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Isabella: The Mother of All U.S. Commemorative Quarters

By Dan DuncanRetired, Pinnacle Rarities ……

The original Washington quarter was intended as just a one-year commemorative. Yet John Flanagan’s obverse design has endured for nearly 90 years with the reverse motifs in constant flux over the last two decades. The Statehood quarters and National Parks series have both made the commemorative quarter a mainstay of our nation’s circulating coinage, and in 2022, the United States Mint is embarking on a new quarter program called American Women.

The new series will last several years and will feature an upgrade to Washington’s obverse portrait. The reverse will celebrate contributions and the lives of prominent American women. The numismatic honoring of female accomplishments is nowhere better suited than on this denomination. The original commemorative quarter, the Isabella, featured a woman on both obverse and reverse. It was conceived by a group of prominent women that was breaking new ground in feminism and contributing to the cause of the woman’s suffrage movement.

The 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition was one of our nation’s greatest fairs. It ushered in a tidal wave of innovation and showcased a number of reported firsts. One of these was the Board of Lady Managers headed by Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer. Previous fairs and events had similar boards, but this one was the first to be recognized by our federal government and was the first to be given government funding to specifically aid the fulfillment of the board’s directives. This distinction signaled a dramatic shift in policy and put a spotlight on the importance of women in leadership and their contributions to areas outside the domestic arena.

The Board of Lady Managers was made up of two women representatives from each state and territory, nine local female Chicagoans for added local perspective, and an additional eight at-large members. The primary goal of the Board was to ensure that the progress made by women in business, industry, and the arts was promoted and on full display at the grand event. The goal was largely achieved through exhibits and events. Subsequently, great public attention was paid tying it to the political movement of women’s suffrage.

The Board was approved by Congress in 1890. Soon afterward they secured a budget from the Grounds and Buildings Committee for the construction of a Woman’s Building. The building was designed by Sophia Hayden, a 21-year-old female architect whose design won a competition hosted by the Expo’s Construction Department. The building served as headquarters for the Board and was used throughout the fair for both meetings and symposiums. It also housed and displayed public exhibits honoring various examples of women’s achievements. However, much of this space was eventually dedicated to arts and crafts, a departure from the Board’s original intent.

The Board and subsequent coin was a direct influence of Susan B. Anthony’s efforts and her desire for women’s representation in and around the fair. The commemorative quarter was authorized by Congress in June of 1893. Palmer pushed to use a female artist to design the coin but was ultimately overruled by the Mint. She hired artist Caroline Peddle, who eventually abandoned the project after Charles Barber elicited consistent opposition to her suggestions. In the end, his designs were used on both obverse and reverse.

Isabella: The Mother of All U.S. Commemorative QuartersThe original design suggestions had been roughly sketched out by Peddle. Her reverse had a lengthy inscription and obverse featured a seated Isabella. After these were rejected, Palmer expressed a desire that the Woman’s Building be portrayed on the reverse. This, too, was rejected by Barber, who claimed the size of the image “would look like a mere streak across the coin.” After Peddle quit, Palmer settled on Barber’s Isabella interpretation and the inscription BOARD OF LADY MANAGERS along the upper reverse periphery.

The eventual obverse of the coin is considered a rendition of Queen Isabella, not a true portrait–but remains the only foreign monarch to grace a U.S. coin. The reverse is a kneeling woman holding a distaff and is said to represent women’s place in industry. However, it appears as a modernized version of symbolism harkening to the women’s rights hard times token featuring a kneeling woman. This token shadowed the AM I NOT A MAN & A BROTHER token, which used the image adapted from the seal of England’s Society for the Abolition of Slavery. This imagery was likely far more relevant and recognizable to the 19th-century individual than to today’s collector public.

The Isabella quarter was offered for $1.00 and sold at the fair from inside the Woman’s Building. Few were sold there, most being sold through mail order. Several thousand were also sold through Marshall Fields and Company of Chicago, and Tiffany and Company of New York. And after the fair, secured by a California board member, about a thousand were sold during the 1894 California Mid-Winter Exposition. However, the Board ultimately returned 15,809 for melting of the original 40,000. Nearly, 10,000 unsold examples were purchased by Ms. Palmer for face value and were sold long after the fair to numismatic marketers such as B. Max Mehl.

There are several likely reasons the Isabella quarter didn’t sell well. The most likely is a combination of pure economic timing meeting the new concept of a collectible coin. It was one of the first monetized commemoratives and the idea of spending a dollar for a quarter was odd at best, especially considering the fair, unfortunately, coincided with the economic Panic of 1893.

Additionally, promotions for the quarter lacked the inventiveness of the Columbian half dollar. The half had better visibility and point-of-sale potential. It was available at multiple locations and was featured in various exhibits at the fair. But it’s also hard not to recognize that misogyny also played a role in poor sales. The aforementioned reverse design surely would have prevented some male fairgoers from purchasing the keepsake.

Moreover, the sheer lack of available time played into the poor quarter sales. The fairgrounds covered 686 acres. With so much ground to cover and so many exhibits to see, it is easy to conclude many attendees were not swayed to make time for the Woman’s Building. The decision to examine innovations in farm equipment, see exotic belly dancers, ride the world’s first Ferris Wheel or view modern quilting practices was probably an easy choice for the male-dominated 19th-century family. Regardless, after the thousands found their way into the melting pot and countless were lost over time to attrition, surviving Isabella quarters have become one of the keys to the classic commemorative series today.

Despite the prejudice the women’s exhibits faced, the overall contribution of the Board was a tremendous advancement of women and the progressive changes to the overall social mores surrounding women’s abilities and contributions to society. The Woman’s Building hosted speeches and held a large conference called the Congress of Women. It alone was attended by a couple hundred thousand women. Speakers from all over the country spoke to large crowds. Hundreds of speakers spoke of the emergence of the “New Woman” and their place in the modern world. Chroniclers of the expo noted that “the fair helped position women as a force to be reckoned with in all arenas as the world crossed into the twentieth century.”

As one of the first commemoratives, the Isabella quarter is cemented in our numismatic history. And its part in the fight for women’s suffrage and equality makes it a fitting precursor to the new 2022 American Woman Series. The Board of Lady Managers and their portrayal of the New Woman laid the path for the proud individuals who will be featured on the new coinage. These women have, over the last century, redefined their position in the workplace, their roles in industry and have helped mold a new definition of equality. While we continue to struggle with the exact terms of this equality, we can look back and once again see how numismatics provides a window to our past providing a colorful backdrop to this nation’s great history.

Pinnacle Rarities
Pinnacle Rarities
Kathleen Duncan co-founded Pinnacle Rarities in 1992. Based in Olympia, Washington, Pinnacle sought to provide continuing professional service to a clientele composed of collectors, investors and dealers from all 50states and several foreign countries. They tried to specialize in handling the rarest, most desirable coins the industry has to offer. Pinnacle closed in 2022.

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  1. One great irony is that Washington himself would likely loathe the Washington Quarter because during his lifetime he associated real life persons on money as too like the princes we fought so hard to be rid of. Hence, early U.S. coins only featured allegorical figures such as “Lady Liberty.” Many European coins of then and now feature the Monarch preceded by the letters D.G. (Latin for God’s Gracious) a not so subtle reminder of the “Divine Right of Kings”. Later, under the guise of “patriotism”, many of the Founders’ frailties were ignored so as to portray them in a more august light. They became Myths. That is why I think it is refreshing to include many of the long ignored be it Susan B. Anthony or Harriet Tubman or so many others to come as we continue our mutual journey of forming “A More Perfect Union.”

  2. It is surprisingly still quite available and decent slabbed specimens are reasonably priced. It is too bad that Barber’s design is so typically pedestrian but that doesn’t change its numismatic status. Good article, read “Devil in the White City” for more on the fair and Mrs Palmer.


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