Politics, Discrimination and the Washington Quarter

Politics, Discrimination and the Washington Quarter
The most heavily collected coins today are the Statehood Quarters commemorating each of our 50 states. These new quarters first issued in 1999, have taken the rolls of coin collectors in the United States to over 125 million, according to the US Mint figures. Of course, we all know that these new state designs are being placed on the Washington Quarter, but few collectors are aware the original issue of the Washington Quarter, in 1932, was initially meant to be a one-year only commemorative, and the distinguished sculptor, Laura Gardin Fraser was eliminated as the coin’s designer strictly because the Treasury Secretary just didn’t want a woman as a coin designer.

It was in the early part of the year 1931 that the Treasury proposed that a coin be issued in 1932 for the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington. Congress approved this coin be the quarter and it was to be a one-year only issue. The Treasury along with the Washington Bicentennial Commission cosponsored a design competition. With the rules being set by the federal Commission of Fine Arts, this open competition stated, that the portrait of Washington to appear on the obverse (front) of the coin must by based on the Houdon bust which was archived at Mount Vernon.

The sculptor, Laura Gardin Fraser entered the competition. She was not an unknown in the industry of coin design. As a matter of fact, she was quite well know through her work as co-designer (along with her husband) of the commemorative 1926 Oregon Trail Memorial Half Dollar. The winner was picked by, both, the Washington Bicentennial Commission and the federal Commission of Fine Arts. It was Laura Gardin Fraser.

Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon didn’t agree with the commissions’ choice and called for a second competition. In October 1931, the new winner was announced. Again, Laura Gardin Fraser was honored. Mellon was outraged. He over-ruled both commissions and chose the John Flanagan design, whose design he favored from the beginning. It was later learned that Mellon was just unwilling to let a woman win. Early in 1932, Ogden L. Mills replaced Mellon as Treasury Secretary. The commissions wrote to Mills urging him to honor the true winner of the competition by ordering the US Mint to produce Mrs. Fraser’s coin design. Ogden Mills refused to contradict Mellon’s ruling, and the John Flanagan design went into production.

It turns out, the Flanagan designed was not suited to coin production, and it caused the US Mint many problems. Washington’s hair and facial features often lacked any detail, and the motto In God We Trust appeared faint and blurred. For some reason, the general public loved this quarter when it was issued in 1932. It wasn’t issued in 1933, but an act of Congress made this coin a regular issue beginning in 1934.

Laura Gardin Fraser was a woman ahead of her time in an industry totally dominated by male sculptors, although this no longer seems to holds true in coin design. Numismatists know her name and her designs. She was deprived of designing the Washington quarter for the Bicentennial. Could it be possible for her design to be resurrected for the 2032 issue? It would take an act of Congress.

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