A bureaucratic struggle behind the scenes in 1931 decided how the first US president would be portrayed on coins for years to come
By Jim Bisognani – NGC Weekly Market Report ……
The year is moving right along; I can’t believe that the Fourth of July, our greatest American holiday, is but a week away!
Seemingly in the spirit of the patriotic holiday, I was fortunate to find a silver Washington quarter in circulation last week. I was amazed to spot the obviously silver coin, typically steel gray, moderately worn but still in Very Fine condition.
I expected to see that it was dated in the 1940s or ’50s but, no, it was a 1936-D — a semi-key! Wow! I don’t know if it was a “plant” introduced courtesy of the Great American Coin Hunt or just luck, but that find got me thinking about our first president’s likeness on the noble Washington quarter.
Born in the depths of the Great Depression, this coin has always been a workhorse in commerce. Whether used to buy a movie ticket by grandparents, or as milk money or in a weekly allowance for Baby Boomers, these coins were familiar pocket change for most Americans. Even for those not interested in collecting coins, the Washington quarter has been with us all our lives.
The obverse design, while faithful to the subject at hand, was quite a departure from the controversial allegorical Standing Liberty design that preceded it. This new-wave rendering, perhaps influenced by the Art Deco movement, was not originally intended for the quarter dollar at all. In fact, the acknowledged winning entry for this makeover never had its die-cast as a quarter. More on that in a moment.
Following the model of the Lincoln cent, issued to commemorate the centennial of our 16th president’s birth, the Treasury Department set its sights on honoring our first commander in chief.
Although the country was mired in economic calamity at the height of the Great Depression, most citizens still were very much aware of the upcoming bicentennial of our first president’s birth. So, mimicking the forces of the great Dust Bowl on the prairies, “Washington Mania” was sweeping across the country.
In early 1931, the Treasury, the Washington Bicentennial Commission and the federal Commission of Fine Arts effectively harnessed this public euphoria to co-sponsor another coin design competition. This time around, to observe the 200th anniversary of the father of our country’s birth, it was deemed that all regular-issue half dollars produced in 1932 should commemorate George Washington.
The Half Reduced to a Quarter
At this point in our numismatic history, the silver commemorative series was still a very popular subject for collectors. And with all the excitement brewing, this proposal for a newly designed regular-issue half dollar (not subsidizing any program and available at face value) would have most assuredly been received with open arms by the community at large.
Rules of the competition revealed to all applicants that the depiction of Washington was to be the prominent feature on the obverse of the coin. Furthermore, the artistic interpretations were to be based on the bust of Washington by the celebrated French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. This famous statue, created from a life-mask taken at Washington’s Mount Vernon home in 1785, was obviously a precise and extremely accurate model. The reverse design of the silver piece was left up to the artist — the only requirement was to portray an accepted national symbol.
Adding a bit of flavor early on in the competition, Congress stepped in and tweaked the playing field. On March 4, 1931, Congress changed the new commemorative coin from the half dollar to the quarter dollar!
This change originated in the Oval Office, where President Hoover and others in the administration felt that the quarter would be best suited for this enterprise because sufficient larger-denomination coins were already circulating and, given the current economic times, the smaller coin would be more cost-efficient.
Perhaps other considerations had a role. The larger coin, if approved, might not have readily found its way into commercial channels, as the temptation to save the new souvenirs would limit its circulation. Also, even in the current fiscal climate, the new coin could have been subjected to the creeping mismanagement and profiteering existing within the Commemorative Half Dollar distribution program.
Half dollar or quarter dollar, either new Washington piece had to be approved by Congress before the coin could ultimately roll from the minting press, as neither Hermon MacNeil’s Standing Liberty quarter or Adolph Weinman’s Walking half had met the statutory 25 years in circulation as a regular-issue coin.
Competition Closed — We Have a Winner!
When the competition deadline arrived in the late summer of 1931, a total of 98 official entries were tallied. The panel of judges that included famed sculptor and coin designer Adolph Weinman decided that most of the proposals were totally unacceptable, and only seven were given more than cursory consideration. The standout submission and eventual winner of the competition by unanimous vote was No. 56, the work of noted sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser.
Ms. Fraser’s celebrated résumé already included several US commemorative coins, including the most recent collaboration with her husband, James Earle Fraser, celebrating the Oregon Trail. Her entry, if it had been executed, would have been a superb addition to our regular series and numismatic legacy. The artistic higher relief and medallic quality of the design would have harkened back a few decades to those inspiring works of Augustus Saint-Gaudens during that golden numismatic renaissance of the Teddy Roosevelt era.
Another Competition, Same Winner
Unfortunately for collectors and all numismatic hobbyists, this winning entry would not come to fruition in this form. Politics, ego, obstinacy and purported backroom shenanigans quickly came into play. While not one official had argued against the switch in denomination, the man legally answerable for coin designs, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, weighed in.
One of the wealthiest men on the planet, courtesy of his vast banking fortune, Secretary Mellon had assembled one of the most substantial art collections on Earth. A worldly connoisseur who was stubborn beyond belief, Mr. Mellon refused to agree with the commission’s decision.
After some backroom bickering, Chairman Charles Moore’s Fine Arts Commission conducted a second competition of those designs deemed worthy.
Four contestants jockeying for the prize, including the works of Mrs. Fraser and New York medalist John Flanagan, were to be altered to a more accurate circulating size for committee critique. During the second review, however, Secretary Mellon apparently still was inspecting larger-scale plaster casts of the “final four” proposed designs while Moore’s committee was looking more closely at actual production-sized models. The esteemed advisory panel could see potential problems and limitations in the striking and mass production that would be inherent with the Flanagan rendering.
Ultimately and not at all surprisingly, this second competition judged by the Commission of Fine Arts on October 27, 1931, again awarded the prize to Mrs. Fraser. And once again, when the commission presented the winning plaster casts of No. 56 for his approval, Secretary Mellon refused to sign off on it because he still preferred Flanagan’s work.
Perplexed and bewildered, observers believed that belligerence and chauvinism were now dominating the negotiations. Some said that Mellon knew all along who had submitted the winning models and that he showed obvious disdain for the idea of a female winner.
Through the ensuing decades of numismatic folklore, journals from proponents such as Walter Breen, table discussions and other forums seem to support the common belief that Mellon willfully and maliciously sabotaged the rightful winner of the competition. After some scrutiny, however, this seems, in reality, to be more a case of Mellon exercising his artistic prerogative.
After all, during his term as secretary of the Treasury from 1921 to 1932, he had approved Ms. Fraser’s works on several occasions. Noted efforts, including the 1922 Grant Memorial half dollar and gold dollar; the 1925 Fort Vancouver half; and the joint effort with her husband on the Oregon Trail half dollar, all were approved during his long tenure.
Regardless, Mellon ultimately selected the now familiar Flanagan design which, in his judgment, “would be best suited for the subject.”
The debate was not over, however. In impassioned correspondence dated January 20, 1932, Commission of Fine Arts Secretary Moore tried once again to persuade Mellon to reverse his decision. Surely this time Mellon would finally agree to view the properly scaled models, which showed that his favored Flanagan design was “artistically unfortunate” because an “unnatural arrangement” of the hair made it barely visible in the reduced format.
This also proved futile and, in the midst of further challenges to his decision, Mellon, who had been traveling to Europe renegotiating World War I debt payments, gave up his Treasury position (and, in the waning year of the Hoover administration, took the post of ambassador to Great Britain).
So, early in 1932, Mellon’s successor to the Treasury post, Ogden Mills, was the new audience hearing the ongoing quarrel urging the acceptance of the Fraser design for the new coin. Mills ultimately declined to challenge Mellon’s verdict on the subject and brusquely ended the debate with a letter to the Commission of Fine Arts.
In a document dated April 11, 1932, Mills wrote: “I have given further consideration to the subject and am constrained to adhere to the decision of my predecessor, and I select that model (Flanagan’s). You will realize, of course, that the duty of making the selection falls upon the Secretary of the Treasury and not upon the Commission of Fine Arts, the function of that body being purely advisory.”
Mills formally announced Flanagan as the winner on April 16, 1932. But as production for the new issue began at the Philadelphia Mint on June 15, 1932, the CFA committee’s criticisms of the design proved valid. Though Flanagan’s bas-relief design was easy to strike and gave press operators at the Mint no problem, the suspect design features not only resulted in artistic loss but the motto “In God We Trust” was very weak on many coins in the inaugural 1932 run.
Washington Quarters Roll
Regardless of the technical maladies, the American public embraced the new coin. With a supply of coins appearing up and down the eastern seaboard, the branch mints in Denver and San Francisco got busy with production. Although it was not intended, the late start of production limited the inaugural run at the Denver facility to a mere 436,800, which is the second-lowest output of the series. The honor for lowest mintage goes to the San Francisco Mint, which in 1932 came in at 408,000.
While neither of these low mintages is rare, they are both the keys to the series in circ through Mint State. The 1932-D takes the prize, with MS 65 examples having a current NGC Price Guide estimate of $8,600. The San Francisco entry commands a $2,900 value in that grade. For the average collector, both coins in a nice XF can be had for around $200 each.
Due to the Depression and other fiscal considerations, no quarters were struck in 1933. But with the public embracing the coin, the dawn of 1934 found what was to be a single-year commemorative issue had dies being cut for a new run of Washington quarters.
In an attempt to correct the striking deficiencies, two hub changes were incorporated that year, producing Medium and Heavy Motto impressions. Both striking characteristics are seen on the Philly and Denver strikings of the year. While noted dealers of the day hoarded rolls of most coins, few if any original rolls of the 1932 and 1936 Denver Quarters seem to have surfaced, accounting for their high market values in MS 63 and better. Several other semi-keys exist, such as the perhaps underrated 1937-S.
As a rule, all of the mint-marked issues from 1932 to 1942 are probably good buys at present levels and should be acquired in MS 65 or better. Several dates include strong doubling of the motto and other features that can be seen on the 1934, 1936, 1941 and 1942-D. The 1950 installment produced both popularly collected D/S and S/D varieties.
With the exception of the compositional change from .900 silver to clad in 1965 and the relocation of the mintmark to the obverse at the end of Washington’s peruke wig beginning in 1968, nothing really changed for the first 36 years.
As Bicentennial fever ran high across the county as 1976 approached, a new competition was launched for a reverse design for the Washington quarter (as well as the half dollar and dollar). The contest had over 900 entries but the winner of the quarter reverse, announced March 6, 1974, was Jack L. Ahr’s design incorporating the iconic drummer boy.
The next historic change came in 1999 with the introduction of the renowned, long-running 50 State and Territory and America the Beautiful quarter programs. Before the dawn of the new millennium, however, another 200th anniversary would be honored.
Although it was some 33 years after Laura Gardin Fraser’s death, her winning design from 1931 was being resurrected by the US Treasury. On May 7, 1999, at Mount Vernon, Mint Director Philip Diehl, Treasurer Mary Ellen Withrow and other dignitaries announced the George Washington $5 Commemorative Gold Coin.
“Officially, this coin commemorates the 200th anniversary of our first president’s death,” Diehl said. “But to my mind, it also commemorates what has survived of his life and the life of the republic for two centuries and ensures that this place will remain for all time ready to receive everyone who comes here.”
Withrow said, “I am particularly pleased that Laura Gardin Fraser’s 1931 designs for the Washington Quarter now adorn United States Coinage.”
And so, some 68 years after the fact, justice had been served for both the designer and collector as the tale of two Washingtons lives on for many more generations.
I hope everyone enjoys a great Fourth of July holiday!
Until next time, happy collecting!
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Jim Bisognani is an NGC Price Guide Analyst having previously served for many years as an analyst and writer for another major price guide. He has written extensively on US coin market trends and values.