In the early 20th century, the US Mint frequently issued commemorative coins (usually half dollars) on behalf of various organizations to raise funds for a specific project. But the system was rife with abuses: many projects being funded were of questionable national importance; many coins sold poorly and were returned to the Mint for melting; coin dealers often used morally dubious strategies to profit. By the 1950s, the Mint soured on the concept of commemorative coins, and the “early commemorative” era ceased in 1954. After this time, the Treasury rejected all proposals for commemorative coins.
Even in the years leading up to the nation’s bicentennial, Treasury officials strenuously opposed proposals for a commemorative half dollar. There were even proposals to issue special versions of all six circulating US coins, from the penny to the dollar. But US Mint Director Mary Brooks wanted to minimize the impact to the Mint’s normal operations and strongly opposed this idea at first. Brooks eventually came around to the idea and testified in support of modified dollars and half dollars before House and Senate committees in 1973. In response to concern that these two coins were the least common, Brooks also indicated her support for a bicentennial quarter, as well.
After a long process of negotiations between members of Congress, a bill authorizing the three bicentennial coin designs was passed in October 1973. The bill called for special reverse designs for each coin; the obverses would not be modified for 1976, save for a special “double date” of 1776-1976. All coins produced from July 4, 1975, through the end of 1976 would bear the special designs and double dates; for these three denominations, no coins were produced with a 1975 date.
The Mint held a competition to select the three reverse designs. A prize of $5000 was offered for each of the three winners. Brooks traveled across the country to promote the competition, and the Mint received 884 submissions by the January 1974 deadline. After whittling the designs down to twelve, and then six, a committee consisting of Brooks and various other officials selected the three winners in March 1974. The Mint’s Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro made minor modifications before productions.
The quarter’s special reverse features a Revolutionary War drummer boy, flanked by a torch surrounded by thirteen stars; the half dollar features Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed; the dollar bears an image of the Liberty Bell with the Moon in the background, representing America’s recent forays into space. A slight modification was made to the lettering on the half dollar after the initial production run did not strike well; as a result, there are Type I and Type II varieties of this coin.
Due the enormous quantities struck, many of the circulation bicentennial coins are still circulating today. 40% silver coins were also struck for collectors and distributed in mint sets and proof sets. The Mint was still trying to sell out of these sets a decade later, and they are relatively inexpensive today.