The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago took place in an era of progress in women’s rights. The Chicago Fair was authorized by an 1890 Act of Congress, which established and funded Board of Lady Managers to help oversee the administration of the Fair and ensure women were represented. The Board of Lady Managers, chaired by wealthy socialite Berth Palmer, was given considerable resources. A specially designated Women’s Building, designed by a female architect, hosted a large conference on women’s issues during the Fair. Palmer and the other Lady Managers were determined to show that women could actively contribute to the Fair’s success.
By 1892, however, the Fair’s organizers were severely over-budget and petitioned Congress for assistance in the form of a commemorative half dollar, which would be sold as a souvenir at a premium price of $1. The Columbus half-dollar, honoring the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ journey to the Americas, was released in late 1892. Despite the fanfare, Palmer and the other Lady Managers were dissatisfied with its design and laid plans to introduce a competing coin. Palmer directly petitioned the House Appropriations Committee, which redirected $10,000 already slated for the Lady Managers into a souvenir quarter program. With a face value of twenty-five cents per coin, it was planned to strike 40,000 pieces.
To complement the Columbus half dollar design, the Lady Managers selected Isabella, the Queen of Spain to largely financed Columbus’ expedition, to appear on their new coin design. Palmer solicited a number of female artists and sculptors to design “the first really beautiful and artistic coin that has ever been issued by the government of the United States,” as she put it. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who would later design a number of US coins, recommended one of his talented female students, Caroline Peddle.
US Mint officials, such as Charles Barber, were less enthusiastic about the Lady Managers designing their own commemorative coin. Barber and other Mint officials put tremendous pressure on Peddle, who resigned after a few weeks. Ultimately, Barber’s own design was selected for the obverse, which features a crowned Queen Isabella facing westward. A sketch prepared by his assistant, George T. Morgan (namesake of the Morgan Dollar), was the basis for the reverse design. The reverse portrays a woman with distaff and spindle at work, represented women’s industry.
In total, 40,023 pieces were struck. The small surplus over the authorized forty thousand was designated for the Assay Commission, which met annually to examine samples of the Mint’s production and verify that its coins were within specification.
Even with its significantly smaller mintage, the Isabella quarter did not sell well. They were available for sale by mail order or on the fairgrounds at the Women’s Building, were not widely distributed. They did not spark widespread media attention or any sort of buying frenzy. About fifteen thousand were sold to the public; another ten thousand were bought at face value (not the premium price) by the Lady Managers and Palmer herself; the balance was returned to the Mint to be melted down.
The main obstacle to the Isabella quarter’s success was its sale price of one dollar. This was the same sale price as the Columbus half-dollar and was thus seen as even less of a bargain. Amid the Panic of 1893, which had started in February of that year, twenty-five cents was not an insignificant amount of money to souvenir buyers.