Although the quarter dollar was authorized under the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, the denomination was not issued until four years later with the release of the Draped Bust, Small Eagle quarter dollar.
Mint Director Henry William DeSaussure persuaded renowned portraitist Gilbert Stuart to prepare a rendition of Liberty. Stuart chose Ann Bingham of Newport, R.I., to serve as his model. Sketches went to the Mint in August 1795.
The new design appeared on silver dollars later in the year, an appearance considered lackluster, to say the least. Stuart was not pleased with the engraving executed by Robert Scot, a bank note plate artist who, according to numismatic researcher Walter Breen, didn't have the vaguest idea how to sink a die or make a device punch. Scot's temporary assistant, John Eckstein, is credited with the reverse design of the small eagle on its cloud-shaped cushions within an oversized wreath of olive and palm branches.
Like the first half dimes, the first quarter dollars appeared without the denomination. Only 6,146 of the quarters were produced for circulation. The coins would have to be enough to last eight years, because that much time would pass before quarter dollar production was resumed.
There were two obverse and a single reverse die produced. Both obverse dies, however, contained just 15 stars, even though many of the coins produced from them were struck after June 1, 1796, the date of Tennessee's admission to the Union as the 16th state.
In 1804, the value 25 C. was included on the reverse below the eagle's tail feathers.
Numerals were employed until 1838 when the designation for the denomination was changed to QUAR DOL. on the Seated Liberty coins.
Production in 1804 was increased to only 6,738 coins. It would take another year, to 1805, before the production was pushed over the 100,000 mark, with 121,395 struck.
In 1804, Scot fabricated a reverse device punch for the Draped Bust quarter dollar using the Heraldic Eagle design he created eight years earlier based on the Great Seal of the United States.
A number of die varieties exist for the Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle coins, even though they were only produced between 1804 and 1807.
As early as 1801, German engraver John Reich sought to obtain full-time employment with the Philadelphia Mint. Reich had sold himself into indentured service to reach the United States during the Napoleonic Wars and would eventually design the Capped Bust quarter dollars (1815-1828), among other coins.
Reich was rebuffed in his efforts by Engraver Scot, who was unyielding to outsiders, presumably fearing replacement. With Scot's advanced age and declining health of utmost concern to Mint officials, Reich was hired in 1807 as an assistant engraver.
Reich's first assignment was to redesign all denominations.
His Capped Bust design first appeared on the half dollars and half eagles in 1807, then quarter eagles in 1808, dimes in 1809 and finally on the quarter dollars in 1815, the next time the banks ordered the denomination.
Breen reports the sporadic mintages of the quarter dollar denomination was reflective of the public's preference for Spanish and Mexican 2-real coins, which were legal tender at par even though lighter in weight.
The Capped Bust quarter dollar series offers a number of overdates: 1818/5, 1823/2, 1824/2, 1825/2, 1825/3 and 1825/4. During 1822, the reverse was blundered with the 25 struck over the 50 C.
According to Breen, the variety is "very rare, not because of die failure, but because this die was laid aside in horror as soon as impressions were examined."
"It was briefly resurrected in 1828, when the new Mint Engraver William Kneass could blame it on his late predecessor, and excuse its exhumation on grounds of economy."
Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:
Cents and half cents:
2- and 3-cent coins:
Dimes and half dimes: