Mediocracy in Action: The Statehood Quarters

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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I got a query about this page from someone at a coin magazine. I told him I was a casual collector, and that in my opinion, "serious" collectors had ruined numismatics ("serious" hobbyists ruin every hobby they touch - the very expression "serious" hobbyist is an oxymoron) by turning it into a status competition and investment scheme. I never heard back from him.

The idea of putting out 50 distinct quarters commemorating each state was one of the most exciting ideas to come out of Washington in a long time. Now thatit's done, overall the project merited maybe a C+. In some states sectional rivalries prevented the selection of a really distinctive landmark. In other states the designs are cluttered, or leave so much blank space the designs are bland and boring. Commercial interests probably dictated Vermont's klutzy maple syrup motif instead of a covered bridge, and Wisconsin's dairy products instead of a French fur trader.

But the real killer is Political Correctness. We have two designs commemorating the Revolution, none at all commemorating the Civil War. We can thank the increasingly mean-spirited tendency to equate honoring Confederate soldiers with approving slavery for that. Can you even believe Texas passed on the Alamo? We don't as yet have a single design featuring any Indian figures, events, or artifacts, or any significant black history apart from Louisiana's jazz trumpet. My sympathy for the Indians is tempered by the opposition of some activists to Indian mascots and symbols; they brought it on themselves.

The fina 20 quarters were designed by artists at the Mint based on ideas selected by the states. That might hav improved quality, but bear in mind these are the same people who started with the elegant, classically inspired Barber-Morgan coins in 1900 and had given us the most hideously bland coins in history by 1960, then capped it off with the Susan B. Ugly dollar. Still, the 2005 and 2006 designs were significantly better than the earlier designs. But the 2007 designs feature three of the worst designs of all, including Wyoming's probable all time worst of the lot.

Delaware    B
Delaware isn't exactly teeming with images for most people, so I wondered what their quarter would look like. Like most people, I wondered what in the world the picture of Caesar Rodney on horseback was all about. Then I saw 1776, probably the most intelligent musical around. Rodney was elderly and ill with cancer when he rode on horseback to Philadelphia to cast his state's deciding vote for the Declaration of Independence. Suddenly I had a whole lot more respect for Delaware's quarter. Visually it's not exciting, but it may well be the most meaningful.
Pennsylvania    C
The first state outline, with a keystone and the Commonwealth statue. Why not Gettysburg or Valley Forge? Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell are out because they've been used on the half dollar (remember those?) but why not a facsimile of the beginning of the Declaration of Independence?
New Jersey    B
Washington crossing the Delaware. This and Massachusetts are apparently the only designs to commemorate any military events in our history.
Georgia    C
State outline and a peach. Okay at the time but the outline maps quickly got repetitious.
Connecticut    D
I really liked the Charter Oak when it came out. Historical and very different. Now I think it's simply a busy way to fill blank space.
Massachusetts    B
The state outline with a Minute Man. Predictable, but the Minute Man is large enough to be visually interesting and balance the state outline.
Maryland    F
One of the very worst. A rendering of the state capital dome with absolutely nothing to indicate why it's significant, and the meaningless nickname "Old Line State," surrounded by blank space to heighten the blandness. And it's slightly lopsided as if to accentuate the overall ineptitude. Why not something about Chesapeake Bay? Or the siege of Fort McHenry and the writing of the Star Spangled Banner? Or Antietam?
South Carolina    C
The now-standard collage of state outline and emblems reached full flower here. I thought "eighth in, first out" would be a killer motto, but Political Correctness ruled otherwise.
New Hampshire    A
The Old Man of the Mountain. What else could it be? More poignant now that the profile has collapsed.
Virginia    C
Commemorating Jamestown is appropriate, but Appomattox is a lot more significant. The ships are too tiny.
New York    C
Outline map and Statue of Liberty. At least the map shows accurate topography. A pre-9/11 Manhattan skyline would have been tremendously poignant in retrospect.
North Carolina    B
North Carolina is proud of hosting the first flight, but really, all it provided was the wind. All the developmental work was done in Ohio. But it's visually interesting and a significant historical event.
Rhode Island    B
The first basically non-representational design, showing a sailboat and suspension bridge rather than a specific state symbol or historical event. Nice idea but flat and lifeless. See if the Canadians will let you copy the sailboat on their dime.
Vermont    C
Our best chance to get a design with a covered bridge was tossed aside in favor of a grade-school cartoon of maple syrup gathering.
Kentucky    C
My Old Kentucky Home features a farmhouse and paddock. Concept, not bad; execution amateurish. Why not the distinctive twin turrets of Churchill Downs?
Tennessee    B
Tennessee identified itself with country music in one of the more fitting if not exciting designs. Unlike a lot of states they stuck to a single theme.
Ohio    C
Ohio will not give up its claim on the Wrights, and worked in John Glenn and Neil Armstrong as well. On a state outline.
Louisiana    C
The Louisiana purchase is significant, the pelican evokes Louisiana, but the tiny trumpet clutters the design. If you really want to commemorate New Orleans, then do it.
Indiana    B
Another outline map with logo, but the rakish angle of the Indy racer and the circlet of 19 stars make it more interesting than most.
Mississippi    B
Two magnolia blossoms. Pretty and appropriate, but why didn't a single state along the Mississippi do a steamboat?
Illinois    F
Ee-yuck. Abe Lincoln is chopped off at the knees by an outline map of Illinois, with a Chicago skyline in the background, too tiny to be easily recognizable. Apparently people wouldn't recognize the outline of Illinois if Lincoln was superimposed in front of it.
Alabama    D
Helen Keller isn't what most people picture when they think of Alabama, but part of me likes the idea for that very reason. The Braille text is unique. But she's seated in a chair with her legs cut off, looking more like an advocate for multiple amputees. The moment immortalized in The Miracle Worker where Helen grasps the connection between signs and their meaning would have been priceless. The last state in the heartland of the Confederacy passed up the last chance to commemorate either the Civil War or cotton.
Maine    D
A lighthouse and schooner, totally appropriate, but stiff and lifeless. The lighthouse is an actual lighthouse (Pemaquid Point) but looks generic, like someone in Nebraska's idea of a scene in Maine. The rocks have all the realism of early Star Trek papier mache, and the sea and sky are totally lacking in character. The Portland Head Light is far more picturesque and recognizable. Great concept, major failure at execution. I would have preferred the view of Frenchman's Bay from Cadillac Mountain myself.
Missouri    D
Another great concept but total failure in execution. Lewis and Clark setting off up the Missouri with the Gateway Arch in the background. Unlike one reviewer, I don't have a problem with the anachronism. If you're looking to portray an event literally, anachronism is a problem; if you're looking to portray historical significance, then juxtaposing past and present can be very effective. But it looks more like the three men in the tub from the nursery rhyme. Apparently the quarter botched the winning design so badly that some Missourians took to pasting stickers with the original design on it in protest. The original design was far better than the final result - in fact, Missouri had so many outstanding design ideas it looks like someone who hates Missouri picked the worst possible one.
Arkansas    B
One reviewer bashed the diamond, which commemorates the former diamond mine in Arkansas. To me, the rigid geometry of the diamond contrasts nicely with the natural features. One of the better designs. I think it works because it fills most of the space and everything is big enough to see.
Michigan    C
A map of the Great Lakes. Ho hum.
Florida    D
More is less. They tried to work in the Space Shuttle, a Spanish galleon, and palm trees, making them all so tiny they lack visual impact, so less is less, too.
Texas    F
What complete wuss decided not to use the Alamo? A state outline with a Lone Star. Insipid beyond belief. It could have been worse. One of the finalist designs was a nine-banded armadillo. Suggested motto for that alternate reality: "Road kill."
Iowa    C
A country schoolhouse. One of the Bridges of Madison County would have been more interesting as well as more recognizable to outsiders. One favored design finalist was Grant Wood's American Gothic, which didn't make it because of copyright concerns (bet Iowa could have fixed that if they'd put their minds to it. Better yet, in return for protecting your intellectual property rights, we have a right to put your work on coins and stamps?). Only a complete imbecile could look at American Gothic and think it portrays Iowa in a favorable light. The quarter isn't as dull as the pre-release sketches suggested, but a quarter is just not big enough to portray a panoramic scene.
Wisconsin   C
In an act of daring courage, the governor vetoed the recommendation of the voters to go with a French trapper greeting an Indian. It was badly done, but historical, and would have been the first - believe it or not - statehood quarter to include an Indian. He decided instead in favor of a cow, ear of corn, and cheese wheel. Really. In defense of this design, it's the first to commemorate the importance of agriculture in America. Also, it looks better in reality than the preliminary drawings. But the state motto, "Forward," puzzles even Wisconsin residents. Given the state's hostility to technology, the motto should be "No Change, No Way," or maybe "NIMBY." But it looks better than the pre-release pictures.
California    A
John Muir, a California condor, and Half Dome. Either the condor or Half Dome alone would have worked better, but overall not bad. There's a unifying theme of conservation. Like Alabama, perhaps, the design tries to show how California would like to be pictured. Maybe a more truthful design would be Muir looking at Yosemite on a busy weekend and weeping. California is teeming with so many great symbols (the Golden Gate Bridge, redwoods, Monterey, Santa Barbara Mission, Mount Whitney, even Dragnet's L.A. City Hall) that I was worried that conflicting interests would end up giving us a bland state outline map or generic state symbols. Half Dome is an ideal landmark since it's in the center of the state.
Minnesota    B
A northwoods lake with loon and boat, and small state outline. Certain to get ribbing by comparison with Canada's "loonie," but what's silly about showing a loon to represent the far north? It's not the loon Canadians despise, it's the coin. Unlike Europeans, who long ago gave up on the trivialization of their money, North Americans have the feeling that dollars need to be bills, not coins. The loonie could have had Pamela Anderson's Playboy centerfold and still been despised. The Susan B. Anthony dollar was rightly scorned for its repulsiveness, but the elegant Sacagawea dollar fared little better. Since we're way off topic already, a Canadian gave me a great nickname for their two dollar coin. It has a picture of a polar bear, and I'd heard it called a "twonie" by analogy with "loonie." But he said it's also called a "moonie" because it has a picture of the Queen "with a bear behind."
Oregon    A
When you think Oregon, you think Crater Lake, right? So there was every reason to fear the generic interests in the state would probably end up giving us a stack of logs on an outline map of the state, or maybe yet another Lewis and Clark design. Well guess what? It was Crater Lake after all. A beacon in the darkness. The final design is slightly marred by poor cropping at the bottom.
Kansas    B
Bison and sunflowers. Probably much to the chagrin of other Plains states, who wanted buffalo, too. The bison is nearly head-on, making the coin easily distinguishable from buffalo nickels, and the sunflowers are part of the landscape rather than disconnected symbols.
West Virginia    B
The New River Gorge Bridge. The bridge is dramatic, and it sure beats a strip mine. The actual coin looks very nice. I'm leaning toward an A-minus.

From here on (August 2004), designs hadn't been formalized, so I ventured predictions. Comments after August, 2006 are in red.

Nevada    A B
Anything connected with gambling would probably be unacceptable, and we won't even talk about Nevada's unique local option on prostitution. Still, how about a "double or nothing" quarter? Flip it at the cash register. If it comes up tails you get to keep it and still count it toward your purchase. Heads, you lose it plus you have to pay another quarter. Realistically, something from Nevada's mining heritage would be nice. The Pony Express would also be a possibility. Hoover Dam? Something about Area 51 would be a hoot, but it won't happen. The five design finalists are all excellent: wild horses, a miner, bighorn sheep, Indian artifacts and a collage of state symbols. Nevada is not a state you generally think of when you think of bighorn sheep, but these are desert bighorns. The wild horses won. The actual coin rates a B. The design is okay but just not that effective when shrunk to the size of a quarter.
Nebraska    A
Scott's Bluff on the Oregon Trail is such a natural it's a cinch we won't see it. It's too far west and out of the Corn Belt. If Nevada passes on the Pony Express, it would work here, too. There were two good finalist designs: a covered wagon and Chimney Rock, or Chief Standing Bear. I liked the first better. Unfortunately there were two lame-o finalists as well: a picture of the State Capitol and an Art Deco statue of a sower. The State Capitol design featured the legend "Home of the Unicameral," rivaled for meaninglessness only by Maryland's "Old Line State." (So you have the only state legislature with one chamber. Whoopee.) And the winner is Chimney Rock.
Colorado    C B
Lots of mountains but none of them scream "Colorado." The Denver skyline with mountains behind might be nice. Mesa Verde would be wonderful but it's too far down in the southwest corner to appeal to most of the state and it doesn't tout present industry or tourism. Bet on a skier. And yup, a skier was one of the finalists, but not recreational. Instead, one finalist commemorates the 10th Mountain Division. Another design supposedly commemorates Mesa Verde although the design is cluttered and all but unintelligible. There are two nondescript mountain designs. The best design shows the Maroon Bells and the legend "Centennial State." Colorado, the state that has a big C on its flag, is certain to get no better than a C unless they go back to the drawing board. The winner is one of the nondescript mountain designs. But the Mint artists somehow did a likeness of Long's Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, instead. Not great, not as bad as the proposed designs.
North Dakota    B A
My first impulse is to suggest a totally blank coin (and unlike a lot of folks who rib North Dakota, I have actually been to North Dakota). Failing that, a telephone pole and beer can with the captions "State Tree" and "State Flower." The state is nearly a rectangle, so even the outline map gambit would be bland. This is a state so desperate for symbols it touts the Peace Garden on its license plates. Teddy Roosevelt is a possibility. To get really daring, how about a missile silo commemorating the Cold War? How about the slogan "Are we 39th or 40th?" - when the statehood bills were signed for the Dakotas, President Benjamin Harrison shuffled the papers to be fair, so technically, nobody knows. North Dakota is listed first by custom because it's first alphabetically.
The two finalists are not bad. One pictures flying geese, the other a herd of buffalo. Kansas has buffalo, too, but since both coins are worth the same amount, no foul. The bison won. It's now out (October 2006) and really looks nice. It fills the space effectively and the texture of the background landscape is well executed. One of the best. North Dakota, ya done good.
South Dakota    C
Mount Rushmore is a natural, or the Badlands. Do the Crazy Horse sculpture if you want to respect Indian sentiments. How about Wounded Knee if you want to show you really have a conscience? Maybe a dinosaur skeleton? Maybe the T-Rex Sue, with a scathing comment about the Federal Government.
And the winner is Mount Rushmore with a pheasant flying overhead. I give it a C for cluttering the design with a pheasant, a bird you are guaranteed not to see flying anywhere around Mount Rushmore.
Montana    F
Glacier National Park, especially the postcard view looking up St. Mary Lake, would be perfect. You can bet it won't be the Little Big Horn. Montana doesn't have enough of Yellowstone to use.
AAAAGH! MY EYES! IT HURTS! MAKE THE PAIN GO AWAY! A bison skull and some generic looking hills. Finally something as ugly as Maryland's coin. You have got to be kidding here. I sat staring in stunned disbelief for about five minutes when I looked up the winning design. The three rejected finalists, an elk, a state outline with a scenic sunrise, and a scenic vista, were all far better.
Washington    A
Mount Rainier, the Space Needle, or coastal sea stacks would all work. Mount Saint Helens erupting would really be original. The Wenatchee satanic cult witch-hunt and the Kennewick Man fossil debacle are probably too much downers.
The winner is a leaping salmon with Mount Rainier in the background. If I gave pluses and minuses I'd be in the A- or B+ range, but not bad at all. The real coins tend to look better than the flat designs. The losing candidates were an overly busy state outline and montage of symbols, and an Indian whale design. The whale design, though not as attractive as the winner, has a certain coolness and whimsy about it that are appealing.
Idaho    F
A group of survivalists holed up in a remote cabin? Probably not. Bet on mountains or mining. Idaho has a sliver of Yellowstone but nothing distinctive. Craters of the Moon or Hell's Canyon are possibilities.
The winner is a bust of a peregrine falcon with a small outline of the state. Some Idahoans are petitioning to have the design changed. I'm not getting into whether the falcon is a representative symbol of Idaho, but the design itself is ug-leee. None of the three other finalists had much going for them. Best by far was a farmland-mountain vista. Another mountain vista was amateurishly chopped off at the bottom. Third was a state outline with some kind of flowering branch and a song lyric rivaled only by Nebraska's proposed "home of the unicameral" and Maryland's "Old Line State" for silliness.
Wyoming    F
Old Faithful, Yellowstone Falls, Devil's Tower or the Tetons would make great designs, but we'll probably get a cowboy.
What's going on here? After a couple of years of designs way above average, we're getting a string of losers. This one is the worst of all, even uglier than Maryland and Montana. Three of the four other finalists showed a cowboy and bronco. Only one showed a natural feature - Old Faithful. The "winner" is even more banal than the losers. The cowboy is in silhouette with no background or texture. The only other feature is the state nickname, "The Equality State." How about "The Total Lack of Original Ideas State?" It's out now, and even uglier than I thought. Hands down the ugliest Statehood quarter.
Utah    B
I'd love to see the joining of the rails at Promontory Point but we may well get a state outline and a beehive. Rainbow Bridge, Zion Canyon or Bryce Canyon would also be good. One early unofficial proposal (December 2005) shows Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. This will be very hard to top. And Hooray! It is the Golden Spike! The published design is sort of blah but may improve in the final execution. The other two finalists were a beehive and a snowboarder. The design would have been improved by zooming in closer to show just the fronts of the engines and leaving the spike out, but not bad.
Oklahoma    C B
By September 2007, all the designs are in. Oklahoma - yawn - has the state bird and flower. Pretty but so ho-hum. Now that it's out, I give it a B. That's an average of A for esthetics and D for originality and ignoring the many cultural icons Oklahoma could have chosen.
New Mexico    D C
Taos Pueblo, or better yet Acoma, would be wonderful. Carlsbad Caverns might work. Do we dare commemorate the Manhattan Project? Instead we'll probably get that sun sign from the license plates. Please God, not Kokopelli. As of December 2005, there are two proposed designs. One is the Albuquerque hot air balloon festival, which I hadn't thought of but which might work really well. And the other is - yes - a mushroom cloud. I'm not betting on that one. As of January 2007, other ideas include Shiprock and a classic car driving down Route 66 into the sunset. That one won't fly, but it's a nice idea. "New Mexico's quarter design is simple, artistic and intriguing," said Governor Bill Richardson when he unveiled the design, a zia (the sun symbol on New Mexico's license plates) superimposed on a state outline - for the most nearly square state in the Union. Simple, yes. Artistic and intriguing? No way.
It actually looks a bit better in real life. The square state contrasts with the circular outline of the coin. But considering the myriad symbols that could have represented New Mexico better, it's blah.
Arizona    B
Has to be the Grand Canyon. Meteor Crater would be spectacularly original, so forget it. A saguaro cactus wouldn't be a bad symbol. And the winner includes both the Grand Canyon and a saguaro. Also the legend "Grand Canyon State" for the benefit of people who couldn't figure out what that hole in the ground is. And a sunset. Looks awfully busy but it might be better in reality.
Alaska    C
The state flag with the Big Dipper and Polaris was unique and should be part of it. Denali would be perfect, or a glacier. Work in the aurora borealis somehow. It would be interesting to know how many people suggested penguins. The mediocrats passed over a design with a dog sled and Denali in favor of a grizzly bear catching a fish.
Hawaii    B
The postcard view of Diamond Head would work nicely. The final design shows a map of the islands and a figure of King Kamehameha. Esthetically it's a low B but I'd almost give it an A for being the only state design to commemorate any native history (two if you count New Mexico's zia).


A great idea sank to mediocrity through political correctness and just plain bland thinking.

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