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An aesthetic evolution: scalable quarter dollar reverse designs
While collectors are likely to encounter quarter dollars from the 50 State Quarters program of 1999 to 2008, quarters from the America the Beautiful program that started in 2010 and will continue until 2021 are few and far between in circulation in some locations.
It’s a shame, because the U.S. Mint has made huge strides in its designs for the America the Beautiful quarter dollars over what it showcased in the 50 States program.
Part of the reason for the uneven quality in designs that characterized the 50 State Quarter program is that generally the design process was committee based. Some states had clear concepts. Michigan decided it wanted an elegant outline of the only state clearly defined from space and the five Great Lakes for its 2004 quarter.
Other states had more complex representational needs. Arkansas’ 2003 quarter featured a large diamond hovering over a landscape scene. Also included was a mallard duck in flight, along with rice stalks.
South Dakota’s 2006 quarter depicted Mount Rushmore in a traditional frontal view. But, opting for more symbols, the design also included South Dakota’s state bird, a Chinese ring-necked pheasant in flight, with both sides flanked by wheat heads. The year 1889, honoring South Dakota’s admission to the Union, was also a design element. To say the resulting design is busy would be an understatement.
Unlike the 50 State Quarter program where the designs more often than not include a variety of sometimes disjointed symbols of pride to individual states, the America the Beautiful program honors one site of natural or historic significance per coin.
One can tell that the U.S. Mint’s artists (from staff and the Artistic Infusion Program) have enjoyed the challenge of depicting nature on coins.
Sometimes, nature is in motion, such as the geyser on the 2010 Yellowstone (Wyoming) quarter or the active volcano on the 2012 Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park quarter. The billowing smoke from the USS Cairo as it steams down the lively Yazoo River on the 2011 quarter for the Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi showcases a spirit of invention and creativity on the part of the designers, while still adhering to a solid representational design tradition.
Among the series’ designs, especially noteworthy is the 2013 Mount Rushmore National Memorial quarter for South Dakota because it conveys something rarely seen on something as diminutive as a coin: a sense of scale. Scale is especially important on the America the Beautiful coins because the same design is produced in two sizes: the regular quarter dollar and a larger 5-ounce silver quarter dollar.
The Mint calls the design a “unique and educational perspective” on how Mount Rushmore was created and sculptured, as it shows not just the monument, but the human labor that went into crafting it.
While these quarters educate people on the rich bounty of America’s national parks and historic sites, they also provide lessons in aesthetics when one compares how a design “reads” on both sizes.
When expanded to fit the 5-ounce quarter, some designs become grander and more impressive, while others simply read as dull.
It’s a worthy challenge for an artist to create a single design that can be successfully utilized in two distinct sizes. First it must meet the technical challenges posed by mass production for circulation. Then, that same design has to be used on a coin with a 3-inch diameter that’s affectionately compared in our hobby to a hockey puck.
Although the U.S. Mint has not adapted flashy new technologies like the colorization and use of achromatic holograms that Canada is using on its Superman coins, designs like the 2013 Mount Rushmore National Memorial quarter dollar show that innovative and impressive designs can come out of the U.S. Mint.