While the pomp and circumstance surrounding the 50 State Quarters program is behind us, no program during our lifetimes will have a bigger impact on American coin collecting.
As children of the '70s and '80s, the coin that brought us into the hobby was the 1776-1976 Bicentennial quarter with the famous reverse designed by Jack Ahr. Now, without that quarter and the lessons learned from its production, the 50 State Quarters program would never have existed. But that coin (along with the bicentennial Kennedy half and Eisenhower dollar) was chump change compared to the State Quarter program.
The program was born in the Citizens Commemorative Coin Advisory Committee and didn't become law until Mint Director Philip Diehl (a former CCAC Chair) was able to convince Congressional leaders to back the plan. Diehl points to Mike Castle, a former Republican Senator from Delaware, as one of the bill's key supporters. Castle stood to benefit from the program as his state would be the first one commemorated since Diehl's version of the program called for the states to be honored at a rate of five per year in order of their entrance into the Union.
So in 1997, one year after it was initially proposed, the House and Senate passed the bill into law. The first quarters were released in 1999* to great fanfare and the immediate frenzy of speculators.
*Interestingly, the legislation also authorized transitional coinage using the old design to be produced in 1999 bearing the 1998 date.
When Diehl was nominated to head up the Mint in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, he saw the need to transform the Mint bureaucracy on a management level and to streamline the means of production. All of this was necessary, Diehl told us in a phone interview, to give the Mint the capacity to pull off the ambitious quarter program. The Denver Mint needed a die shop and the Mint in general needed more efficiency from the presses - efficiency made possible by the Schuler press, which produced more coins with fewer dies.
The Mint also had to get on board with creating a circulating product that fostered collecting. Something like the 50 State Quarters program would have been unthinkable just thirty years before when the Mint was sure that collectors were causing a coin shortage. The Mint of the '60s threatened collectors with a date freeze, stopped production of proof and mint sets, and even eliminated mint marks. Contrast that with a program that saw the release of 240 different coins (including circulation strikes, satin finish strikes, and clad and silver proofs) over a period of ten years.
The finite striking window and constant new releases meant that the Mint was continuously creating buzz and drawing attention to coins. This, along with myriad forms of promotion used by coin dealers and the rest of the industry, elevated coinage to the forefront of American consciousness. The Mint's State Quarters effort was a huge success, and six additional circulating commemorative programs and two commemorative bullion programs have followed in the years since.
The Program Made Cents
From a design perspective, the coins were a mixed bag. The Treasury Department famously worried about the "Disneyfication" of American coinage, and one could argue that John Flanagan's 60-year-old design was compromised by moving the inscriptions from the reverse to the obverse to make room for the rotating reverse designs. Also, the aesthetic quality of the state designs is hit or miss. Nevertheless, these complaints are highly subjective, and the passage of time has a curious tendency to change the way an artistic object is considered.
What's not in doubt is the excitement the series brought to everyday Americans and how the quarters planted the seed of coin collecting in the minds of both young and old. Sophisticated collectors may chuff off the thought of paying much attention to a series with production runs in the hundreds of millions, but the fact remains that the same 50 State Quarters program that brought millions of people into the hobby - if even just for a short time - will bring many of them back in the decades to come.
In the current environment, we think so much about worth, rarity, and value. Is a coin going to be worth more tomorrow than what we paid for it today? Will the demand be there in the future? Am I buying this coin at the right price? All of these are worthwhile considerations, but we'd like to add one more: importance. The 50 State Quarters program may not be worth a whole lot for the time being, and paying significant premiums in order to own a high grade specimen may be a dubious proposition. But are the coins important? You bet they are. No coin series produced in the past 50 years will prove to be as important for the hobby as this. It'll be the gift that keeps on giving for generations to come and we believe the truly special specimens are still out there, waiting to be discovered. You can bank on it.