The vast majority of the classic United States commemorative coins struck from 1892 through 1954 are half dollars, which were issued to honor various people, places, and events in United States history. A handful of these classic commemorative coins were denominations other than half dollars, with the bulk of these “others” a smattering commemorative gold coinage representing various denominations. There is also a silver dollar counted in the canon of classic U.S. commemoratives. Then there is one lone classic commemorative quarter dollar – a coin that marked several firsts for United States coinage. That coin is the 1893 Isabella Quarter.
The story of the 1893 Isabella Quarter is tied to the issuance of the World’s Columbian Exposition Half Dollars of 1892 and 1893, the first true commemorative coins ever issued by the United States Mint and produced in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The 1893 Isabella Quarter was conceived by the Board of Lady Managers, an alliance of female officials organized by woman’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony to help oversee aspects of the World’s Columbian Exposition, including the Women’s Building – a pavilion at the event.
Among the Board of Lady Managers was Mrs. Potter Palmer, a Chicago socialite who proposed the quarter to the United States House of Representatives Appropriations Committee. The Isabella Quarter was designed to honor the sociopolitical achievements of women and would be sold at the fair for fundraising efforts. On March 3, 1893, Congress authorized the production of 40,000 Isabella Quarters, which the Philadelphia Mint began striking on June 13 of that year.
The obverse of the coin designed by Charles E. Barber honors Spain’s Queen Isabella (in Spain, known as Queen Isabel), who sponsored Christopher Columbus’s journey across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492. On the reverse is a kneeling spinner with distaff, someone who uses cotton or wool to produce thread and, as a design feature on this coin, symbolizes women’s industry. The Isabella Quarter represents the first United States commemorative quarter-dollar, as well as the first United States coin to portray an actual woman instead of an emblematic female figure, as most commonly seen in the form of the goddess “Liberty.” The Isabella Quarter also became the first United States coin to depict a foreign sovereign figure, as seen in the royal likeness of Queen Isabel.
The 1893 Isabella Quarter also holds the distinction as the nation’s last commemorative quarter-dollar for many decades. While the 1932 Washington Quarter was originally intended as a bicentennial coin to mark the 200th birthday of our nation’s first president, the Washington-themed coin soon became a regular issue and remains so today. The 1776-1976 Bicentennial Quarters serve a commemorative role marking the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and preceded the first of the 50 State Quarters, struck beginning in 1999, by nearly a quarter century.
While the Isabella Quarter boasts many firsts, it did not manage to sell through the 40,000 examples that were minted. The Board of Lady Managers and their friends bought about 10,000 pieces at face value, while the rest were offered to the public at an original asking price of $1 – the same asking price as the Columbian Half Dollar. Many refused to spend $1 for the Isabella Quarter when that same dollar could buy a coin worth twice as much in face value.
Roughly 15,000 specimens of the Isabella Quarter were sold to the public – some at the fair, and some via mail order. Though perhaps few ever traded hands for their full issue price of $1. According to Max Mehl, one of the most prominent coin dealers of the early 20th century, a member of the Board of Lady Managers sold a large but undisclosed number of pieces over the years that followed the Columbian Exposition, though he didn’t name names. Several thousand other Isabella Quarters are also believed to have been sold to other coin and hobby entrepreneurs of the late 19th century and, transacted in bulk quantities, these quarters would have surely been sold at a discounted rate.
Ultimately, the United States Mint melted 15,809 unsold pieces, with 24,214 sold or otherwise distributed. The vast majority of these are estimated to survive today, with about 20,000 across all grades. Of those, more than 16,000 exist in grades of MS60 or better, with the remainders showing mostly cabinet friction or other forms of mishandling. Very few Isabella Quarters ever entered circulation. Meanwhile, a tiny number of proofs was also issued, possibly totaling around 100 specimens. The proofs are extremely rare, and the record price paid for one belongs to a PCGS PR65 that realized $51,750 in a 2013 Legend Rare Coin Auctions event.
Most other Isabella Quarters aren’t nearly so expensive, particularly examples of the much more common business-strike format. The majority grade in the MS62 to MS64 range, with prices for PCGS-graded examples of these coins selling for about $400 to $500. Bargain seekers can pluck an AU specimen for $200 to $250, while those who desire the nicest pieces will gravitate toward the relatively small number of examples grading MS65 or better. These gems top the $1,000 mark, with the rare pieces grading MS66 or better selling for north of $1,500. To date, PCGS has graded only four in MS68 and just three in MS68+, and these few top-level examples are eagerly sought by PCGS Set Registry members who can expect to pay out $50,000 or more to own one such gorgeous example.
- Breen, Walter. Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. And Colonial Coins. Doubleday, 1988.
- Swiatek, Anthony. Encyclopedia of the Commemorative Coins of the United States. KWS Publishers, 2012.
- “The 1893 Isabella Quarter is in a Class of its Own.” Numismatic News. July 2, 2019.