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The Columbian Exposition Coin that Challenged the Way a Nation Views Women

In 1893 the commemorative Isabella quarter was struck. The Board of Lady Managers of the World’s Columbian Exposition requested authorization of the coin by congress. The quarter depicts the Spanish queen Isabella I of Castile, who sponsored Columbus’s voyages to the New World. It was designed by Bureau of the Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, and is the only U.S. commemorative of that denomination that was not intended for circulation.

Bertha Palmer

The Board of Lady Managers whom requested the coin was headed by Bertha Palmer, whose husband Potter owned the Palmer House, the leading hotel in Chicago. The decisions of the Lady Managers were often reversed by their male counterparts on controversial matters: for example, Palmer sought to shut the fair’s “Egyptian Girls” dancing show after deeming it obscene. The show was one of the exposition’s few successful moneymakers, and the Lady Managers were overruled by the men who voted to keep it open.

At the insistence of women’s advocate, Susan B. Anthony, in 1890, authorization for the Board of Lady Managers to create this coin was granted. Anthony’s goal with this project was to show that women could successfully assist in the management of the fair. Thus, the Lady Managers sought a coin to sell in competition with the commemorative half dollar at the Exposition. When the half dollar appeared in November 1892, the Lady Managers considered it inartistic and determined to do better. Palmer wanted the Lady Managers “to have credit of being the authors of the first really beautiful and artistic coin that has ever been issued by the government of the United States”.

Palmer approached the House Appropriations Committee, asking that $10,000 of the funds already designated to be paid over to the Lady Managers by the federal government be in the form of souvenir quarters, which they could sell at a premium. Congress passed an act authorising the souvenir coin on March 3, 1893. The act required that the design had to be approved by the Secretary of the Treasury and that the total mintage of the special quarter would be limited to 40,000.

With approval for the coin, with albiet a small mintage, Palmer set out to produce a beautiful coin. Palmer asked artist Kenyon Cox to produce sketches, she was, however, determined to have a woman actually design the coin. She also consulted with Sara Hallowell, who was both the secretary to the fair’s Director of Fine Arts and was helping the Palmers amass a major art collection. Hallowell contacted sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who recommended his onetime student, Caroline Peddle, who was already engaged in exposition work, having been commissioned by Tiffany’s to produce an exhibit. Palmer agreed to have Peddle do the work.

On March 14, 1893, Edward O. Leech, the Director of the Bureau of the Mint, wrote to Palmer. He asserted that it was encouraged for the design process to be kept in-house at the mint. Palmer replied that the Lady Managers had already decided that the quarter would bear a portrait of Isabella I, Queen of Castile. She also stated that she was consulting artists and suggested that the Mint submit a design for consideration.


Peddle’s sketch

Finally, Palmer officially hired Peddle to do the design work. She instructed the artist that the coin was to have a figure of Isabella on the obverse, and the inscription “Commemorative coin issued for the Board of Lady Managers of the World’s Columbian Exposition by Act of Congress, 1492–1892” on the reverse, as well as the denomination and the name of the country. The chairwoman did not request that Peddle provide the Lady Managers with the design before sending it to the Mint. The secretary at the Mint said that the long inscription, would appear like a business advertising token, and he asked that it be revised. The Lady Managers, instead would likely have an outside sculptor create the obverse and the Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber to create some designs for the reverse for possible use.

But, Peddle had already designed the coin with Palmer’s previous instructions and sent the sketches to the Mint with the long inscription. The Mint was unhappy with the reverse and officially appointed Barber to design that side of the coin. The Mint also reported that Isabella’s legs would appear distorted if the seated figure were used and advocated a head in profile.  Peddle was informed that Barber would produce the reverse, though the design would be sent to her for approval, and she would have to change her obverse. Meanwhile, Palmer was growing increasingly anxious: with a timeline of two months from design approval to the availability of the actual coins, she feared that the pieces would not be available for sale until well into the fair’s May to October run. Under pressure from all sides, Peddle threatened to quit the project, writing that she “could not consent to do half of a piece of work”.

Two letters dated on April 7 from the Mint to Peddle asserted that the right as Mint director to prescribe coin designs, and told Peddle that the obverse would be a head of Isabella, while the reverse would be based on sketches by a Mint engraver which she would be free to model. The second letter, imposed the additional requirement that Isabella not wear a crown, which was deemed inappropriate on an American coin. And unfortunately, on April 8, 1893, Caroline Peddle withdrew from the project.

The Mint informed Palmer of Peddle’s resignation and Palmer lamented on their inability to work together. Palmer suggested an alternative to the inscription reverse, for the coin depict the Women’s Building at the fair. Barber prepared sketches and rejected the idea, stating that the building would appear a mere streak on the coin in the required low relief. Barber favored a sketch from Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan, showing a kneeling woman spinning flax, with a distaff in her hands. Others were not fully satisfied with the proposal, stating that the juxtaposition of Isabella on the obverse and the Morgan reverse was “too much woman”. Barber tackled the project of producing his own reverse designs which portrayed various uses of a heraldic eagle. The eagle designs were briefly considered but eventually Morgan’s designs were accepted stating that,  “the distaff is used in art to symbolize patient industry, and especially the industry of women.”

Curator at the University of Pennsylvania, Stewart Cullin, possessed a number of medals depicting Isabella, and former general Oliver O. Howard was engaged in writing a biography of the late queen and possessed likenesses of her. It was agreed that these men be consulted for the Isabella design. Still the Mint was reluctant to allow an inscription which made distinctions by sex, such as “Board of Lady Managers”, to appear on the coin, but it was eventually approved.

Palmer was sent a box containing two plaster models of the obverse, one of Isabella as a young queen, the other showing her more mature. Along with the models was a letter that informed her that the distaff reverse would be used. The obverse models were supposedly made by Barber based on an engraving of Isabella forwarded by Peddle to the Mint at Palmer’s request, but Moran suggests that the period of only a day between receipt of the engraving and completion of the models means that Barber was working on them before that. The Board of Lady Managers on May 5 selected the design of the young queen.

The coins final design was fairly well received regardless of the hardships to get to the final product. Many of the Lady Managers were overall discouraged by the process and that they were unable to have their full vision for the coin realized.

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