US Coins

The ugly coins you frequently see in your change

Among the more problematic quarter dollars produced under the 50 State Quarter program were the (from left to right) 2007 Wyoming quarter, the 2007 Idaho quarter, the 2008 New Mexico quarter and the 2004 Florida quarter with multiple themes.

Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions

It seems that among U.S. coin designs, some are universally praised and some seem to enjoy consistent disdain from collectors.

From the soaring heights of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ 1907 High Relief double eagle — considered by many to be the finest U.S. coin design — to the lowly Anthony dollar, the more than two centuries of coins produced by the U.S. Mint have seen high points and low points.

What follows is the result of an informal survey I conducted with more than 50 of my coin collecting friends. I asked a simple question: What is the least attractive U.S. coin? The results allow us to have a discussion on aesthetics and ways of seeing and helps us evaluate what design elements work on a coin (and what ideas don’t work.)

The following is the fourth part of my look at ugly U.S. coins.

Read Part IPart II and Part III.

Modern State Quarter Dollars

Because of their sheer number and variety, quarter dollars from the 50 State Quarter series are often singled out by collectors as representatives of bad design. The program was launched in 1999 and it was a 10-year initiative that honored each of the nation’s states in the order that they ratified the Constitution or were admitted into the Union, extended in 2009 with the District of Columbia and U.S. Territories Program.

The legislation gave each state flexibility in determining the design that would represent it. Many states formed advisory committees that included coin collectors, to help pick designs from public submissions. Generally, governors of the states would then submit three to five design concepts to the secretary of the Treasury who would return designs to the states for selection of a winning design.

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In total, nearly 35 billion State quarter dollars were produced. Some were simple, such as Michigan’s 2004 quarter, which featured an outline of the state along with representations of the Great Lakes and the caption “Great Lakes State.” As an astronaut on Michigan’s state quarter dollar selection committee pointed out, Michigan is the only state clearly visible from space, and the design is representative of the state. It is perhaps not the most exciting design, but it serves its function well.

Coin World pricing analyst Eric Justice and others pointed out that designs with multiple, unrelated themes were generally unsuccessful. He said, “packing all of these themes on a small quarter dollar does not get the state’s message across.”

The year 2004 saw Florida’s State quarter, which is an odd mix of three elements: a Spanish galleon, two Sabal palmetto trees and a space shuttle with the caption “Gateway to Discovery.” Arkansas’s quarter the prior year had four elements: a Diamond (Arkansas’s state gem) levitates over a lake with a flying mallard and rice stalks in the foreground. Gerry Tebben called it the “everything but the kitchen sink approach” to design.

While simplicity worked on Michigan’s quarter, the 2007 Wyoming quarter dollar was singled-out as being particularly ugly. It has the silhouette of a bucking horse and rider and the caption “The Equality State.” Paper money specialist Dustin Johnston summed up Wyoming’s quarter succinctly, saying, “They didn’t try too hard, did they?”

Nebraska collector Mitch Ernst added, “To me there’s a difference between simple and unimaginative. I find the stark, plain, severe simplicity ugly and in my opinion the design does not represent the grandeur of the state nor the strength of its people.”

Colorado Springs, Colo., collector Steven Roach says the Wyoming quarter represents “an excellent concept executed poorly; a simple design of a cowboy with no definition or major detail, leads to the Wyoming state quarter as the ‘ugliest’ of all the state quarter program.”

Other states received honorable mentions for unattractiveness: the 2008 New Mexico quarter dollar was noticed as was the Idaho quarter. On the latter, Indiana’s Fran and Ray Lockwood wrote, “The ugliest of the ugly has to be the Idaho Quarter where you see a BIG bird looming over a small outline of the state! Most people would think of the potato when you mention Idaho, but for reasons known only to the Idaho Quarter Committee, BIG bird won out.” 

Keep reading our breakdown of the U.S. Mint's ugliest coins:

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