Please Note this article is reprinted from the GSNA Journal with thanks...
A generation of collectors is coming to adulthood who have no real, working memory of Washington quarters as they existed before the 50 States Quarters Program, or the current America the Beautiful Program. Certainly, they see older quarters in change, as we all do. But our newer generation of collectors couldn’t have been in the hobby when a Washington quarter simply meant our nation’s first president on the obverse, and a staid, rather formal eagle on the reverse. Thus, now may very well be a good time to present something of a “quarters primer” if you will, a look at our Washington quarters from 1932 – 1999.
Let’s go backwards, 1992 – 1999 Prior to the advent of the 50 States Quarters reverses, there is an eight year period in there in which a person could buy a proof set with real silver back in the dime, the quarter, and the half dollar. This influx of new silver means then that someone, somewhere must have broken up at least a few of the sets, allowing us to try to collect the silver proof quarters today, usually by going through a dealer’s stock (as none of these proofs probably made it to circulation). Each year saw a large enough production run of proofs that none of these quarters is particularly expensive right now. It appears that $20 can go a long way in this endeavor. This could be a great place to start a high end Washington quarter collection. Farther back, 1965 – 1991 If we need to add some air of mystery to this series, perhaps we could create it by calling the 1965 – 1991 zone, “The Dark Years.” The United States dropped silver from the dime and quarter starting in 1965, and reduced it in the half dollar that year. Other nations had been dropping silver as well, though not all at the same time. For the United States, there is a trio of years starting in 1965 where there were no proofs at all, although special Mint sets were produced. Precisely because there was no silver metal in the proof quarters and special Mint set quarters in these years, all of the proofs are quite inexpensive. A person can find specimens in grades such as PF-65 and add them to a growing collection for very little outlay. As well, in 1968 the production of proofs moved from their longtime home in the Main Mint in Philly across the country to the San Francisco branch. Thus, the 1968-S is the first of the ‘S’ marked proof coins. Curiously, this span of years has the only design change in it that occurred before the 50 States Quarters reverses came on the scene. The Bicentennial reverse, dual dated 1776-1976, sports a decidedly different reverse, as a commem of the 200th year of the nation. That one year is also the only one in this span to have a silver option. There were special proofs made that year, of all three coins that sported Bicentennial reverses, which were made with 40% silver. Adding one to a collection today won’t cost more than $20. These may have been dark years in terms of silver, but the prices for proofs minted from 1968 to 1991 brighten them up considerably. A look through most price lists indicates that once again $20 has a lot of purchasing power, even for coins in grades like PF-67.
Even farther back, 1950 – 1964 Prior to 1965 all our Washington quarters were 90% silver, and from 1964 back to 1950 there were proofs minted each year at the main facility in Philadelphia. This span of fifteen years saw a rather amazing growth when it came to proof set production, going from a relatively small output in 1950 to an output that broke the seven-figure barrier in 1957. The year prior, 1956, is actually the point at which proof Washington quarters take a pleasant nose dive in terms of price. Depending on whether you insist on PF-65 specimens, or something even higher, a person can find these twenty-five cent pieces at prices that are near $30 each. By the time we get to the 1960 proof, the mintage was high enough – remember, these were sold as sets including the one-cent, nickel, dime, quarter, and half dollar – that even the half dollars are affordable. That makes our proof quarters almost cheap.
As far back as we can, 1932 – 1949 The nation was in some of the worst of the Great Depression in 1932, when the Washington image nosed the Standing Liberty image off of the quarter. Indeed, the times were so rough that there are no 1931 quarters at all, and 1933 saw this lack repeated once again. Yet by 1936, while the country was still struggling, the Mint decided to get into the business of proof coins. From 1936 up through 1942 there were several thousand proofs made annually, and by the final year of this first cluster, there were 21,123 proof quarters to the official Mint tally. By today’s standards, such mintages are tiny. But perhaps there are not too many aficionados of the early Washington quarters in proof condition, as price lists generally peg the 1942 at $100 for a PF-65 specimen. Yes, the 1936 costs significantly more. But there were only 3,837 of them made; so it’s going to be tougher to find even one of them for sale today. Still, that proof 1942 could be a great coin to add to a growing collection.
Overall? The Washington quarter has over eight decades of use under its belt. Since 1999, the fine folks at the Mint have been doing as Congress asks, and changing the reverse five times a year at least. But all the great designs coming out now don’t take away from a coin that sported an eagle on the reverse for every year but one, all the way back to 1932. They could be a lot of fun to collect.