The Woman Behind the Long-Awaited Obverse Quarter Design

By Jill Westeyn
November 8, 2021

Laura Gardin Fraser
Sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser. (©Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Contributions of American women have often been overlooked, but that is about to change. Literally. Beginning in 2022, the American Women Quarters™ Program will feature reverse designs honoring distinguished American women. One woman’s design, created 90 years ago, will take its place as the program’s common obverse: the unifying element of the program. Learn more about Laura Gardin Fraser and the story of this long-awaited obverse design.

Laura Gardin Fraser (1889-1966) was one of the most prolific female sculptors of the early 20th century. Her output is lauded in both numismatic and artistic circles. Her work, from hand-sized to larger-than-life-sized, is the subject of numerous coins, medals, statues, and monuments.

Born Laura Gardin in 1889, she was introduced to art and clay sculpture at an early age by her mother. Her fondness grew with age and she formally studied sculpture at the Art Students League (ASL) in New York from 1907 to 1911. She won several awards while in school, establishing herself early on in her career.

In 1913, Laura Gardin married her former instructor, James Earle Fraser. A year later, they moved to Westport, Connecticut, and shared a studio together. Prior to her marriage, she received a commission from Women’s Home Companion to design and sculpt the Better Babies medal (1913). Many of her early works are small-scale, such as this one, and many feature animals – a lifelong love of hers. While people think of her as a sculptor as a result of her marriage, she was an established artist prior to becoming “Mrs. James Earle Fraser.”

Laura Gardin Fraser elevated numismatic art with her work on numerous medals: Congressional Medals; the U.S. Army and Navy Chaplains medal; the George Washington Bicentennial medal; and medals for the National Geographic Society, the American Bar Association, and the National Sculpture Society; to name several.

Additionally, her work on commemorative coins for the United States Mint are significant as well. She became the first woman to design a U.S. commemorative coin when she designed the reverse of the 1921 Alabama Centennial Half Dollar.

Fraser’s work with the U.S. Mint also includes the:

She worked together with her husband on the 1926 Oregon Trail Memorial Half Dollar commemorative coin – the only work they truly collaborated on.

George Washington Quarter Obverse

In 1931, Congress held a competition to design a coin to honor the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. The original competition called for the obverse of the coin to feature a portrait of George Washington, based on the famed life-mask bust by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The reverse was to feature a design that was to be “national” in nature.

Laura Gardin Fraser submitted a design that features a right-facing portrait of George Washington on the obverse, while the reverse shows an eagle with wings spread wide. In a 1932 letter to recommend Fraser’s design, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) wrote to (then) Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon:

“This bust is regarded by artists who have studied it as the most authentic likeness of Washington. Such was the skill of the artist in making this life-mask that it embodies those high qualities of the man’s character which have given him a place among the great of the world…Simplicity, directness, and nobility characterize it. The design has style and elegance…The Commission believes that this design would present to the people of this country the Washington whom they revere.”

While her design was popular, it was not chosen. Instead, Secretary Mellon ultimately selected the left-facing John Flanagan design, which has appeared on the quarter’s obverse since 1932.

Fraser’s design, however, was not forgotten. The Mint revived it 68 years later for the 1999 George Washington Commemorative Gold $5 Coin.

In 2022, 90 years after she intended for it to do so, Laura Gardin Fraser’s design will fittingly take its place on the quarter. It will be the obverse for the American Women Quarters Program, a four-year program that celebrates American women and the contributions they made to this country. The Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020 (Public Law 116-330) requires a new obverse design that maintains a likeness of George Washington, but be designed so as to distinguish it from the one used during the previous quarters program.

2022 American Women Quarters Program Obverse Render
A render of the American Women Quarters Program obverse.

The CFA and Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) strongly supported using a design by a prominent American female sculptor for a program featuring prominent American women. This decision was approved by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in June 2021.

“She’s able to create a sense of his seriousness of purpose. The cheek muscles, you see the strength, the strength of character. The looking ahead, straight ahead, the sense of vision. All of these come together with a sense of statesmanship and a commanding presence that she is able to achieve with remarkable ease.” – Dr. Dean Kotlowski, CCAC member

More information about products featuring the American Women Quarters and their release for circulation is coming soon. Check our product schedule or sign up for marketing emails to receive more information about upcoming products.

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