November 8th, 2009

My Two Cents Worth: Very Small Wonders

Effigy Mounds National Monument … Kisatchie National Forest … Weir Farm National Historic Site … Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge … Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

These are among the natural and man-made wonders scheduled for depiction on the 56 Washington quarters to be issued beginning next year in the “America the Beautiful” series, better known to collectors as the “national parks” program.

The list of sites to be showcased was announced Sept. 9 by Mint Director Edmund C. Moy, who beamed like a proud father as he introduced the world to the “brood” being hatched by the Mint.

“These new quarters,” Moy exclaimed, “will honor some of our most revered, treasured and beautiful national sites—majestic and historic places located throughout the United States and its territories that truly make us ‘America the Beautiful.’

“The designs will help reinvigorate interest in our national parks, forests, fish and wildlife refuges, and other national sites, as well as educate the public about their importance to us and our history.”

I’m sure all these places are sources of pride to people in their home states and marvelous getaways for those who know their whereabouts. Frankly, however, many of them rank among the most obscure U.S. coinage subjects since Fort Vancouver, Washington, and York County, Maine.

This is not what most vocal advocates of coinage redesign—myself included—had in mind back in the 1980s when we fought for meaningful change in Americans’ pocket change. This is not the fulfillment of our dreams; it’s stark confirmation that our dreams are fast becoming living nightmares.

We wanted change for the better, not lengthy series of monotonous variations on the same basic themes. We wanted coinage subjects with the power to instill a sense of national pride, not “historic sites” that are “national” in name but mostly parochial in nature. And we wanted coins whose memorable designs would mirror “America the Beautiful.” Given the Mint’s recent track record, that mirror will be hopelessly cracked on the upcoming quarters.

To put this into perspective, Congress and the Mint couldn’t even bring themselves to support special coins for the Civil War centennial in the early 1960s—coins to mark the most critical event in U.S. history. Yet today, the Mint is poised to make circulating coins not only for the “beauties” already mentioned, but also for such very remote outposts as the National Park of American Samoa, American Memorial Park in the Northern Mariana Islands and Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Sadly, the worst is undoubtedly yet to come—when the Mint unveils the 56 designs “inspired” by the laundry list of sites. We’ve already had a sneak preview, for several coins issued in recent years bore designs meant to capture the grandeur of national parks and other natural wonders. And all were dismal failures.

“Exhibit A” is the 1999 commemorative silver dollar honoring Yellowstone National Park. Its feeble attempt to portray “Old Faithful” made the geyser look more like a monster’s fist bursting out of the ground as villagers watched in horror.

To spotlight Yosemite Valley on the California quarter, the Mint depicted an elderly man—said to be naturalist John Muir—resting beside a big rock while a bird (perhaps a vulture?) circled overhead. Crater Lake emerged on the Oregon quarter as a kind of giant bird bath ringed by Christmas trees. And even the Rocky Mountains on the Colorado quarter resembled the rumpled sleeve of a corduroy jacket.

The Mint is not entirely to blame for artistic miscarriages such as these. Sweeping natural wonders don’t lend themselves to depiction on tiny canvases—especially those the size of a Washington quarter. The finger of guilt also must be pointed at those who ordered the Mint to design and strike such coins in the first place.

The 50 State Quarters program showed that many Americans were receptive to coinage redesign. Millions of people embraced the new coins despite mediocre designs and many set them aside—perhaps becoming collectors in the process.

But prospects for the new coins seem more clouded. Even within the hobby, enthusiasm is waning for marathon-length series of special coins. Plus, the subjects being honored are narrower in scope and more difficult to portray than those on the 50-state quarters.

Let’s hope that we’re not entering a kind of coinage wilderness on a river of no return.?

2009 . Issues . My Two Cents . November