Wednesday, August 23, 2006

50 State Quarters: Then and Now

By The Rat Packer

As many coin collectors know, the Fifty State Quarter program from the U.S. Mint is nearing its end when the final quarters are released in 2008. Going through this year's and the upcoming designs and by talking to other coin collectors, I can't help wondering if the collecting craze is on the wane.

Back in 1999, it was the first time in years that the quarter's face with the bald eagle had changed to that of Revolutionary patriot Caesar Rodney on horseback. Most probably didn't know who he was (a Delaware native who served in the Continental Congress and headed Delaware's militia) , but the image of a Revolutionary-era man on a horse definitely caught many eyes. There was a noticeable increased interest in coin collecting, many adults behaved like little kids as they palmed through their loose change. And of course the marketplace fed this interest by selling cardboard maps of the U.S. with little holes punched out to place the corresponding coins of each state as they came out every year or some other means of storing the treasured coins. People that paid little interest to their currency were now sudden coin collectors or had their childhood interest rekindled as they took off on a seeming scavenger hunt to get the latest coin—not to mention the more intense hunting for quarters struck in Philadelphia and Denver, as indicated by the small p or d on the face of the coin.

However for the past couple of years, I've noticed that the interest is lessening, but that's just based on my observations with people who were caught up with the craze initially. Lately, the idea of acquiring a newly minted coin (the Mint has recently released Colorado featuring its Rocky Mountains) barely raises an eyebrow with people I know. Though awareness of the hobby of coin collecting and interest is higher than before 1999, it isn't as high as when they first made their debut.

Why is this? I haven't found anything to really pin this down but I believe there are several factors at work. For starters, the difficulty of finding more recent coins has to be considered. Even though a new coin is released every ten weeks it is difficult to find some of them. After 2001, it seemed like finding certain coins proved harder than others. For example, I easily found dozens of North Carolina (commemorating the Wright Brothers' inaugural flight) and Connecticut (with the Liberty Tree adorning the face of the coin) quarters, but had difficult times trying to get quarters like the ones for Mississippi or Wisconsin. In fact, many noticed that each year there were a couple of coins that were easy to come across while others remained just out of reach. This could be due to hoarding or one's buying habits. Also to blame could be the amount of coins struck and circulated being that some have higher mintage numbers than others. One thing I never tried that others recommended was going to the bank and asking for a roll of quarters. Another option I didn't try was to buy them online from the Mint for starters but I didn't feel like going through the trouble when I could possibly acquire a coin through normal bartering. To date, I've been able to find the states released so far with at least a handful for each state.

Another factor could be the coin designs themselves. Many collectors bemoan the designs for many quarters as being dull or just plain ugly. For some reason, the state outline was a popular motif and squeezed into this bland design were one or two images that supposedly represented the state. Perhaps the coin that deserves the most derision is the unimaginative Michigan quarter that only features the state's outline without even attempting to throw in some other image. It didn't help that many winning designs were based from governor-appointed committees that tried too hard to please everyone. Yes, it is difficult to try to put many motifs into a single coin to try to tell what is noteworthy about your state but sometimes it seemed as the deciders didn't even try.

Maybe it was just overkill, too many coins spread out on too long a time table to hold the fickle public's interest for long. Who's to say? What about the economy? This could be just grasping straws but think about it, cash-strapped people would not be concerned about keeping a newly minted coin but would either save it for future spending or use it right away.

But there are serious collectors who not only vigorously acquire each new quarter as they come out but search for rotated die error coins, which were first reported for the Pennsylvania, Delaware and Connecticut coins. This error is when one of the coin's dies isn't properly mounted leaving the coin struck with one side misaligned. Other more rare and coveted quarters are those that have serious errors on their faces that are supposedly worth hundreds.

Now there is the question of what happens after 2008? Supposedly the program ends and the eagle will be returned to the opposite side of Washington's profile. Will anyone notice? Maybe towards the end, interest could pick up once more; collectors could prompt the mint to do something else. I read reports online via Google that there was consideration of extending the program to include U.S. territories like Guam or Puerto Rico but this was a couple of years ago and I've yet to come across any updates. Perhaps they can go back to Delaware and start all over again with new designs, some of which would be a definite improvement over the original ones. That would be one way to keep interest alive in coin collecting.

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