In the United States, the quarter dollar is the workhorse coin of day-to-day commerce. It does an impressive amount of heavy lifting in our cash transactions.
Anecdotally: The other day I took $109.48 worth of accumulated pocket change to a nearby Coinstar machine. Here’s how the coins tallied:
Half dollars 1
In other words, every third coin was a quarter dollar (339 out of 926), and they accounted for 75 percent of the face value ($84.75). This was from a normal everyday accumulation of pocket change.
Picking a random year of recent coinage by the United States Mint, we see these numbers:
2000 Circulation Coinage
14,300,000,000 cents $143,000,000 face value
847,000,000 nickels $42,312,000 face value
3,661,000,000 dimes $366,100,000 face value
6,470,800,000 quarters $1,617,700,000 face value
42,000,000 half dollars $21,000,000 face value
Even though the mintage of one-cent coins (“pennies”) outnumbered quarters more than two-to-one by quantity, quarters accounted for more than eleven times their face value. In fact, the face value of quarters minted for circulation was nearly three times that of the cent, nickel, dime, and half dollar combined.
Quarter dollars are everywhere, in abundance. We Americans see them, and spend them, every day.
Back in 1999, the quarter was the perfect choice for a remarkable new coinage program that would celebrate the United States of America by honoring each state in the order they joined the Union.
Since then, for more than 20 years, we’ve enjoyed a remarkable selection of designs and themes on our quarter dollars.
The foundation was laid in December 1997, when President Bill Clinton signed into law the 50 States Commemorative Coin Program Act. Five quarter dollars with distinctive reverse designs were released each year, beginning with Delaware in 1999 and ending with Hawaii in 2008.
Since then, Congress has authorized more quarter dollar programs that use these popular, ubiquitous coins as little billboards celebrating America’s history, traditions, culture, and environment. But the series that started it all was the State quarters.
Kentucky’s State quarter officially debuted in October 2001 as the 15th coin in the series. Nearly three-quarters of a billion were struck for circulation—353,000,000 from the Philadelphia Mint, and 370,564,000 from the Denver Mint. (The latter have a small “D” mintmark next to the ribbon in George Washington’s hair.)
The reverse design features a view of the two-story Federal Hill mansion in Bardstown, Kentucky, with a thoroughbred horse in the foreground. The inscription, “My Old Kentucky Home,” was inspired by American composer Stephen Foster’s sentimental abolitionist ballad “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night.” Foster was related to the family of U.S. senator John Rowan, who owned Federal Hill in the 1790s and early 1800s. According to legend, Foster was a visitor to the mansion. After his song became popular nationwide in the 1850s, the Commonwealth of Kentucky bought Federal Hill and dedicated it as a historic site. The mansion was renamed “My Old Kentucky Home” in 1923, and Foster’s ballad became the state song of Kentucky in 1928.
My Old Kentucky Home State Park is a “must-visit” for every American tourist’s bucket list. Its programs focus on Kentucky culture and traditions, the career of Stephen Foster, the daily lives of slaves at Federal Hill, and the operation of a Kentucky farm in the 1700s and early 1800s. Nearly all of the furniture on exhibit is original, once owned by the Rowan family.
The park has a conference center and wedding space, a gift shop featuring Kentucky Derby memorabilia and books by Kentucky authors, and culinary kitchens. Popular programs include daily mansion tours, an “Old Kentucky” Christmas carol tour, a mint julep masterclass, a “Shadows of Federal Hill” ghost tour, and more. The park also features a regulation 18-hole golf course with a fully equipped pro shop, and a campground.
In the official ceremony launching the Kentucky State quarter in 2001, Governor Paul E. Patton described the old Federal Hill mansion and the thoroughbred horse as “the two most visible, beloved symbols in Kentucky.” First Lady Judi Patton wrote:
We hold dear those symbols that draw thousands of visitors to our state every year—My Old Kentucky Home State Park, the thoroughbred industry, our rolling fields of bluegrass outlined by plank fences. We welcome all Americans to experience the beauty of Kentucky and the friendliness of its people, and we hope they will see some sense of that in our Kentucky quarter.
Dennis Tucker, Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, is the publisher of Whitman Publishing, a leading producer of storage and display supplies, reference books, and other resources for collectors and hobbyists. He was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel in March 2021 for his career in book publishing and his promotion of the Bluegrass State’s status as an important subject in numismatics. His column “From the Colonel’s Desk” explores the Commonwealth’s rich connections to American coins, tokens, medals, paper money, private currency, and related artifacts.