Two years into the U.S. Mint's State Commemorative Quarter program, the mint estimates that millions of Americans are collecting the coins. Many of the twenty-five cent pieces put into circulation so far have been subjects of public debates, so states that are still designing their coins are trying to submit proposals that are unique and non-controversial.
Final quarter designs are due July 23 for five states -- Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana and Mississippi. Coins honoring these states are scheduled for release in 2002.
The coin program started in 1999 and will continue until 2008. The Mint strikes five different quarters per year at approximately 10-week intervals. States are commemorated by order of admission. The program began with Delaware and will end with Hawaii..
Thirteen state quarters are now in circulation and the 14th, for the state of Vermont, is due out during the second week in August.
"The response has been nothing short of spectacular," said Allan Rosenberg, president of coinland.com. "The sheer number of people collecting (these coins) is phenomenal. There certainly is no lack of participants -- there is an enormous amount of interest."
Part of what makes the coins so fascinating is that they offer a new perspective on American history, said Michael White, a spokesman for the U.S. Mint.
"People had talked about changing the coin design for awhile, and this program gave us the opportunity to expand the role of coins in teaching," White said. "A great example of that is the very first quarter, the Delaware quarter, featuring the ride of Caesar Rodney."
Rodney was a delegate to the Continental Congress. On July 1, 1776, despite suffering from asthma and cancer, Rodney set off on the 80-mile journey to Philadelphia, arriving at Independence Hall just in time to cast the deciding vote in favor of independence.
"At first people thought (the horseback rider on the coin) it was Paul Revere and they asked 'Why is he on a Delaware coin?'' White said. "Now they know the story of Caesar Rodney. It's a great little piece of American history." Many of the early coins featured themes surrounding the American Revolution, but it was North Carolina's quarter, released earlier this year and featuring the Wright Brothers' Dec. 17, 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk, that sparked the most attention.
The Wright Brothers' famous flight is also a proposed feature on the Ohio quarter, due out next spring. That's because the Wright Brothers' home and bike shop were in Dayton. The Wright Brothers' depiction would be part of a larger 'Birthplace of Aviation' theme that would also highlight Ohio's contribution to space exploration (the state is home to more than 30 astronauts, more than any other state).
The possible conflict with the North Carolina coin originally bothered some members of the federal Commission of Fine Arts, which recommends designs to the secretary of the treasury for final approval.
The Mint favored a design featuring a cardinal - the state bird - and buckeye sprig, said Lee Yoakum, a spokesman for Ohio's Bicentennial Commission, which is coordinating design of the quarter.
"They thought the one featuring the state bird with an outline of the state would be a safer choice," Yoakum said. "But we felt the aviation theme was more reflective of Ohio; that it was more singularly Ohio. Seven or eight states have the cardinal as their state bird, but the aviation history is simply Ohio. This is an aviation theme more than a first flight celebration. Our quarter does not celebrate one event, it celebrates the history of aviation."
Ohio's proposed quarter is now awaiting final approval from Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.
Texas hopes to combine the efforts of both experts and the public in the design of its quarter. The state kicked off its quarter design drive on May 11 at the Texas Numismatic Association's (TNA) 43rd annual convention in Fort Worth. The competition will run through December 31.
The TNA and the Texas Quarter Dollar Coin Design Advisory Committee are working closely to coordinate designs for the quarter. The TNA created and printed thousands of official design entry forms and has established a 10-person committee to review each entry and select semi-finalists early next year.
TNA First Vice President Gary Hill said he expects more than 15,000 designs to be submitted to the committee before the end of the year.
Robert Estrada, a Dallas investment banker and chairman of the design advisory committee, said Texas officials were initially wary of conducting a public design competition because of the sheer number of submissions expected, and were excited about the TNA's volunteering to help.
"The society is one of the largest numismatic organizations in the country, and they had the resources," Estrada said. "We said, 'Let's just unleash the creativity out there. ' We're really wide open [to the possibilities for the quarter design]. There are so many different symbols of Texas. You have Western symbols, cowboys, longhorns, the oil industry, space headquarters -- there are so many competing mascots, a tremendous number of choices."
The Texas commemorative quarter will be minted in 2004, along with Michigan, Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The perpetual issue facing the Mint as the 50 State Quarter Program continues is minting the right number of quarters.
White said the Mint issued fewer than 800 million of each of the first three quarters: Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But within the first year of the program, the Mint realized it was going to have to coin more to keep enough quarters in circulation and account for the increasing number of collectors.
Today the Mint strikes between 1.1 and 1.6 billion issues of each quarter.
"There wasn't interest immediately, because I think it took awhile for the program to sink in with people and collectors," Rosenberg said. "There wasn't initially as much hoarding. But then I think the key was the timing kicking in, and all of a sudden the Mint saw it needed to make more coins because of course, commerce depends on having quarters."
Although the rarest quarter is New Jersey, with just 662 million minted, Rosenberg said the Delaware and Pennsylvania quarters are currently the most sought after by collectors. In addition to being rare, these quarters are endearing because they were the first, Rosenberg said.
White said the program has literally changed the face of money.
"This is a program that's really captured the public interest," he said. "It's even more popular than we first expected. It's transformed coin collecting from a very narrow hobby to something that is really very mainstream. Three years ago, if you had told someone coin collecting would have been as widespread as it is with these quarters, you wouldn't have been believed. But now anyone can start a collection anytime from their pocket change."