Q. David Bowers
Creation of the Isabella Quarter
In January 1893, well after the Columbian half dollar was a reality, Mrs. Potter Palmer, well-known Chicago socialite, patron of the arts, and grande dame of the Exposition. (Her husband owned the Palmer House, a leading hotel, and was also involved in merchandising.) suggested to the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives that $10,000 of the money earmarked for the Board of Lady Managers of the World's Columbian Exposition be given in the form of a special issue of souvenir (as they were called) quarter dollars. This was translated into a law approved March 3, 1893, which stated that the production of these quarters would not exceed 40,000 and that the pieces would be of standard weight and fineness. Like the Columbian half dollars, the quarters would be made from metal taken from uncurrent silver coins held by the Treasury Department.
The Board of Lady Managers had been formed at the insistence of Susan B. Anthony, who was determined that women should be adequately represented in the administration of the Exposition. Interestingly, there was also a Board of Gentlemen Managers, but this did not get much publicity, as it was taken for granted. The Board of Lady Managers took complete charge of the quarter-dollar project and stated that the coins were to have female motifs. Kenyon Cox, a well-known illustrator, was commissioned to prepare sketches, apparently furnishing motifs that were eventually modified by Charles E. Barber at the Mint. However, another artist, Caroline C. Peddle, one of Cox's former art students, was also heavily involved and furnished sketches, all of which were eventually rejected." For the obverse, a depiction of Queen Isabella of Spain was suggested, for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella furnished the financing for Columbus' voyage of discovery, Isabella vowing to pledge her crown and jewels if necessary (according to popular legend).
In April 1893 the Treasury Department responded by submitting its own two obverse designs to the Board of Lady Managers, one sketch showing Isabella as a young queen (this was eventually chosen) and the other with a facing head of Isabella as an adult. Thus the Isabella quarter, as it was soon to be designated, became the first legal tender United States coin to depict a foreign monarch.
The sketch for the reverse design depicted a woman kneeling, holding a distaff, showing woman's industry, although an alternative suggestion was that an illustration of the Woman's Building at the fair would be appropriate. The models and dies for the Isabella quarter were prepared by Charles E. Barber, chief engraver of the Mint, who also designed the obverse of the Columbian half dollar.
The American Journal of Numismatics in October 1893 reviewed the design: "Of its artistic merit, as of the harmony of which is reported to have prevailed at the meetings of the [Board of Lady Managers of the Woman's Department at the Exposition], perhaps the less said the better; we do not know who designed it, but in this instance, as in the half dollar, the contrast between examples of the numismatic art of the nation, as displayed on the Columbian coins, on the one hand, and the spirited and admirable work of the architects of the buildings, for instance, on the other, is painful.
"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 the history of our national coinage, we might as well despair of its future, and we should be forced to believe that the merely mechanical side of the art of coining was all that was thought worthy of attention. We are not ready to admit this to be true."
Further from the same quotation: "Washington Irving once said: 'In America literature and the elegant arts must grow up side by side with the coarser plants of daily necessity. The latter, surely, have not languished; the cultivation of the former, we firmly believe, is destined to reach as high a standard; but we must admit that we shall search in vain in our national coinage for evidence to sustain our confidence."
The account went on to note that the figure on the reverse of the Isabella quarter was "mournfully suggestive of the old anti-slavery token, AM I NOT A WOMAN AND A SISTER." (A relatively common token designated as Low-54 in the book, Hard Times Tokens, by Lyman H. Low, 1900.)
Cornelius Vermeule in his superb study, Numismatic Art in America, commented that the motif of the kneeling woman on the reverse with distaff and spindle" could in 1892 [sic] owe pose and some details of drapery to a servant girl from the East Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, work of about 460 B. C. with additions and revisions in the first or second centuries A.D. Nowadays the coin seems charming for its quaintness and its Victorian flavor, a mixture of cold Hellenism and Renaissance romance. Perhaps one of its greatest joys is that none of the contemporary inscriptions, mottoes and such, appear on it." (A reference to such statutory words and phrases as E PLURIBUS UNUM, LIBERTY, and IN GOD WE TRUST. Including these words often taxed the imaginations of coin designers.)
By spring 1893 the newspapers had had their day with the Columbian half dollars, and little public or journalistic curiosity or interest remained for the 1893 Isabella quarter. Just a few scattered notices appeared in print, of which the following is typical:
"Mrs. Potter Palmer feels confident that the Isabella silver souvenir coins, granted by Congress to the Board of Lady Managers, will be ready for distribution by May 1st. There are but 40,000 of them, Congress having appropriated $10,000 to be minted in coins at 25Â¢ each, and already there are indications of efforts to buy them in quantities or 'corner' them.
"In some respects the Isabella souvenir coin may be an even greater novelty than the Columbus half dollar, since it is the first coin minted by the authority of the United States in special recognition of the place of women in the government, the state, or in great social and industrial movements. That the coins will command a premium, and proportionately a large premium, would seem to be certain, and already the Board of Lady Managers has received many communications accompanied by substantial checks offering to pay a handsome round sum for the first coin of the series.
"The coin itself will be of extremely artistic and beautiful design, and the issue will be one of perfect finish and involving the same care and painstaking attention as are given to the coining of the Columbian half dollars. The woman's coin will be stamped with the portrait of Isabella of Spain, the first coin ever issued by this government bearing the portrait of a woman. (The unknown writer of this unattributed newspaper account overlooked other women depicted on U.S. coins to that point, in the form of many personifications of Miss Liberty, various of which were modeled by real women, including (to cite just one example) Miss Anna Williams' portrait on the 1878 and later Morgan silver dollars. However, Queen Isabella was the first woman to be specifically identified on a United States coin.) The general design is now being made by Kenyon Cox.