Did You Know That Laura Gardin Fraser’s Bust of George Washington First Appeared on a $5 Commemorative Coin in 1999?

Collectors and consumers alike noticed a dramatic change to the bust of George Washington adorning the quarter’s obverse in 2022. With the initiation of the American Women Quarters program (for 2022-2025), the first President had done a 180° turn, now facing right, with a detailed bust and somewhat different wig style. The changed portrait of the first Commander-in-Chief drew both praise and criticism. Unbeknownst to many consumers, this new bust wasn’t really new.

The design, whose history began in the early 1930s, first appeared on a coin nearly a quarter-century prior: a 1999 gold piece commemorating the 200th anniversary of Washington’s death. Laura Gardin Fraser, the first woman to design a U.S. coin, developed it based on Jean Antoine Houdon’s bust of the first President.

The story of the “new” Washington bust began with commemorations planned for the 1932 bicentennial of Washington’s birth. (1) Per Q. David Bowers’ 2006 A Guide Book of Washington and State Quarters, Congressionally-established bicentennial committees pushed for commemorative half dollars marking the anniversary. Legislation introduced and eventually adopted authorized quarters, not just for the bicentennial year but as a permanent replacement for the Standing Liberty motif. Rules for the design competition stipulated that any depiction of Washington be based on Jean-Antoine Houdon’s famous 1780s marble bust.

Though the Commission of Fine Arts endorsed Laura Gardin Fraser’s design in 1931, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon ultimately selected a design by another artist, John Flanagan. Some numismatic researchers contend that sexism animated Mellon’s decision, although documentary evidence of this motivation is scant.

Gardin Fraser’s designs appeared on many other U.S. coins and medals, while Flanagan’s portrait would appear on the quarter’s obverse, in different sizes and small modifications, for almost 90 years. Gardin Fraser passed in 1966.

Thirty-three years later, another Washington-related anniversary brought her neglected design out of obscurity. In 1996, Congress passed legislation authorizing a commemorative $5 coin marking the 1999 bicentennial of Washington’s death. For its obverse, Gardin Fraser’s design was used, a belated acknowledgement of her contribution to the commemoration decades earlier.

The American Women Quarters program, authorized in 2020, commemorates the contributions of various women to American life, and thus the use of Gardin Fraser’s bust is particularly appropriate.

(1) Sydney F. Martin’s Numismatic Commemorations of the 200th Birthday of George Washington in 1932 is a useful volume for those interested in the tokens and medals associated with that bicentennial.

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