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Retreating gray clouds gave way to a ray of light providing color to the sordid streets of depression-era America. The Washington quarter was more than just a coin, it was a physical representation of the nation’s pride and fortitude in the midst of uncertainty, and its desire for economic rebirth. The coin would commemorate the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth and would need a design as grand as the event it was honoring.
A competition to determine the new design was held by the Treasury department (in collaboration with the Commission of Fine Arts and the Washington Bicentennial Commission). Ninety-eight people entered the competition and brought 100 designs with them. In the end, the lot was whittled down to two viable designs, one by Laura Gardin Fraser and the other by John Flanagan. A heated debate would ensue between supporters of both designs. Ultimately, the decision was left in the hands of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and it was Flanagan’s design that was chosen.
Based on a bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon, Flanagan’s design features Washington’s left profile on its obverse. The founding father holds his head high while his braided hair falls toward the year-date. The inscription “LIBERTY” curves above the top of the coin. The motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” sits on the lower left side of the coin. The coin’s reverse features America’s bald eagle perched on top a log with wings its spread. The “P,” “D,” or “S” mintmark (representing the Philadelphia, Denver, or San Francisco mint, respectively) is sandwiched between a wreath and the inscription “QUARTER DOLLAR.” The inscription “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” balances atop the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM.”
Despite its sixty-six year lifespan, the Washington quarter has only undergone one facelift since its inception. In 1975, the Treasury held a contest to determine new designs for the coin’s reverse. The change would commemorate the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. With a chance to receive a $5,000 prize and (more importantly) make history, the competition drew entrants from all across the nation. Judges considered more than 1,000 entries before deciding upon a design created by engraver Jack Ahr.
Ahr’s reverse design featured a colonial drummer boy being guided by the light of a floating victory torch. Thirteen stars circle the torch, while the inscription “E PLURIBUS UNUM” rests beneath it. The inscription “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” bends about the top of the coin, and the denomination “QUARTER DOLLAR” curves around the bottom.
The coin’s obverse does not deviate much from Flanagan’s original design; Washington appears to have been rendered with greater detail. Furthermore, the coin employs a dual date “1776-1976” to commemorate the bicentennial. Before 1980s, coins from the Philadelphia mint were struck with no mintmark (“P” mintmark). Otherwise, the mintmark appears on the lower right side of the coin.
Although we live in a new day and age, the Washington quarter has yet to outlive its intended purpose. It is and always will be a reminder of the tenacity that carries this nation through its darkest times of economic turmoil.