Since the George Washington quarter first rolled off the presses in 1932, the coin's design has remained largely unchanged until recently. But thanks to the U.S. Mint's 50 state quarters program, that's no longer the case.
Midway through an eight-year initiative that began in 1999, 24 states have put their imprint on the "tail" side of the coin.
"This is a program that's been much more popular than we ever anticipated," said Michael White, a spokesman for the U.S. Mint. With an estimated 130 million Americans collecting state quarters, White said the program has "transformed and reinvigorated coin collecting."
Second only to the 1976 bicentennial quarter, the state quarters are collectors' coins designed specifically for circulation and the program incorporates state history and education and invokes state pride, coin experts agreed.
Replacing the time-honored eagle on the flipside, states have come up with markings they've deemed more indicative of their heritage and personality.
Charged with approving a final design, almost every governor has solicited some form of public input via quarter design contests, promotional campaigns or online voting, said Steve Bobbitt, spokesman for the American Numismatic Association, a group based in Colorado Springs, Colo., that represents coin collectors. Massachusetts asked elementary school students to draw submissions. And in Missouri, where the state quarter was put into circulation just this week, more than 212,000 residents cast online votes, according to Beth Hofherr, assistant to the Missouri First Lady, Lori Hauser Holden, who commissioned the quarter contest.
The quarter program is the brainchild of U.S. Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.), a former Delaware governor, who headed the House banking subcommittee that oversees coinage. The measure was approved by Congress as is mandatory with all changes to coinage in December 1997.
"This turned out to be a very positive thing for states, by rekindling state history and also by serving as a moneymaker for the federal government," said Paul Leonard, Castle's chief of staff.
Every time someone saves a quarter, the federal government earns about 22 cents. Each quarter valued at 25 cents costs only 3 cents to produce. The profits go directly back to the Mint to reduce the federal deficit, said Leonard, who estimates earnings over the 10-year program will reach into the billions of dollars.
The Mint permits states to submit three to five design ideas that are approved ultimately by the U.S. Treasury secretary. The governors then make the final call.
Each year, five states are honored with new quarters. The releases take place in chronological order determined by the date the state ratified the Constitution or joined the Union explaining why Delaware was the first state to release a coin. The program may be extended until 2009 to include U.S. territories such as the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Designs run the gamut from conventional to quirky, but coin experts said the most popular designs are often the simplest, with only one or two design elements. For example, Connecticut's quarter features an engraving of the state's dramatic Charter Oak tree.
"Some (designs) speak to a specific historical event, but a lot of them touch on the state in other ways," said Michele Orzano, a senior staff writer at Coin World magazine. South Carolina and Georgia stuck to traditional concepts an outline of the state surrounded by regional flora and fauna. As the "Magnolia State," Mississippi opted simply for flower blossoms. The New York quarter features a majestic Statue of Liberty.
Other states recall historical mile-stones. New Jersey's quarter is modeled after a famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War. The North Carolina coin commemorates the Wright brother's first flight. Alabama's quarter depicts the likeness of Helen Keller, while Illinois chose "Honest" Abraham Lincoln.
Other states have chosen more timely representations. Indiana's quarter boasts a racecar to celebrate the Indianapolis 500. And Tennessee strikes a chord with a guitar and a trumpet in reference the state's contribution to blues and folk music.
But the coins have been garnering attention from more than just school children and avid coin connoisseurs. In California, actress and coin collector Penny Marshall did public service spots to promote the design contest in the state, Bobbitt said. And comic Conan O'Brien has even featured his own less-politically correct suggestions for state quarters on his late-night NBC talk show.
"Attention can be positive or negative, but certainly the designs generate a lot of passion among collectors and even folks we would not consider collectors," Orzano told Stateline.org. "People have real strong ideas about what their state represents and even stronger ideas about what the coin should have on it."
In Maine, citizens challenged the type of ship Mint engravers had chosen and the design element was changed to suit Mainer's wishes.
Perhaps the most notable debate arose in Missouri, where an artist disagreed with the Mint's interpretation of his design. The artist protested in Washington, D.C. outside the Mint and at the Illinois quarter release by pasting his own design onto thousands of quarters and handing them out to bystanders, coin watchers said. The Mint has since changed its policy for design submissions. For all states -- except California -- that are scheduled for release in or after 2005 the Mint will only accept written design "concepts" and no longer visual renditions.
"We expect people to have strong opinions about the symbols that represent their state," the Mint's White said.
Some governors term-limited out of office in last November's elections sped up the coin selection process so they could "put their determination on what the coin would look like," the ANA's Bobbitt said.