The Great Depression was taking its toll on the nation in 1931. Desperate economic times were gripping the nation, a severe drought created the Dust Bowl across the Great Plains. In order to try to lift the spirits of a nation, congress authorized the formation of the George Washington Bicentennial Commission to celebrate the 200th birthday of the nation’s first president in 1932. To be part of the celebration, the US Mint and the Department of the Treasury proposed to issue a circulating commemorative half-dollar honoring Washington. Congress agreed and requested that Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon work with the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) and the Washington Bicentennial Commission to begin a design competition.
One of the rules of the design competition was that the proposals must be based on the famous bust of Washington by sculpture Jean-Antoine Houdon, considered the most accurate depiction of the first president. During the competition, congress was convinced to change the denomination to the quarter under the assumption that more people would have access to quarters than half-dollars. Although this meant the end of the popular Standing Liberty design by Hermon MacNeil, there was little opposition to this change.
At the end of the competition the CFA chose the design of Laura Gardin Fraser, medal designer and wife of James Earl Fraser. But Secretary Mellon had his own ideas of artistic value. Mellon was well known as a collector of fine art who later went on to donate his collection and money to create the National Gallery of Art. Mellon also did not like the idea that a woman could win this type of competition over a man. With his chauvinism intact, Mellon asserted his authority and selected the work of sculptor John Flanagan for the design. Although most agreed that Fraser’s designs were better, Mellon justified his selection noting that Flanagan was noted for his period-style (e.g., bland) designs and being a student of Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Shortly after the selection process, Ogden Mills became Treasury Secretary when Mellon was appointed to become ambassador to Great Brittan in 1932. Mills was not interested in the design process although the CFA and the Mint were him lobbying for a change. Mills noted that work had begun on the master dies and ordered that the Mint continue to use the Flanagan design.
The coin was very well received by the public. With the letters and acclaim from the public, Mint Director Robert J. Grant impressed upon Secretary Mills to request that congress extend the one-year issue to be a regular issue. But it was the height of the Great Depression, an election year, and the Democratic challenger, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was campaigning hard against the incumbent President Herbert Hoover. Hoover was not interested in sponsoring “frivolous” legislation and ignored the requests from Grant and Mills. Hoover was being accused of allowing the country to slip deeper into the depression by the Roosevelt campaign—Hoover did not want to give Roosevelt more fodder for the bitter campaign.
Roosevelt won and Hoover became a lame duck. At that time, the new president would not take the oath of office until March. From the November election until March, Hoover and the Roosevelt transition team did not communicate. Hoover was honorable in defeat and would have done anything to help the transition. But the lack of communication created real political gridlock. No bills were introduced and no laws were passed during that time. Statistically, it began the worst six months of the depression. It was this situation that prompted the passage of the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution that changed the date of the presidential inauguration to January 20th.
Two weeks prior to his inauguration, FDR asked his old friend and Wall Street executive William H. Woodin, to be the Secretary of the Treasury and help implement a new monetary policy. Woodin rushed to Washington to work with Ogden Mills in order to understand the issues. On the day of FDR’s inauguration, Mills resigned and voluntarily stayed in Washington to help Woodin with various policy changes. Woodin and Mills worked together on the gold recall and the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).
Once the Gold Reserve Act was passed, Mills left Washington and Ogden set about implementing the policy he created for Roosevelt. One of his tasks was to recommend a Mint director. Woodin recommended that FDR appoint Nellie Tayloe Ross as the first female Director of the Mint.
When Ross took over at the Mint, they were operating at a lower capacity and mostly minting cents in order to keep people employed. Ross began to revive the Mint and proposed to keep the popular Flanagan design for the Washington quarter in order not spend the money on a redesign. Woodin agreed to allow the continuation of the Washington Quarter. Treasury officials and Congress agreed that the Secretary had the authority to continue with the design. Coin production picked up in 1934 with the Washington Quarter Dollar as a regular issue coin.
It can be said that the 1932 Washington Quarter was the first coin minted as a circulating commemorative. Starting with 1934, the Flanagan design was used as a regular issue including the modified design that is used as part of the 50 State Quarters® Program today.
Image of the Washington Bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon from the Boston Athenæum.