In 1999, I was traipsing somewhat aimlessly through my early college years, playing in rock and roll bands, working the register at a music store, and writing heartfelt vignettes about my blissful suburban childhood. And, I was excited about quarters.
The 50 State Quarters Program had just launched – nay, galloped – into the American consciousness with the Paul Revere-esque Delaware edition, which depicted the brave, ailing Caesar Rodney, blazing through the night en route to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to declare the nation’s independence.
My dad had long since bequeathed to me his collection of bicentennial quarters, which are forever locked in a square, glass-block coin bank. Now, instead of keeping an eye out for the rarely-passed-on 1976 favorite, I would have nine years’ worth of new quarters to collect. At first I carefully dropped the new state quarters into the glass bank, letting the Massachusetts Minuteman and the Statue of Liberty mingle with the stoic Continental drummer of the 1976 edition.
Back then I would trade my own regular quarters for the new State quarters. Now, on the cusp of 2008, the grand finale year for the State Quarter project, I’m sick of the whole thing.
I got lost somewhere around the lame “Georgia peach” quarter, and only recently browsed the entire collection. It’s complete now; the designs for Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii have been released and should find their way into your pockets (you still pay cash for some things, right?) this year.
As a group, the State Quarters are a testament to the dismal retardation that emerges from design-by-committee. Notable failures of scale include Florida’s abstraction of a Spanish galleon, a space shuttle, and a strip of beach; and South Dakota’s horrifyingly absurd “Chinese ring-necked pheasant, in flight above a depiction of the Mount Rushmore National Monument,” as the PR guys and gals at the U.S. Mint so eloquently put it. The Chinese pheasant has a wing span that could cover the faces of Washington, Jefferson and Roosevelt. Not since the filming of “North By Northwest” has this freakishly grotesque national treasure been so thoroughly defaced (Hitchcock at least got the scale somewhat right).
Some states clearly saw the quarter as a chance to stake claim to history. I can just imagine the bitter string of emails between the governors of North Carolina (“First Flight”) and Ohio (“Birthplace of Aviation Pioneers”) that led to the final standoff of both states putting the Wright flyer on their quarters. Just as a kicker, Ohio stuck a generic astronaut on theirs as a thumb in North Carolina’s eye. Old Orville might have left town in search of more constant winds, but Neil Armstrong (Wapakoneta) and Sen. John Glenn (Cambridge) both hail from the Buckeye state.
And, in the process of boldly emblazoning these new quarters with flowers, birds, and leafy branches, America showed a sliver of underbelly, manifested in the designs its governors ultimately objected. This is apparent from the Mint’s account of dismissed State Quarter ideas. A cursory review revealed that designs commemorating Native Americans were among the runners up in eight states.
Tennessee dropped Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee writing system, for a guitar and fiddle; Indiana nixed Chief Little Turtle, last chief of the Miami Indians, for an Indy car (no doubt the result of an eleventh hour call from David Letterman to the governor); Kansas skipped over the Indian archer statue that tops the state capitol, aiming his arrow at the North Star, opting for a bison (a dimwitted mammal that was apparently more fought over in the mid-Northwest than the brothers Wright were in the East); Wisconsin in addition to rejecting the daring “Scenic Wisconsin,” and “Agriculture/Dairy/Barns” themes, also took a crap on “Early Exploration and Cultural Interaction” — it finally settled on the cryptic “Forward;” Nevada skipped over Chief Standing Bear for galloping Mustangs that look like the belong on a 14-year-old girl’s airbrushed T-shirt; Nebraska (the best looking of the bunch in my opinion, for no other reason than it’s “Chimney Rock” design evokes the Apple II computer game “Oregon Trail”) rejected Chief Standing Bear; Washington passed up “a Northwest Native American-stylized orca” in favor of a salmon leaping over Mount Rainier; and Arizona went with a hideous cactus/Grand Canyon collage, skipping what could have been the coolest quarter ever to hit the American street: Navajo code talkers.
Hawaii, our quaint surfing island kingdom, brings the series to an honorable close late in 2008 with a design that shows it’s got more ballsy independence than all the wound-licking Confederate states combined. Rejecting the lame designs of “Diverse but Unified,” a hula dancer, and a surfer, the final state to ratify the constitution offers up an image of “monarch King Kamehameha I stretching his hand toward the eight major Hawaiian Islands,” according to the Mint. The coin carries the state motto as well: “UA MAU KE EA O KA ‘AINA I KA PONO (The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness).” So it is.
Oklahoma incorporated the Indian Blanket flower into its quarter design, a somewhat weak offering from a state whose name is derived from “the Choctaw words okla and humma, meaning ‘red people.’” Yes, I cut that straight from Wikipedia. Finally, and no less worthwhile for being entirely predictable, New Mexico’s quarter features the sun symbol of the Zia Pueblo, which also appears on the state flag.
In another fantastic misuse of the silvery alloy, Illinois went with the befuddling slogan, “Land of Lincoln-21st State/Century.” What the hell was that supposed to mean? I have a calendar to tell me what year it is. Anyway, it might all be summed up here, in one of many inspiring statements from the U.S. Mint’s design criteria: “Designs shall have broad appeal to the citizens of the state and avoid controversial subjects or symbols that are likely to offend.” I, for one, am offended – or, at least, I’m ready for the reemergence of the plain old bald eagle.