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The Original Commemorative Quarter

1893 Isabella QuarterContent Partner: Pinnacle-Rarities

We’ve entered the last year of the popular modern commemorative quarter program. For better or worse, all fifty states have created designs and the final mintages will hit the nation’s cash registers during the remainder of the year. While I find these final five designs attractive, they (like their modern predecessors) lack the historical depth and symbolisms many of their classic commemorative cousins encompassed. And, as I look over the 2008 proof set that just crossed my desk, my mind goes back to the original commemorative quarter.

The 1893 Isabella Quarter, was created for the Columbian Exposition. $10,000 of the funds intended for the Board of Lady Mangers at the Expo was delivered in the form of forty thousand of these commemorative quarters. The board had been formed at the urging of woman’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony, who felt both genders should be represented in the managerial makeup of this great national project the expo had become. The inclusion of a coin to commemorate female contributions to industry seems almost trifling by today’s standards. But the Woman’s Suffrage movement was full steam ahead at the time. In fact, women didn’t legally win the right to vote until Colorado adapted an amendment to allow them to do so, during this year, 1893. A cause Anthony had championed over the previous two and a half decades. What seems like just a novel idea now, was a veritable coup at the time. The quarter served not only to raise money for the cause, but as a sort of name recognition ad for the woman’s rights movement. And it fueled the growing fires of suffrage. The coins were to be sold at the fair for $1 each. A premium over face that was obscene to some. For this and a variety of other reasons, thousands went unsold during the fair. The balance was slowly sold off to dealers during the coming decade.

The dies were prepared by Charles Barber, presumably from sketches done by Kenyon Cox. Later research has brought this into question. But regardless of where the original ideas came from, the coin is wrought with symbolism – especially the reverse. The use of a monarch on the obverse is somewhat controversial, but considering what event the coin was supposed to commemorate, it was a natural choice. Queen Isabella was the backing Christopher Columbus needed to fund his adventure. The reverse is simply described in most numismatic literature as a kneeling woman holding a distaff, the spool used to hold unspun cotton. This image is now reported to represent “woman in industry.” This may be the case but, Barber’s image would have meant a lot more to the people in his time.

First, the word distaff carried a more pertinent meaning in 1893. We understand it to be the spools used as part of the process in making wool and cotton thread. We therefore attribute its inclusion here to emphasize women’s part in industry or more specifically the textile industry. However, in 1893 the word distaff was used to describe a woman, a woman’s work or women collectively. This definition is lost to modern collectors.

During the turn of the last century, this synonym for woman in the workplace was a powerful image. But there’s more! Her body’s position on the reverse is an obvious play on an early hard times token promoting woman’s suffrage. That alone is interesting, but this particular kneeling woman was used for its visual likeness to a similar anti-slavery movement image. The Isabella Quarter’s image wasn’t well received and surely the connection with slavery (only a few decades from the Civil War) met with mixed emotions. Again, the slavery connection is lost to all but the best read modern collector.

In 1893, The American Journal of Numismatics unfavorably reviewed the design of this and the Columbian half dollar stating, “If these two coins really represent the highest achievements of our medalists and our mints, under the inspiration of an opportunity without restrictions, the like of which has never been presented hitherto in history of our national coinage, we might as well despair of its future.” What would this reviewer say about the modern Wyoming state quarter?

Many Isabella quarters went unsold during the fair, a fact that must be attributed to the poor reception and the lack of commitment by fair goers to the woman’s liberation movement. Other factors contributed, but coin sales were initially unfavorable. These early commemorative coins have now become collector favorites. And, as I look over the 50 State quarters complete collection, no design carries the weight that this the original commemorative quarter held. In today’s world of political correctness, our over zealous Mint will likely never produce the meaningful designs that this and many of the classic counterparts cleared the way for.

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