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Celebrating Washington
By Tom LaMarre

The original Washington quarter design of the 1930s looks better all the time. That's just what government officials had in mind when they approved an anniversary tribute to the first president.

The Treasury Department and the Washington Bicentennial Commission staged a design competition for the Washington coin. But it didn't amount to much when Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon overrode the judges and rejected Laura Gardin Fraser's design in favor of John Flanagan's entry. The original idea of a Washington half dollar also went to the scrap pile.

The Feb. 11, 1931, issue of the Christian Science Monitor predicted that a portrait of George Washington may appear on 1932 quarter dollars in honor of his 200th anniversary. Postage stamp designers had used Washington's likeness for years. His portrait had also starred on the Lafayette commemorative dollar and several paper money issues. But it would be the first time his image appeared on a circulating coin.

The government had an ulterior motive for changing the quarter. It admitted it wanted to replace the "fast-wearing" Standing Liberty quarter design.

The Mint didn't strike any quarters at all in 1931, a Depression year. The Philadelphia Mint began striking Washington quarters on June 15, 1932. The first examples went into circulation in early August.

Some newspapers of the day referred to the new coin as the George Washington quarter. Others called it the Washingtonian quarter, the Centennial quarter or the Bicentennial quarter dollar.

By any name, it presented a much more modern appearance than the Standing Liberty quarter it replaced. Flanagan, however, didn't believe in taking things to extremes. The same month the Washington quarter made its debut, the sculptor went on record as saying that modern art was "a lot of damned silly nonsense."

The New York Times said the eagle was the only familiar aspect of the new coin. The newspaper must have meant the depiction of an eagle in general, because the bird on the Washington quarter's reverse was not exactly true to nature. Critics complained that the coin depicted a golden eagle instead of the more American bald eagle.

The George Washington Bicentennial observance, celebrated in cities and towns across the nation, ended on Thanksgiving Day 1932. By then, some newspapers were already referring to the Washington quarter in the past tense. Conceived as a one-year, circulating commemorative, it seemed uncertain to return as a regular issue.

The guessing game continued through 1933. The Mint didn't strike any quarters that year. It was the same year the price of oil hit 25 cents a barrel. When production of quarters resumed in 1934, the Washington quarter made a comeback.

In 1938, the quarter was the fourth most widely used denomination, lagging behind the cent, dime and nickel, in that order. Several scarce Washington quarters originated in the 1930s, including the 1932-D, 1932-S and 1934 doubled-die obverse. Others bring only modest prices. Coin Prices lists 14 different Very Fine-20 Washington quarters from the 1930s at less than $10.


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