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The Contentious Beginning of the Washington Quarter and the End of the Matter

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In February of 1930, the US Congress revived the 1924 United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission, renamed the George Washington Bicentennial Committee to prepare for the 1932 bicentennial celebration of George Washington’s birth. Shortly thereafter, on April 21,1930 President Hoover vetoed a bill to issue a new commemorative half-dollar honoring President Washington.


Not deterred by the veto, the Bicentennial Committee went ahead with a contest to design a commemorative medal and half-dollar. In response to Hoover’s veto, the commission intended for a Washington Half-Dollar to be issued in lieu of the 1932 Walking Liberty Half-Dollar. (Incidentally, no half-dollars were coined in 1932.) Technically speaking then, the proposed Washington Half-Dollar would not be considered a commemorative but a regular issue coin. Furthermore, the Bicentennial Committee stipulated that the obverse device of the medal and half-dollar be based on a 1785 bust of George Washington sculpted by French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon. [1]


The Washington Bicentennial Committee and Fine Arts Commission expecting that the same artist would design both the medal and the coin, choose Laura Gardin Fraser’s design for the bicentennial medal. The Bicentennial Committee and Fine Arts Commission then assumed that Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon would have no objection to their plans for either the medal or half-dollar. [1] [2]


Interjecting themselves into the mix, Congress began making plans to permanently replace the Standing Liberty Quarter with a newly issued Washington Quarter. The Bicentennial Committee and Fine Arts Commission immediately petitioned Congress to mandate Laura Gardin Fraser’s design motifs. Congress without giving consideration to their request passed legislation on March 4,1931 to replace the Standing Liberty Quarter with the Washington Quarter. The Bicentennial Committee and Fine Arts Commission then appealed to Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. In his reply Secretary Mellon stated that he was under no obligation to abide by their recommendation and a new contest for the quarter ensued. [2]


In November of 1931 the Bicentennial Committee and Fine Arts Commission recommended to Secretary Mellon, Laura Gardin Fraser’s model for the Washington Quarter. However, Mellon favored John Flanagan's quarter design.

Because the Fine Arts Commission felt so strongly about the artistic superiority of Laura Gardin Fraser’s submission, they asked Secretary Mellon to give the artists more time to refine their designs. Still, Secretary Mellon preferred John Flanagan’s design over Mrs. Fraser’s. [2]


Finally, the Fine Arts Commission sent a strongly worded letter to Andrew Mellon’s successor Ogden L. Mills deploring John Flanagan's design for the quarter. That request was also rejected and John Flanagan’s Washington Quarter began its long run on August 1,1932. That said, whenever there are unresolvable conflicts in these matters between the treasury secretary and the Fine Arts Commission, the treasury secretary always has the final say. The role then of the Fine Arts Commission is only that of an advisory role. [1] [2]


The apparent conflict between the Fine Arts Commission and Secretary Mellon has fueled speculation as to why the secretary would reject a so-called superior design. Walter Breen blames Laura Gardin Fraser’s rejection on sexism by Secretary Mellon. David Bowers calls Breen’s accusation “numismatic fiction”. As for me, I think there is circumstantial evidence for both sides of that argument but hard evidence to support Bower’s view. [1] [3]


Rather, I think that either Andrew Mellon liked John Flanagan’s quarter design more than Mrs. Fraser’s or that he wanted to put the Fine Arts Commission in its place. As it turns out, both those opinions may be true. Regardless, the public liked their new quarter.


Many years after the fact, people in numismatic circles still believe that Mrs. Fraser was snubbed. Especially so when respected numismatic art critics like Cornelius Vermeil describe Mrs. Fraser’s quarter design as "Artistically, stunning. . . And technically, flawless; there's just no way to get all the required elements on the quarter and do it any better than Mrs. Fraser.“ [4]


Eventually, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s death in 1999, the US Mint posthumously revived Laura Gardin Frasers Washington Quarter design and adapted it to a commemorative half-eagle. While the treasury department did not admit to any wrong doing in 1932, it may have tacitly acknowledged the artistic merit of Laura Gardin Fraser’s design. With that, there is no need to argue the point any longer.


1 A Guidebook of Washington and State Quarters by Q. David Bowers

2 The US Mint and Coinage by Don Taxay

3 Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins

4 Numismatic Art in America by Cornelius Vermeule



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Some additional information from an internal Treasury Department memorandum:


February 25, 1930

TO: Mr. [Ogden] Mills, Undersecretary of the Treasury


Attached is a copy of H.R. 10203 to authorize the coinage of [three hundred thousand] $3 gold pieces in commemoration of the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of George Washington. This is probably the beginning of bills for this celebration. Our usual argument against such coinage could hardly apply very forcibly against a coin for this occasion, and Miss O’Reilly suggests that the Department take the initiative in the matter and recommend to Congress the enactment of legislation which would authorize the coinage of a George Washington 25¢ piece. We have a Lincoln penny, and a George Washington quarter no doubt would be a popular move.


(initials illegible)


[RG56 Entry 191 Box 032. Coins 1924-1932]


[A $2.50 gold coin was proposed in H.R. 9894 and S. 3219. Source: NARA RG 56, entry 191 box 032]


It also appears that Mellon's objections were two-fold: 1) he did not want the coin and medal commissions going to the same artist and preferred that Fraser have the more lucrative medal work. 2) Flanagan's obverse was OK, but the reverse showed a family of eagles, not the lone "hanging bat" submitted as a replacement after acceptance of the obverse. This composition was entirely unsuited to the quarter, although it might have been successful on the larger half dollar.


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