Background of the Washington Quarter Series
Intended to be a circulating commemorative coin honoring the bicentennial of the birth of America’s first president, the Washington quarter as originally designed was struck from 1932 to 1998, save for a two-year run in 1975 and 1976, when the coin’s reverse was swapped out for the “drummer boy” design of Jack Ahr.
The backstory behind the Washington quarter is the stuff of myth and intrigue.
Anticipating the release of a half dollar honoring Washington, the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), in collaboration with the George Washington Bicentennial Commission, held a contest to find a winning design for the coin. The competition called for the artists to base their portrait of George Washington on the Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) bust of George Washington. Houdon’s elegantly-executed sculpture was derived, in part, from a 1786 life mask of the future first president.
According to a contemporaneous report in the January 1932 issue of The Numismatist, 99 designs were submitted. Of those, five finalists were sent back to the artists for revision. A committee convened to review the revised designs and selected the designs of Laura Gardin Fraser. By law, the Secretary of the Treasury had final say, and despite the protests of the CFA and the Bicentennial Commission, Secretary Andrew Mellon chose the designs of John Flanagan.
This led to a bitter public back and forth between partisans on the side of Fraser and the Treasury – the extent of which has been blown out of proportion over the years by scholars and experts in the numismatic field.
The controversy did lead to the delay of the coin’s issue, as the February 22 target release date came and went. The first coins were struck near the end of May, or perhaps on or about June 1. The coin entered into circulation on August 1, 1932.
Flanagan’s obverse design features a left-facing bust of George Washington. On the reverse, Flanagan renders America’s heraldic eagle in Art Deco style.
The Washington quarter series can be broken down as follows:
- Silver Heraldic Eagle era (1932, 1934-1964)
- Clad Heraldic Eagle era (1965-1974)
- Bicentennial Quarter (1975-1976)
- Clad Heraldic Eagle era resumed (1977-1998; Spaghetti Hair 1989-1998)
- State Quarters era (1999-2008)
- US Territories & DC reverses (2009)
- America the Beautiful era (2009-2021)
- Washington Crossing the Delaware reverse (2021)
The Washington quarter was struck in .900 silver from 1932 through 1966. .900 silver quarters struck in 1965 and 1966 bear are antedated 1964. The last “1964” quarter was struck in January 1966. The first copper-nickel clad quarter was struck in August 1965. Copper-nickel clad has been the circulating coin composition of the quarter dollar since August 1965.
The 1937 Proof Washington Quarter
The 1937 Washington quarter Proof is noteworthy because it marks the beginning of the modern method of Proof production at the United States Mint using separate dies for Proofs and business strikes. Before 1937, it was standard practice for the Mint to sequester and polish standard dies for Proof strikings. This proved to be unsatisfactory for Flanagan’s quarter design, as it did not hold up well after being polished and retreated. According to late numismatic researcher and Washington quarter die expert Herb Hicks, the Washington quarter Type B reverse originates in 1937 to deal with this deficiency. The new master hub was created by promoting an edited working Hub. This new reverse featured reinforced letters and a lowered field.
The official figures provided by the United States Mint cast the total number of 1937 Washington Proof quarters distributed at 5,542 pieces. This often gets reported as the issue’s mintage or even the mintage of the 1937 Proof Set, but this is not the case. While this may come as a surprise to modern collectors accustomed to the sale of Proof Sets from the Mint, Proof issues struck from 1936 to 1942 could be purchased individually as well as in sets. Therefore, the maximum number of 1937-dated sets that could have been constructed is no greater than the total distribution of the Proof coin with the lowest distribution.
Roger W. Burdette’s excellent research on the topic of 1936 to 1942 Proof issues is further illuminating. Burdette estimates a mintage of approximately 7,390 pieces, with some number of these coins being of insufficient quality. Burdette claims net sales for the issue to be 5,505 pieces struck from five obverse and six reverse dies. All known Proof quarters of this issue are of the Type B reverse variety.
PCGS and NGC record 2,970 grading events of the 1937 Washington quarter in Proof. These figures are somewhat misleading as they do not take into account resubmissions and crossovers. Suffice it to say, a majority of the true Choice and Gem examples of this issue that have come to market within the past 30 years have made their way to one or both of these grading services, perhaps on multiple occasions. The state of preservation for the issue runs the gamut from impaired, cleaned, and hairlined to nearly flawless – with the latter being decidedly rare given the coin’s age and the technology collectors have had at their disposal to preserve coins over the years.
In the super grades of Proof 68 and Proof 69, PCGS accounts for nine at 68 and none finer; NGC reports 20 grading events at 68 and one in 69. The sole PF69 in an NGC holder has blue and green toning and brought $9,200 at a 2009 Heritage Auction.
A midrange piece, graded Proof 65 by either service, is now available for about $300.
John Flanagan’s obverse design features a left-facing portrait of George Washington based on the Jean-Antoine Houdon bust of 1786. LIBERTY wraps around the top of the coin, above Washington’s hair. The date “1972” wraps around the bottom, below Washington’s bust truncation. To the left of Washington is the national motto IN GOD WE TRUST.
A heraldic eagle, rendered in Art Deco style is perched atop a sheaf of arrows. The arrows and the eagle’s head are facing left. Two sprays of olive branches form a U-shape wrapping around the bottom of the eagle. Wrapping around the top of the coin is the following text: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Below that, the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. Wrapping around the bottom of the coin, the denomination QUARTER DOLLAR is inscribed.
The edge of the 1937 Proof Washington quarter, like all Washington quarters, is reeded.
Born in New Jersey in 1865, John Flanagan lived in New York for most of his life. He began working with Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1884 at the age of 20 and quickly became a well-known sculptor and medallic artist in his own right. Saint-Gaudens made introductions for Flanagan at the United States Mint. While the Washington quarter was his sole numismatic design, Flanagan designed numerous famous medals and sculptures, including the official medal of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the official Verdun medal gifted to France by the U.S. Government, and the 1924 bust of Saint-Gaudens. Flanagan was also a member of the American Numismatic Society (ANS).
|Year Of Issue:||1937|
|Mint Mark:||None (Philadelphia)|
|Alloy:||90% Silver, 10% Copper|
|OBV Designer||John Flanagan|
|REV Designer||John Flanagan|