USA Coin Album: A Look Back at Washington Quarters, Part Four
Posted on 5/15/2012
Starting in the mid-1930s it became the practice of many collectors to set aside uncirculated rolls of each coin issue from cents through halves. By the late 1950s this speculative hoarding was expanding to entire bags of fresh coins, especially in the case of cents and nickels. This mindless activity nearly ceased when the clad coinage debuted in 1965-66, though it wasn’t due entirely to the unsatisfactory nature of the coins themselves. The roll and bag market had taken a tumble in the latter part of 1964. In fact, the entire market in United States coins experienced a long hangover after the spectacular run-up of 1952-64. This bleak period lasted from late 1964 through the remainder of the decade, coinciding with the first issues of “sandwich” coins, so-called because of their multilayer composition.
The quarter was the first of the clad denominations to enter circulation in November of 1965 (the dimes and halves didn’t appear until early 1966). Collectors were disappointed with the diminished luster and grayish color of the new coins, though there was some novelty value to their bright orange-red edges. The most negative comments were reserved for the poor detail definition of the clad dimes and quarters. The copper-nickel-clad composition was much harder than the 90% silver used previously, and the shallower features of the coins were seldom brought up in the single strike used for circulating coins. The harder alloy also took a greater toll on the dies, leading to rapid deterioration which manifested itself as heavy erosion lines that grew more pronounced at the peripheries.
The Mint had addressed the problem of weak definition from the outset with a new reverse hub for quarters dated 1965 and later, but even this didn’t result in well struck coins. The first successful alteration to the quarter came in 1974, with a new obverse hub of lesser relief. This lasted just a year before the bicentennial edition dated 1776-1976 brought a new hub of similar relief but slightly altered features. Both resulted in sharper details, though at the price of lessened sculptural quality. The bicentennial reverse typically struck up well, but the return to the original design in 1977 saw an altered reverse of significantly lower relief. As with the changes effected in 1974, this resulted in shallow coins that struck up reasonably well.
One ongoing problem with our modern coins, produced in the billions annually, is that the hubs take so many impressions in the die-sinking process that the design elements gradually deepen and also spread outward until they threaten to touch the border. This occurred to the quarter dollar obverse and is plainly evident on coins dated 1982. An obvious reworking of the quarter’s obverse was made for 1983, and lesser revisions occurred in several of the next few years. All of these involved sharpening details while simultaneously lowering relief.
The most radical alteration of the coin’s original design occurred for 1992’s production. The result was the so-called “spaghetti hair” hub used through 1998. The Mint’s artist seemingly overlooked the fact that Washington was wearing a wig, and the result looks like a mop or a bowl of noodles. Lesser alterations were made to the reverse, but the overall effect was to render the entire coin a lifeless caricature of the 1932 models. Die life was greatly extended, and weak strikes became rare, yet all sense of sculptural art was lost.
Among the circulating quarters of 1965-98 there are only a small handful of noteworthy coins. The 1969 quarters of both mints appear to be somewhat scarce uncirculated, and I remember the Philadelphia pieces being scarce in change on the west coast. The circulating quarters of 1982-83 are likewise scarce unworn, as no Uncirculated Sets were offered by the Mint in those years. This drought coincided with the peak of poor production quality at the Philadelphia Mint, and 1982-P and 1983-P quarters are seldom seen in higher grades. In fact, the entire decade of the 1980s saw very poor quality coins from Philly. The relatively high values for 1986-D quarters are an unexplained anomaly, and it’s probably just speculative interest in the lower-than-usual sales of Uncirculated Sets that year.
The approach of the 50 States Quarters program in 1999 caused fears of a quarter shortage, as it was expected that many of these new coins would be hoarded. Instead, it is the quarters dated 1997 and 1998 that are seldom found in circulation, though there appear to be enough unworn pieces to supply collector demand. The federal reserve banks and commercial coin delivery services typically operate on a last-in, first-out basis, so the most recently received coins are the ones distributed first. Because the successive issues of state quarters arrived so closely together and were the first coins shipped, I believe that there are millions of 1997-98 quarters sitting idle in vaults to this day, along with countless undistributed state quarters. Perhaps someday we’ll see the General Services Administration hold auctions to sell off these old coins when they’re finally uncovered decades from now!
David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.