Know your U.S. coins: Seated Liberty quarter dollars

Collectors might be tempted to think if they've seen one coin with the Seated Liberty design they've seen them all.

But just because the Seated Liberty coinage design bears the distinction of being the longest-running design for any U.S. silver coin doesn't mean that the quarter dollar series didn't produce a few interesting twists.

In fact, change is the most constant aspect of these coins, struck from 1838 to 1891. The obverse design for the coins was the work of Christian Gobrecht, based on a drawing by Thomas Sully. The essential difference in the obverse design is whether extra fabric is or is not present at Liberty's elbow. Seated Liberty quarter dollars dated 1838, 1839 and 1840 are minus the extra fabric, while coins dated 1840 to 1891 do exhibit drapery.

COIN VALUES: See how much Seated LIberty quarter coins are worth today

The reverse eagle design is credited to John Reich, William Kneass, Robert B. Hughes, Gobrecht and Sully. The eagle, with wings partially raised, looks to the viewer's left. In its right claw it holds an olive branch and in its left claw, three arrows.

Arrows were sometimes used to symbolize preparedness. Olive branches symbolize peace and are considered the international emblem of friendship and accord.

Arrows of another kind were used on the obverse of this series in certain years. In early 1853 the weight of all fractional silver coins was reduced by about 7 percent to prevent hoarding and melting. To distinguish between the old and new weights, arrows were placed on either side of the date on the half dime through half dollar on the new-weight coins. On the reverse, rays were put around the eagle on the quarter and half dollar. The rays were removed about 1853, and the arrows after 1855.

By 1866 another new design element was added. All silver dollars, half dollars and quarter dollars incorporated the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the reverse.

The idea for the motto began with Baptist minister Mark R. Watkinson, who wrote to U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase on Nov. 13, 1861, suggesting that U.S. coins bear some recognition of God.

Chase took the matter under consideration and in a Nov. 20, 1861, letter to U.S. Mint Director James Pollack, Chase stated: "No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition."

An Act of April 22, 1864, authorized the change in the composition of the 1-cent coin as well as the striking of 2-cent coins. The Mint director was also given authority to determine the mottoes on U.S. coins, with the approval of the Treasury secretary, paving the way for the addition of the IN GOD WE TRUST motto legend.

However, not all 1866 Seated Liberty quarter dollars were struck with the motto. At least one 1866 Seated Liberty, No Motto quarter dollar is known. In fact, at least one 1866 half dollar and two 1866 silver dollars are known without the motto. There are no Mint records of the coins having been struck.

During the mid-19th century, a number of Mint employees profited from the sale of fantasy pieces produced for collectors. The 1866 No Motto coins may be the result of this unauthorized activity by Mint employees.

These are just a few of the interesting twists that make this series fun for collectors.

Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:

Cents and half cents:

2- and 3-cent coins:


Dimes and half dimes:


Half dollars:


Gold coins:

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