In the mid-1990s, U.S. Mint Director Philip N. Diehl felt that America’s coinage was in need of rejuvenation. All circulating United States coins had gone decades without a substantial redesign. The Lincoln Cent had not changed since 1959, the Jefferson Nickel went untouched since 1938, the Roosevelt Dime was identical to its original form from 1946, the Washington Quarter had never been modified since its release in 1932, and the Kennedy Half Dollar was the “youngest” design at just 30-35 years of age.
Diehl, along with members of the Citizens Coin Advisory Committee, recommended that a series of new Quarter Dollar designs be released to honor all 50 states. This initiative, known as the State Quarter Program, was met with some resistance at first. The cost of commissioning, designing and striking 50 new coinage designs would have to be offset by additional seigniorage and numismatic profits.
At the time, commemorative numismatic coins were not selling well. In many cases the U.S. Mint lost money by commissioning, designing, producing and marketing commemoratives for collectors. The Treasury department and some members of Congress felt that the State Quarter Program would be yet another unsuccessful commemorative coin program—just on a larger scale.
The potential program remained in limbo until 1997, when a Coopers & Lybrand study indicated that nearly 100 million Americans were likely to save, accumulate and/or collect the new statehood quarters. The Treasury department still opposed the program and refused to proceed with it unless mandated by Congress. Finally, in December 1997, Congress passed the United States Commemorative Coin Program Act, a piece of legislation that paved the way for the State Quarter Program.
In a nutshell, the reverse of the Washington Quarter would be changed once every ten weeks. Each reverse would honor a different state. The state Quarters were released in the order of admission to the union. Thus, with Delaware being the first state, it was the first to be celebrated on a state Quarter. The program would continue for a total of ten years (i.e. five new issues per year).
The Coopers & Lybrand study proved to be prophetic—if anything it underestimated the demand for the state quarters. It’s estimated that between 125-150 million Americans have collected state Quarters in some form, mostly by plucking coins from circulation. The Mint has also generated significant profits from selling special silver editions, mint sets, and proof sets to collectors.