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The 1893 Isabella Quarter: Commemorative Stories

By David Provost for CoinWeek …..
The 1893 Isabella quarter is much more than just one of two commemorative quarters issued during the classic era of U.S. commemoratives (the 1932 Washington quarter is the other). It is a tangible, enduring reminder of a time when the role of women in American society was going through a dramatic and unmistakable change. It is also evidence of the foothold gained by women via the World’s Columbian Exposition regarding their efforts to be officially recognized within the U.S. Government as the equals of men.

The World’s Columbian Exposition was awarded to the city of Chicago by the Act of April 25, 1890. The Act also created the World’s Columbian Commission (WCC) which was tasked with overseeing the efforts of the local organizers of the Exposition and to help ensure the successful planning and staging of the Exposition.

isabella2Most germane to the Isabella commemorative coin, the Act also included a groundbreaking directive that required the WCC to establish a Board of Lady Managers (“Board”) for the Exposition. Never before had Congress taken such a step.

The WCC moved quickly to create the Board, establishing a structure that mirrored its own composition. The Board consisted of two women from each U.S. state and territory plus the District of Columbia, along with eight at-large members, all nominated by their corresponding WCC Commissioner. In addition, the WCC President, Thomas W. Palmer, appointed nine women from Chicago to ensure the local perspective was represented.

Historical Sidenote: At the time of the Exposition, the U.S. included 44 states and five territories (Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Utah) plus Washington, DC. Hawaii was not represented on the Board as it did not become a U.S. territory until 1898.

The first meeting of the Board was called by WCC President Palmer on October 21, 1890. He opened the proceedings with a warm welcome to the ladies assembled, stating:

“While the ordinary greetings of social life may not seem apropos, I may be permitted to express to you the thanks of the Commission for your ready and patriotic acceptance of proffered burdens – as I am sure you will earn and receive the eventual thanks of a nation for loyal and efficient service.”[1]

He also noted the groundbreaking opportunity given to the Board, commenting:

“It is the first time … in the history of our Government that woman has been fully recognized in the administration of a great public trust like this, and the action of Congress, in passing the bill with this feature [the Board], has met the general approval of the people.”[2]

Palmer concluded his remarks by stating:

“All that American women ever lacked – opportunity – is here, and from every State and Territory the women of the hour are here to take advantage thereof. It needs no gift of prophecy to enable one to predict that the future will justify the wisdom of the creation of your Board, and the selection of its individual members.”[3]

On the second day of the meeting, Mary Cecil Cantrill of Kentucky nominated Bertha Honoré Palmer, a Chicago socialite and the wife of prominent local businessman Potter Palmer, for President. One other nomination was made, that for Mrs. John A. Logan of the District of Columbia; Logan declined, however, in favor of Potter. A vote was taken and Potter was elected unanimously.

Bertha Honoré Palmer, Board of Lady Managers President

Palmer was not an experienced manager or organizational leader, a fact she noted in her remarks when accepting the position:

“I regret, after such a mark of confidence, that I have to ask indulgence for my lack of experience presiding.”[4]

She did not shrink from the task, however, giving an impassioned speech that called for a united effort by the Board:

“We must … seriously realize the greatness of the opportunity which has been given us … Above all things else, harmonious action is necessary for our success.”[5]

The choice of Palmer to lead the Board proved to be an exceptional one. She developed a clear and strong vision for the Exposition’s Woman’s Department, was a tireless worker on its behalf, and possessed the skills needed to bring together disparate groups within the Board to achieve her objectives. Critically, she also did not allow the Board to become overtaken by the political agendas of various women’s groups of the time – suffragists, temperance advocates, and domestic reformers – that were eager to promote their agenda through it.

It was Palmer’s desire that the Board prepare and present exhibits that focused on the progress being made by women in business, the arts, and other areas of society rather than drawing attention to political movements.

In her address during the Exposition’s dedication ceremonies on October 21, 1892, Palmer remarked:

“Without touching upon politics, suffrage or other irrelevant issues, this unique organization of women for women will devote itself to the promotion of their industrial interests. It will address itself to the formation of a public sentiment that will favor woman’s industrial equality, and her receiving just compensation for services rendered. It will try to secure for her work the consideration and respect which it deserves, and establish her importance as an economic factor.”[6]

Palmer also recognized the driver behind the expanding role of women in society, noting:

“Of all the changes which have resulted from the great ingenuity and inventiveness of the race, there is none that equals in importance to woman the application of machinery to the performance of the never-ending tasks that have previously been hers. The removal from the household to the various factories, where such work is now done, of spinning, carding, dyeing, knitting, the weaving of textile fabrics, sewing, the cutting and making of garments, and many other laborious occupations, has enabled her to lift her eyes from the drudgery that has oppressed her since pre-historic days … The result is that women as a sex have been liberated. They now have time to think, to be educated, to plan and pursue careers of their own choosing.”[7]

One of Palmer’s early objectives for the Board was to secure a dedicated space for women at the Exposition. In February 1891, the Grounds and Buildings Committee of the Exposition company approved a budget of $200,000 for the construction of a Woman’s Building. Palmer was particularly pleased that the Board was allowed “to call attention to the recent work of women in new fields by selecting from their own sex the architect, decorators, sculptors and painters to create both the building and its adornments.”[8]

Woman’s Building, World Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill.

The Board was justly proud of its building and would later propose its image be featured on its souvenir coin.

Requesting a souvenir coin from Congress was not part of the Board’s initial planning. Plans changed, however, soon after the Columbian half dollar was approved on August 5, 1892. The interest and excitement surrounding the new coin was not lost on the Board, and soon formal discussions of a similar piece for its benefit were being held.

During the Board’s third session, the Subcommittee of the Board’s Executive Committee adopted the following resolution:

Resolved, That Congress be asked to authorize the issue of $10,000 of the appropriation of the Board of Lady Managers in the form of a souvenir coin, as a memorial of the service rendered by Isabella, Queen of Spain, to the expedition under the charge of Columbus, which resulted in the discovery of America.

Efforts were soon underway within the Board to make the resolution a reality. It was decided that rather than have a separate bill introduced in Congress for a coin, it would be made part of the Board’s requested appropriation for the next fiscal year.

The Board estimated that it would need $93,190 to cover its expenses for the period from July 1, 1893, through the closing of the Exposition in October. The funds would be used to cover costs associated with meetings, salaries, and administrative costs, expenses related to the transportation and insurance of items to be loaned for display within the Woman’s Building, and miscellaneous incidental expenses. The itemized list prepared by the Board made no mention of a souvenir coin, however.

On behalf of the Board, WCC President Thomas Palmer sent its estimate of expenses to Charles Foster, Secretary of the Treasury, suggesting they “be provided for in the bill commonly known as the ‘sundry civil bill.’”[9] Foster sent the information on to the House, where it was referred to the Committee on Appropriations on December 9, 1892.

Mrs. Palmer traveled to Washington to appear before the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations on January 21, 1893. The Subcommittee had several questions regarding the requested $93,190, but did not demonstrate any major resistance to approving the funds.

During the Hearing, Palmer requested that $10,000 of the Board’s appropriation be delivered as “40,000 souvenir coins of the denomination 25 cents”[10] and that the coins be “under the control of the Lady Managers.”[11] She stated clearly that the coins did not represent an additional funding request, but rather just an alternate approach to providing their appropriation.

Design of the 1893 Isabella Quarter

She also indicated that the Board would like to be involved in the coin’s design, commenting that the Board desired to have Queen Isabella on one side of the coin “in recognition of her assistance to Christopher Columbus in coming to this country.”[12] The Board believed such a design would be an attractive complement to the souvenir half dollar which featured a portrait of Columbus.

For the coin’s reverse, she suggested it depict the Woman’s Building at the Exposition. The Lady Managers believed this design pairing would effectively commemorate the important dates of 1492 and 1892.

Potter also expressed the Board’s desire to be in charge of selecting the artist for the coin, noting “We want it to be a treasure and a thing of beauty and value.”[13]

The Isabella quarter was approved within the Civil Sundry Expenses Act of March 3, 1893; it was included as part of the appropriation specified for the World’s Columbian Commission. The Act’s language, however, did not give the Board control over the coin’s design, leaving the final decision to the Director of the Mint and the Secretary of the Treasury. Nonetheless, Edward Leech, the Director of the Mint, did choose to involve the Board in the design process.

In keeping with its overall objectives, Mrs. Palmer initially engaged a female artist to design the coin – Caroline Cheever Peddle. At the time of the Exposition, the Terre Haute, Indiana native was living in New York as a member of the Art Students’ League, studying first under Augustus Saint-Gaudens and then Kenyon Cox.

isabella3Palmer informed Peddle of the Board’s preference for the coin’s design to feature a full figure of Queen Isabella rather than just a bust portrait. Peddle’s first sketches of the quarter depicted a front-facing Isabella seated on her throne. This approach was rejected by the Mint after strong criticism of it was tendered by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber. She was then asked by Oliver Bosbyshell, the Superintendent of the U.S. Mint, to prepare a new design that depicted an uncrowned portrait of Isabella. He also informed Peddle that a Mint engraver was working on designs for the reverse of the coin and that her services in that regard were no longer needed.[14]

This angered Peddle and led to her declining further participation in the Isabella quarter’s design.

Based on Palmer’s comments at the Appropriations Committee hearing, Barber prepared a sketch of what the reverse of the coin would like if it were to depict the Woman’s Building. While doing so, he let it be known that he didn’t believe it would make for a good design and that attempting to depict a building with such little architectural distinction on such a small coin would be a mistake. He disparagingly referred to its potential appearance as “a mere streak across the coin.”[15]

In a letter dated April 12, 1893, Leech informed Palmer that a design for the Isabella quarter reverse was selected by the Mint and that it would feature “a kneeling female figure with a distaff in hand in the act of winding flax. The distaff is used in art to symbolize patient industry, and especially the industry of woman.”[16] It is believed the design is the work of George Morgan.

Palmer was not pleased with the reverse design choice, later commenting “The design for this figure we did not consider typical of the woman of the present day … but the necessity for haste forced us, while recording our objection, to ask that the minting of the coin be proceeded with without waiting for other sketches.”[17]

Palmer was pleased, however, with the decision of John G. Carlisle, the Secretary of the Treasury, to allow the inscription “Board of Lady Managers” to be included on the Isabella quarter’s reverse rather than the more general “World’s Columbian Exposition.”[18]

Peddle did eventually send the Mint her model of Isabella’s portrait for the coin’s obverse, likely at Palmer’s urging. Bosbyshell and Barber were not enamored with the artistic qualities of the model, but Barber did acknowledge that the relief was suitable for coinage and could be used. Peddle’s portrait was that of the mature queen; Barber prepared a model of a younger Isabella. The preference inside the Mint was for the younger portrait. It is not known with absolute certainty which model was ultimately used for the coin, but it is very likely that Barber’s design was selected based on statements made by Palmer indicating that time constraints forced her to place the coin’s modeling “entirely in the hands of the Director of the Mint.”[19]

Sales of the Isabella Quarter

The Isabella quarter was sold at the Exposition in the Woman’s Building for $1.00 each, the same price as the Columbian half dollars. Selling the coins at four times their face value vs. the two times face value price point of the Columbian half dollar was likely a contributing factor to their generally disappointing sales total. Of the 40,000 coins provided to the Board, 15,809 were ultimately returned to the Mint to be melted, leaving a net distribution of just 24,191.

In a report dated May 15, 1894, Palmer indicated that 21,180 Isabella quarters had been sold, but also that coin sales were continuing even though the Exposition had closed. Arrangements made by Mrs. James R. Deane, a Lady Manager from California, enabled the coins to be sold at the 1894 California Mid-Winter Exposition held in San Francisco. Sales at the California Exposition were not brisk but did approach 1,000 pieces.

The report listed 3,666 Isabella quarters as available through a number of banks and stores across the country. Marshall Field & Company of Chicago and Tiffany & Company of New York were the two largest retail outlets that carried the coins. The bulk of the coins was being held by Merchants Loan & Trust of Chicago, the bank that handled the fulfillment of mail orders for the Board, and the Anglo-California Bank in San Francisco; they held 1,203 and 977 coins, respectively.

Palmer’s report also listed 345 Isabella quarters that had been given as gifts in appreciation of services rendered. Each of the Lady Managers and their alternates received a coin (232 in total), as did 13 pages and 100 exhibit judges.

Though the coin did not sell out its total mintage, those Isabella quarters that were sold provided a revenue stream in excess of $20,000 – which was more than double the $10,000 appropriation the Board would have received had they not requested the coin. A smart decision at the time, and one appreciated by coin collectors ever since.

© Copyright D. Provost 2022. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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Works Cited

[1] Official Manual of the Board of Lady Managers of the World Columbian Commission. Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company, 1891. p. 44.
[2] ibid. p. 45.
[3] ibid. p. 47.
[4] ibid. p. 56.
[5] ibid. p. 56.
[6] Memorial Volume: Dedicatory and Opening Ceremonies of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Chicago: Stone, Kastler & Painter, 1893. p. 153.
[7] ibid. p. 153.
[8] ibid. p. 152.
[9] Appropriation for Board of Lady Managers World’s Columbian Exposition, Letter from the Secretary of the Treasury. House of Representatives, 52nd Congress, Ex. Doc 74, December 9, 1892. p. 3.
[10] Additional Supplemental Hearings Before the Subcommittee of House Committee on Appropriations. House of Representatives, 52nd Congress, January 21, 1893. p. 4.
[11] ibid. p. 4.
[12] ibid. p. 4.
[13] ibid. p. 5.
[14] Taxay, Don. An Illustrated History of US Commemorative Coinage. New York: Arco Publishing Company, Inc., 1967. p. 8-9.
[15] ibid. p. 10.
[16] ibid. p. 11.
[17] Addresses and Reports of Mrs. Potter Palmer. Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company, 1891. p. 123.
[18] ibid. p. 123.
[19] ibid. p. 123.

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David Provost
David Provost
David Provost is a numismatic writer and commemorative coin specialist. Among other roles, Provost has served as President of the North Carolina Numismatic Association (NCNA) and Editor of the club's quarterly NCNA Journal.

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