

Quarter dollars possess unique date style characteristics, including the Standing Liberty and Washington coins.

Last month's examination of date styles seen on dimes since 1916 leads easily into this installment on quarter dollars. By continuing to study such small distinctions in otherwise similar coins, we gain a greater appreciation of the engraver's handiwork in what remains perhaps the only feature of our recent coinage still possessing some individuality.

The Standing Liberty quarter was a short series that reveals only slight variations in date styles, as some numerals were employed just once or twice before the type was retired in 1930. The Type 1 quarters of 1916-17 have similar date styles, both the first and second numerals 1 displaying straight sides with very subtle serifs at either side of the top and bottom. Due to incomplete striking, these typically appeared as sans-serif numerals having just faint bulges at either end. The 9 utilized had a loop that was not quite closed and a tail that pointed directly to the left, which is in contrast to the upwardly curved tail found in Hermon MacNeil's original models. This serves to reinforce the conclusion originally drawn by me in this column some years ago and since adopted by other researchers that the Type 1 quarter was actually a translation of MacNeil's design performed by the Mint's engraving staff. When the Type 2 edition debuted in mid-1917, the 9 thereafter pointed upward, as the artist intended. The loop of the 9 was also made a bit larger, though this had no parallel in MacNeil's models.

The Type 2 quarters of 1917-24 reveal little variety in numeral styles, with rather plain, block figures being used throughout. The sole exception is 1921. As with so many USA coins of this date, the 1921 quarter was distinctive from other years of the same type. It displayed noticeably broader numerals than before or after. As an aside, some writers have observed that 1923-S quarters have a broader 2 than 1923(P) coins do, but this appears to have been simply the result of poor striking at the San Francisco Mint and not an intended feature.

When the date was recessed for the coins of 1925-30, all figures were given a complete makeover. The san-serif, block numerals of earlier years were replaced with distinctly curved, serif-style numerals. This is most apparent in the figure 1, which thereafter displayed a tilting left serif at top and broad, straight serifs at bottom left and right. In addition, numeral 2, flat-bottomed on earlier coins, thereafter had a curving bottom. The flap-topped 3 of 1923 was replaced with a curved one in 1930. For the 1928 coinage, the uniform upper and lower loops seen in 1918 were replaced with a figure having a small loop resting atop a larger one.

The Washington quarter series is among the most interesting with respect to date styles. The quarters of 1932 and the Light Motto variety of 1934 all shared a common obverse hub, one in which the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was too shallow. The date styles likewise matched, though the numerals seem to be a bit chunkier on the 1934 quarters. There were, however, two other versions of this coin's obverse used in 1934, and each affected the style of date. The Medium Motto quarters have very delicate figures seen only on this variety and on all quarters dated 1935. The 9 has a perfectly round loop, as opposed to the vertically elongated loop of 1932, while the upper arch of the 3 is shortly than the lower, which contrasts to the symmetrical 3 of 1932. Finally, the Heavy Motto quarters of 1934 (and 1936 onward) reverted to the date style of 1932, yet the figures are uniformly thicker to make them more resistant to wear. The only detectable difference is that numeral 3 on the 1936-39 quarters has a slightly backward lean to it not seen on the 1932 issue.

On all Washington quarters, numeral 1 has the most subtle of serifs on either side of its top and bottom, yet this feature is so faint on most coins that it can go unnoticed. The sporty 2 seen on 1932 quarters was replaced with one of more conventional style in 1942, but this reverted to the first style for later years ending in 2. For 1943, numeral 3 was similar to the 1936-39 version but noticeably shorter. This reverted to exact style of 1936 for 1953 and 1963. On 1973 quarters, the upper curve of the 3 points straight to the left instead of downward.

The quarters of the 1940s showed some variation in numeral 4. Its horizontal segment ended in an upward serif for most years. 1942 and 1947, however, have a san-serif 4, while 1948-49 have both upward and downward serifs. In addition, the size of the triangular opening within the 4 varied with the thickness of the figure's upright and diagonal segments. The opening was smallest in 1943 and largest in 1944 and 1947-48. The large opening is seen also on 1954 and 1964 quarters, which both have upward serifs on their horizontal segments.

The figure 5 employed in 1935 and 1945 had an upwardly curved tail, but in 1950 this was replaced with the hanging tail found on other coin types of the 1950s. Numeral 6 remained an inverted twin to the 9, though the undersize loop of 1936 was corrected in 1946 and for all subsequent years. The horizontal and diagonal segments of the 7, quite straight on 1937 quarters, were replaced with sharply curving ones in 1947 and most later years. The style of numeral 8, with its slightly smaller upper loop, seems to have been constant throughout the series until 1983 (see below). The second 9 remained similar to the first in years ending in 9, while numeral 0 likewise matched in each decade.

A new obverse hub introduced in 1974 reduced the relief of all numerals, and a second new hub in 1977 made the figures slimmer while retaining their established styles. The dual dates found on 1976 Bicentennial quarters are more comparable in both style and depth of sculpting to the 1973 and earlier issues, with only their overall size being distinctive. 1983 witnessed another new obverse hub, and this brought more pronounced serifs to the 1, an 8 with matching upper and lower loops, as well as a return to the style of 3 last seen in 1932.

The following year brought a new, sans-serif style of 4 having quite thick segments and which was noticeably narrower than in any previous year. The 7 on 1987 quarters had the straight, sans-serif horizontal segment not seen since 1937, though it retained a slight curvature to its diagonal (the serif was restored in 1997). 1992 witnessed yet another restyling of the date, with all figures being quite simplistic. 1994 saw the restoration of an upper serif to the horizontal segment of numeral 4, and each segment was much more slender than in 1984. The 5 utilized in 1995 still had the hanging tail familiar since 1950, though its downward slant was less pronounced than in previous years.

The adoption of the 50-States quarter program in 1999 led to a stereotyping of all date numerals across each of the statehood issues. This is not surprising, as each submitting artist has to utilize a standard design template furnished by the US Mint in which the dates and statutory inscriptions are already in place. The sculpting for each coin is performed at the Mint by its own staff, and complete uniformity is maintained for these repeating features. This program will run through 2009, and it has not been determined whether the 1932-98 motifs will return or be replaced by new imagery. My expectation is that the bust of Washington will be replaced with a new one (the Laura Fraser design?) and the reverse retained, as was done with the Jefferson nickel in 2006. In any case, collectors can anticipate some changes in date style, as this seems to be among the few constants in our coinage history.

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