Among coin collectors, the commemorative coins issued by the U.S. Mint, supply a wide assortment to pique one’s interest. The commemoratives celebrate people, places and events important to society, and the Isabella Quarter is no exception. The Isabella Quarter was not only one of the first U.S. commemoratives coins, but it was the first commemorative quarter, and one of the most unusual. It celebrates the women’s role in industry, and believe it or not, it was issued in 1893 in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
By 1890, Susan B. Anthony was lecturing throughout the country on behalf of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. At the same time, Bertha Honoré Palmer, the wife of Potter Palmer of the Palmer House in Chicago, was focusing her attentions on improving the education and economic status of women, and was backing the ideological principle of equal pay for equal work. Susan B. Anthony saw the World’s Columbian Exposition as a stage upon which women could have an active voice in the administration and presentation of exhibits dealing with women’s interests. She enthusiastically petitioned both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate for a ‘Board of Lady Managers’ to oversee women’s activities at the fair. Congress approved funding for a Women’s Building and related expenses, and Bertha Honoré Palmer was appointed as president of the ‘Board of Lady Managers.’
Since construction for the fair was behind schedule, and the exposition’s opening was postponed until 1893, Mrs. Palmer used this opportunity to travel abroad to generate interest in the fair, and her international connections proved to be extremely successful. Not only did she secure a place at the fair to build the Women’s Building, designed by a woman architect, which was to house works by and about women, but she also managed to persuade some of Europe’s royal women to lend display materials, and she secured space in each state building to include exhibits of female interest.
Bertha Honoré Palmer then turned her attention to Congress’ Appropriations Committee. Following the lead of the souvenir Columbian Exposition commemorative half-dollar, to be produced to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America, Mrs. Potter lobbied and procured funding in the form of 40,000 commemorative quarters. In keeping with the female theme, she insisted on a female effigy on the coin, and what could be more fitting then Columbus’ benefactor, Queen Isabella of Spain.
In March 1893, the Mint Director Edward O. Leech informed the ‘Board of Lady Managers,’ that they needed to forward the likeness of Queen Isabella to be used on the commemorative quarter. In this way, it would save both time and money in production. Having some idea of the politics within government, it has been reported that Susan B. Anthony advised Mrs. Palmer to ignore the Mint Director’s request and to pursue the commemorative quarter through normal channels. Bertha Palmer wanted to keep with an all female input into the design, and selected a New York artist, and student of the famed sculptor, Augustus St.Gaudens, by the name of Caroline Peddle to create the design. This action greatly offended the Chief Engraver, Charles Barber, and all chances for approval of Peddle’s design was quashed. Charles Barber chose artist Kenyon Cox, who had painted several murals and illustrations at the exposition, to prepare sketches from which Barber personally created models and dies for the new quarter.
Charles Barber’s design of the Isabella Quarter features the crowned bust of the young Queen on the obverse. The legend encircling the bust reads UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and the date 1893 is found to the right of the Queen’s image. The design on the reverse features what was thought to be the major industry of women, at that time. It depicts a kneeling woman, holding a distaff, which was used for spinning wool or flax, in her left hand, and a spindle in her right. Surrounding the image, on the coin’s border, the inscription reads BOARD OF LADY MANAGERS and COLUMBIAN QUAR. DOL.
The Philadelphia Mint began production on the 40,000 quarters on June 13, 1893 about six weeks after the Columbian Exposition opened. Estimates of somewhere between 40 to 100 proof struck coins were made in addition to the 3 special documented proof quarters. The three special documented proofs were coins #400 (for the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America), #1492 (the year of Columbus’s discovery), and #1892 (for the anniversary year). These special proofs were presented to the ‘Board of Lady Managers.’
The Isabella Quarters were sold as souvenirs for $1.00 each at the Women’s Building on the fair grounds. Even though an estimated 27.5 million visitors (including about 25% of the population of the United States) attended the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, only a small quantity of the quarters sold. Ultimately, 15,809 pieces were returned to the mint for melting, which left a net mintage of 24,191 Isabella Quarters (including proofs).
The Isabella Quarter was the first U.S. coin to feature the portrait of an actual female; the first commemorative quarter; and, the only U.S. coin to feature a woman on both sides of the coin. The Isabella Quarter is a key coin to any collector of U.S. commemoratives coins, as well as to many woman collectors for what it represents. In a review of the World’s Columbian Exposition and the role played by women, “The Cosmopolitan” wrote in September 1893, “To compare the exhibit of Women’s work with that of previous expositions is to realize that a revolution has been effected, not alone in woman’s position, but in modern civilization.”
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