For the first time since the Susan B. Anthony dollar wobbled into history two decades ago, Americans have a new reason to keep an eye on their money. The U.S. Mint, perhaps the most dust-covered of all the federal bureaucracies, is allowing each of the 50 states a chance to breathe new life into our most prized piece of change, the quarter.
Not too much life, mind you: George Washington still presides on the front. But until 2009, the traditional spread eagle on the back is giving way to something a little more, well, regional.
It's about time, you might be thinking. We can finally get coins as eye-catching as, say, postage stamps, or as fun as the truly au courant currency of our neighbor to the north, which now features families of polar bears and millennial fireworks.
The possibilities are endless. Not since the bicentennial has the quarter taken on a new look. Will Elvis grace the coin of Tennessee? How about a salute to neon lights and showgirls on the flip side of Nevada?
Not likely. Our quarters are looking different, but so far -- 18 months and eight new designs into the project -- the states have stuck with the tried and true and, of course, the politically correct. After all, the governors are overseeing the individual selections.
"There seems to be more of a political motivation in choosing an image instead of just saying what's appealing," said Ute Wartenberg, executive director of the American Numismatic Society.
"My favorite is the oak on Connecticut's [coin]. It's a very attractive design," Wartenberg said.
Critics, both amateur and professional, agree: Connecticut is winning the aesthetic competition for its choice of an ancient, majestic tree, known asthe Charter Oak. For some, the fact that the tree once played a role in the state's early political history is an added bonus.
Wartenberg, an expert on ancient Greek coins, is also partial to Delaware's "classic" design of a horse and rider. The rider, the coin tells us, is Caesar Rodney and the implication is that he is speeding to the Continental Congress to cast the deciding vote for the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Yeah, okay, whatever.
"There has never been a U.S. coinage design that everyone liked. There is a wide variety of opinion about what is appropriate," said William Gibbs, news editor of Coin World magazine. Gibbs also votes for Connecticut's oak.
"Part of the thing is that these first states have a lot of history," said Thomas Rogers, an engraver for the U.S. Mint. "You may see more contemporary designs further down the line."
Rogers is one of six engravers at the Mint who sculpt the final images. His handiwork can so far be seen on the Massachusetts, Maryland and South Carolina coins.
The first to come close to what might be called a modern scene will beRhode Island's quarter, which arrives next year. In a composition that experts call very promising, a yacht at full sail cruises near a suspension bridge in the Narragansett Bay. But, experts say, you can't really tell how an image will turn out until you see the minted coin.
Rhode Island's choice may also be the least politically correct image so far. Those who know that the featured boat was the 1903 America's Cup winner, Reliance, will also remember the Ocean State's history as a playground for the very, very rich.
In most cases, governors have chosen to satisfy constituents' opinions about the choice of the image, with far less emphasis on the originality of the design or the strength of the composition. Most have allowed the public to cast votes on a series of finalists.
Not surprisingly, after Gov. Paul Cellucci made a special effort to involve school children in the selection, Massachusetts opted for a Minuteman -- part of the colonial militia that helped defeat the British in the Revolutionary War. "If you ask kids for a design, probably 100 are going to come up with the Minuteman idea," said Michael White of the U.S. Mint.
New Jersey's coin, a rendition of George Washington crossing the Delaware, comes from a famous painting that dates to 1851.
Other states have gone for traditional state symbols. Maryland chose its statehouse dome. Georgia picked a peach. New York's quarter, to appear early next year, will feature -- you guessed it -- the Statue of Liberty.
Even that choice caused controversy, according to Ute Wartenberg, who works in New York City. Some upstate residents objected because Lady Liberty is too closely identified with the Big Apple.
Go Figya. A project intended to enliven the hobbies of coin collectors has become ensnared in turf battles.
Ohio, where designs celebrating the state's aviation history are heavy favorites, must contend with the fact that North Carolina has already chosen to depict Orville and Wilbur Wright's first flight at Kitty Hawk.
According to Andrea Stander of the Vermont Arts Council, Vermonters have argued over whether the state's famous Camel's Hump Mountain should be seen from the east or the west.
Of course the Mint bears a good part of the responsibility for the new artwork. It has strict dos and don'ts for picking an appropriate design.
In the case of South Carolina's quarter, Mint engraver Tom Rogers decided to add a rendition of his own to the state's suggestions and developed a design featuring the state map, the Carolina Wren and the Palmetto tree. Apparently, South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges liked Rogers' design best.
The most unusual pick so far? New Hampshire. The Granite State has asked the Mint to reproduce, literally, the face of a mountain on its quarter. Called the Old Man of the Mountain, the craggy human profile is one of New Hampshire's most famous landmarks. The coin world is waiting anxiously for its debut sometime this fall.
All indications are that the 50-state quarters are fulfilling their goal of raising interest in collecting.
Collectors don't always consider whether coins are nice to look at, said Wartenberg. "It might be an academic question to ask whether it's beautiful or not."
In fact, the project is proving so popular some of the coins have disappeared from circulation altogether. Both Caesar Rodney and Pennsylvania's depiction of the statue Commonwealth are already very hard to come by, Wartenberg says.
Because it costs just $.05 to make each quarter, the Mint expects to earn between $6 and $12 billion over the life of the program. More than 100 million people are collecting the coins, most from circulation rather than by purchasing collectors' editions, according to Michael White of the Mint, making the quarters arguably as popular as Beanie Babies.
Coin collectors used "to always complain that the design didn't change and there wasn't anything to collect from circulation," said Gibbs of Coin World. "That isn't true anymore.