Vindicated by History: The 1893 Queen Isabella Commemorative Quarter

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

A few things I’ve picked up from researching early commemorative coins:

  • The people behind them always hope they can raise a ton of money for a pet project or monument or expo. They rarely do.
  • The designs usually get denigrated by the numismatic press – oftentimes with a venom critics reserve for Limp Bizkit albums or Michael Bay movies.
  • The mint melts down the excess/unsold coins. As a result, the ones that did sell end up becoming valuable decades later – screwing over collectors on a budget like yours truly.

Those issues were all in play for the 1893 Isabella Quarter.

The Queen Isabella commemorative quarter traces its beginnings to the World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893. Congress had already authorized the minting of a commemorative half dollar featuring Christopher Columbus, but a group of women, led by Bertha Palmer, whose husband, Potter, owned the famed Palmer House hotel in Chicago, thought they could do better.

Spearheaded by renowned women’s rights activist, and future $1 coin subject, Susan B. Anthony, the Board of Lady Managers had been awarded $10,000 in federal funds to help manage the Columbian Expo. In early 1893, the Board went before the House Appropriations Committee to ask that the $10,000 could be paid to them in the form of 40,000 specially designed commemorative quarters, which they could then sell at a profit. Congress obliged and the Board set about becoming “the authors of the first really beautiful and artistic coin that has ever been issued by the government of the United States.”

Obviously, the Board wanted a female on the obverse and decided on Queen Isabella I of Castile, who had provided vital financial support for Columbus’s voyages. Putting a foreign monarch on U.S. currency was unprecedented (indeed, there had a been a revolution over it), but according to Coin Week, the main source of conflict was over design.

Caroline Peddle, a former student of famed artist and coin designer Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was hired by the Board to design the coin. However, her sketches, which included a seated Isabella on the obverse and the inscription “Commemorative coin issued for the Board of Lady Managers of the World’s Columbian Exposition by Act of Congress, 1492–1892” on the reverse, were deemed to look too token-like and rejected. Rather than be allowed to redesign the coin, the Mint took away the reverse side and gave it to one of their in-house artists, Charles Barber, to design.

After some more back-and-forth and additional restrictions imposed by the Mint, Peddle resigned. The Mint then cobbled together some portraits of Isabella and ultimately produced an image of a young Isabella wearing a crown on her head for the obverse. On the reverse, the Mint went with an image of a woman kneeling while holding a distaff and spindle- symbolizing her industry. The Board had suggested an image of the Woman’s Building at the Expo, and Palmer later stated that the Board disliked the Mint’s reverse image because “we did not consider [it] typical of the woman of the present day.” However, the Mint made the final decision and approved the coin design.

To say that the reception for the commemorative quarter was not warm is a bit like saying that the American public didn’t embrace Apple’s Newton. The American Journal of Numsimatics was particularly brutal:

[W]e do not know who designed it, but in this instance, as in the half dollar, the contrast between examples of the numismatic art of the nation, as displayed on the Columbian coins, on the one hand, and the spirited and admirable work of the architects of the buildings, for instance, on the other, is painful. If these coins really represent the highest achievements of our medalist and our mints, under the inspiration of an opportunity without restrictions, the like of which has never been presented hitherto in the history of our national coinage, we might as well despair of its future…

The American Journal of Numismatics in October 1893, quoted by PCGS.

The Journal also drew a “mournful” comparison between the reverse design of the kneeling woman holding the distaff and spindle and the well-known “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?” anti-slavery Hard Times Token. Surely, the Board felt vindicated by that line – although there’s no evidence Palmer or anyone else affiliated with them ever wrote to the Mint to say: “See? I told you we should gone with the building on the reverse.”

1838 HT-81 “Am I Not A Woman & A Sister?” (Image via me)

Sales figures, meanwhile, were disappointing. Of the 40,000 coins minted, a little more than half (21,180) ended up selling. According to NGC, the quarter’s sales were cannibalized by the Columbian Expo half dollar, which sold for the same price and was more widely available at the fair (5 million Columbian Expo half dollars were minted – 125 times as many compared to the Isabella quarter). While it didn’t come close to selling out, Coin Week points out that the quarters, which sold for $1 each, ended up being profitable for the Board. A $20,000-plus stream of revenue may not have been much, but it was double the original federal appropriation awarded to the Board. Of the remaining 19,000-plus quarters, approximately 15,000 went back to the Mint for melting.

1893 Columbian Expo Half Dollar. (Image via me)

In recent years, the coin’s reputation has been rehabilitated and has become a highly sought-after collector’s item. Contemporary reviewers have praised its quaint design and its uniqueness among U.S. commemorative coins (until the modern commemoratives came around, it held the distinction as the only commemorative quarter in U.S. history – as well as the only one to depict a foreign monarch). Even the reverse of the coin has been somewhat vindicated. Art historian Cornelius Vermeule argued that the design wasn’t necessarily evocative of the anti-slavery token and even traced elements of it back to antiquities. “[S]ome details of drapery to a servant girl from the East Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, work of about 460 B.C. with additions and revisions in the first or second centuries A.D.,” he wrote.

I love the design and how it distinguishes this coin from other early commemoratives. Too many coins from that era have a generic male bust on the obverse and either an eagle or state symbol on the reverse. Because of the relative scarcity of this coin, buying one wasn’t cheap (this one had been cleaned, which lowered its value, but it still ended up costing over $100). The price tag was worth it, as this has become one of my favorite coins.

So I guess the lesson here is that I should buy more modern commemoratives – even those that I think are ugly. After all, maybe they’ll skyrocket in value in 100 years…