[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, John Feigenbaum. This information was originally published in 1994 in The Complete Guide to Washington Quarters.]
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The Washington quarter that has been a staple of our economy for more than six decades had a contentious start mired in power plays and male chauvinism. Yet it began as a worthy endeavor. The inspiration behind the quarter was a 1931 Treasury Department proposal to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of our founding father’s birth in 1732 by putting Washington’s likeness on a new coin. Originally the coin was going to be a half dollar but the denomination was subsequently changed to a quarter dollar by Congress.
As was common practice at the time, a design competition was held. Artists were invited to submit their designs (in plaster model form) to a committee co-sponsored by the Treasury Department and the Washington Bicentennial Commission with cooperation from the national Commission of Fine Arts. The winning design would be used for the new quarter as well as for a special-issue congressional medal (see The Many Medals Depicting George Washington, page 14). The only restrictions were that the obverse had to be based on Houdon’s bust of Washington and the reverse had to depict a national symbol (e.g. a bald eagle or shield).
The committee unanimously selected the model designed by sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser. The wife of sculptor James Earle Fraser (of Buffalo nickel fame), Laura Fraser, was highly regarded. She is best known for her design of the Oregon Trail commemorative coins minted from 1926 through 1939.
Unfortunately, the final decision fell to Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon. The stubborn Mellon refused to approve the Fraser design on the basis that he had not been party to the agreement.1 Mellon requested a second competition in which he could take a more active role. On October 27, 1931, the joint committee selected six choices from more than 100 models, again picking Laura Fraser’s model (labeled #56) as its first choice. On November 2, Mellon reviewed the committee’s choices and had this to say in a memorandum to Charles Moore, chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts (dated Nov. 4):
Laura Gardin Fraser submitted these models as her entry (#56) for the Washington head quarter. They were unanimously recommended by the Commission of fine Arts and the Washington Bicentennial Commission in 1931 but rejected by the secretary of the Treasury.
Following the conference we had with the members of the Fine Arts Commission two days ago, I inspected the models of the design for the new quarter dollar selected by the Commission as the one most nearly meeting their approval. I understand that you wish the sculptor given an opportunity to restudy this design in order to make certain changes which would meet with my own and your wishes in the matter.
I am very glad to accede to your request for a restudy of the design but, as the one selected was not my first choice and as it might be construed as showing discrimination if we give this opportunity to one sculptor and not extend it to others whose designs have equal merits in my eyes, I have designated the designs of three other sculptors and shall be glad to have a restudy made by these sculptors and by the one designated by the Commission…
Walter Breen, in his “Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins,” notes that “it has been learned that Mellon knew all along who submitted the winning models, and his male chauvinism partly or wholly motivated his unwillingness to let a woman win.”
After the rebuke by Mellon, Moore once again reaffirmed the Commission’s position on the Fraser model in his November 10 reply to the Treasury secretary:
The Commission feel that this design would result in a very excellent coin. They quite agree with the Secretary’s criticism that the eagle should be strengthened by a more vigorous treatment of head and body and a modification of the movement of the wings.
From the point of general design this model seems to the Commission easily the best of the four under consideration. Therefore, they respectfully advise that it be accepted and that the sculptor be required to modify his existing model in the particulars stated above.
In yet another attempt to convince the Secretary, Moore wrote on January 20:
In accordance with your request, the Commission of Fine Arts on January 19, 1932, considered the models selected from the number submitted in the original competition for re-study and re-submission.
The Commission selected from among the models an obverse and reverse which they marked. These selected models in the judgment of the Commission, adequately and in a distinguished manner meet what the Commission believe to be requirements for the design of the most used and so most representative coin of the United States. The models were numbered 56…
Moore’s letter went on to criticize the design Mellon favored, (entered by John Flanagan):
The Commission considered the alternative designs submitted by the above artist [Fraser] recommended to you as in a class by themselves. Which of the alternatives is the best was the question…. This decision was based on a combination of elements in the design which seemed to the Commission to be the most artistic one…
…The Commission, however, found in a design which called for detailed examination a lack of simplicity and vigor in the head, and an artistically unfortunate and also an unnatural arrangement of the hair which became inconspicuous in the reduced size representing the actual coin. The reverse was pictorial rather than medallic in character. For these reasons the Commission felt that the design lacked these very elements of universality and permanence which the quarter-dollar should embody.
The Commission also considered a suggestion that the Saint-Gaudens eagle on the twenty-dollar gold piece be used for the reverse. They considered that to use a design that had been used on another coin would be unfortunate and sure to provoke criticism. Moreover, the eagle as it now appears on the coin has lost that essential quality which Saint-Gaudens gave to it. In reducing the relief vigor has been lost. Now the eagle has the quality of an engraving: It has become a picture instead of an emblem.
In submitting for your consideration advice as to the selection of designs for the new quarter-dollar, the Commission have been guided by the experience of its members in the art of the medal also with the art of coinage. They have given to this particular recommendation most careful consideration, based on such experience. Also they have felt the responsibility laid upon them both toward the Government which they serve and to the Fine Arts which they are appointed to represent.”
A few weeks later, Mellon was succeeded by Ogden L. Mills and Moore restated his argument for model #56 in a last-ditch attempt to sway the new Treasury secretary. Mills, however, was not one to alter the motions put forth by the former incumbent and on April 11, he had this reply for Moore:
…My predecessor in office, Honorable A.W. Mellon, gave thought and attention to the models submitted in the competition and finally selected the particular model in question. In light of your suggestions, I gave further thought to the matter and certain changes have been made by the artist, prompted by these considerations. I have given further consideration to the subject and am constrained to adhere to the decision of my predecessor, and I selected that model.
You will realize, of course, that the duty of making the selection falls upon the Secretary of the Treasury and not upon the Commission of Fine Arts, the function of that body being purely advisory.”
The matter was finally put to rest on April 16, 1932 when Secretary Mills formally named the model designed by John Flanagan as the design for the next United States quarter dollar.
The artist responsible for the design of the Washington quarter was born on April 7, 1895 in North Dakota where he spent most of his early years in an orphanage. A passion for drawing, wood carving and painting led him to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1914 where he studied for three years until the outset of World War I.
After serving in the United States Merchant Marine from 1917 through 1922, he lived in New York City where he was befriended by painter Arthur B. Davies. Flanagan eventually spent time on Davies’ farm in Congers, New York to recuperate from deteriorating health. As his rehabilitation progressed so did his artistic abilities.
Flanagan continued painting and expanded his talents to sculpting, which he practiced exclusively by 1928. His designs ranged from small animals to works bearing mother-and-child, a theme that was most recurrent in his repertoire. In 1931, his plaster model contest entry was ultimately selected by the secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon over 100 other entries as the final design of the Washington head quarter.
In 1934, Flanagan suffered a nervous breakdown and a tragic automobile accident five years later forced him to quit his stone sculpting altogether. His health, both mental and physical, began to decline and he committed suicide at the age of 56 on January 6, 1952.
Authors note: Not much is known about John Flanagan. Unfortunately the two primary sources I was able to find offered two different dates of birth and death. I decided to use the “Venus Numismatics Dictionary” as my primary source because it contained a little more detail than the “Catalog of Coin Designs and Designers.”