The 1893 Queen Isabella Quarter: First U.S. Coin to Feature a Real Woman

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The 1893 Queen Isabella quarter boasts a lot of “firsts” attached to its name.

The silver commemorative coin was the first U.S. coin to feature a real woman, as opposed to the mythical Lady Liberty. The silver quarter features Queen Isabella of Spain – to honor her role in supporting Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas in 1492.

1893 Isabella Quarter obv and rev

The 1893 Queen Isabella quarter is also the first legal tender U.S. coin to feature a foreign monarch. Last but not least, it is also the first and only U.S. commemorative quarter dollar not intended for circulation.

The 1893 Queen Isabella quarter was minted for the World’s Columbian Exposition, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ journey to America. However, Queen Isabella wasn’t the only woman that is remembered today in relation to this beautiful and rare coin. The story behind the coin’s creation adds an aura of intrigue and excitement to this silver coin with a tiny mintage at 24,214.

During this period in American history, the woman’s suffrage movement was beginning to gain steam, even though it wasn’t until 1920 when the right for women to vote was granted nationally. Perhaps in a nod to that movement, the U.S. Congress authorized the formation of a “Board of Lady Managers” to help plan the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, also known as Chicago’s World Fair.

Bertha Palmer, a Chicago socialite and wife of prominent local businessman Potter Palmer, owner of the legendary Chicago Palmer House hotel was named President of the Board of Lady Managers.

Palmer worked tirelessly to help the Chicago Fair become a major success. And, it was under Palmer’s leadership and suggestion that the U.S. mint a commemorative coin with a woman on it, specifically Queen Isabella.

The Board of Lady Managers took complete charge of the quarter-dollar project and decided that the coins would feature a female motif. A depiction of Queen Isabella of Spain was chosen since it was King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella who provided the financing for Columbus’ journey to the Americas, with Isabella reportedly offering her crown and jewels if necessary to help pay for the expedition. Production of the Isabella quarter dollars began at the Philadelphia Mint on June 13, 1893.

At the Chicago Fair, sales of the Isabella quarter didn’t see huge demand. A key reason was that fair goers saw better value in the Columbian half dollar. Both the half dollar and quarter were sold for $1. Buyers preferred to go home with a 50 cent coin for their dollar instead of quarter worth 25 cents back then. It was said that Mrs. Potter herself bought as many as 10,000 of the Isabella quarters in an attempt to boost sales.

Isabella quarters were never released into circulation. And, nearly 16,000 Isabella quarters were sent back to the U.S Mint and melted down.

Despite the rocky sales at the World Fair, today, Isabellas are highly desired and strong collector demand is seen for this coin with many “firsts” and a unique back story. Collectors seek to acquire the 1893 Isabella quarter as a part of commemorative series and also seek to acquire this coin as a “type” quarter.

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