Rob Walker | Collections

Rob Walker’s Collection of Bicentennial Quarters

Rob Walkers collection of bicentennial quarters

I’ve tried to collect things in the past, but I always fail. I buy one or two patent-medicine bottles, or old issues of Fortune, or whatever, and then I lose interest and feel like (that is: I realize that) I’m wasting money.

However, I have been collecting Bicentennial quarters for about six years now, maybe longer. I know it started after and maybe as a kind of perverse response to, the U.S. Mint's 10-year cycle of introducing state-specific quarters for limited periods. As you can see, I have 22 Bicentennial quarters to date. I peg the value of my collection at $5.50. I could put the whole of it in my pocket, if I wanted to. But instead I keep it in a little box on a shelf in my office.

I don’t seek out Bicentennial quarters. I’m not even sure how I would. Can you buy them on eBay? Anyway, I don’t want to seek them out. Here’s how my collecting works: When someone hands me change that includes a quarter, I examine that quarter. If I see a drumming patriot, it’s in. This approach makes it pretty much impossible for my collecting to be shaped by anything except chance and observation.

That said, the connection to the Bicentennial is not irrelevant. I was seven years old for most of 1976, but even at that age I felt that there was something tacky and depressing about the celebrations marking the 200th “birthday” of the United States. I didn’t really have a handle on concepts like Watergate, or Vietnam, but I did get taken by my parents to a Ford rally, where I got a Whip Inflation Now sticker and somehow picked up on the idea that a lot of people were in a pessimistic mood. Nobody really seemed into the whole yay-America thing; it all seemed like a bummer. As Thomas Hine astutely puts in the title of his terrific book about the 1970s and its now-hard-to-believe aesthetic, it was the era of The Great Funk. So I remember the Bicentennial as involving people in awful costumes, going through the motions of singing songs nobody wanted to hear, under the flicker of a poor fireworks display. Perhaps all of this was my first exposure to the concept of the marketing gimmick?

In any case, a marketing gimmick is what these quarters finally are, to me — a feeble attempt to lend “talk value” to the American idea, via the inescapable medium of currency. I started collecting these quarters partly as a joke on the idea of collecting, but also because one day somebody handed me one and I said to myself: “Oh yeah. These.” It struck me as funny that such a thing ever existed and funnier that it still exists. Who’s idea was this? What on earth was the goal?

It’s no more pointless then the Mint’s 50 States Quarters Program, of course. And in fact it I now see it as pointless in a way that’s strikes me as more innocent, naïve, hopeful, even sweet. I’m actually glad they did it. Despite everything I just said, mostly my memories of 1976 are in fact quite fond. I wouldn’t want to go back to that era, but I’m happy to have experienced it, perhaps especially as a child, because it really is a lost world — a time not just before the Web, but before Reagan, before cable (where I grew up anyway), before a lot of good things and a lot of bad things. Yet I was there!

And so were these quarters. All 22 of them. And counting.

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Comments [7]

Occasionally, in the 1970's, one would also get a half-dollar (regular or Bicentennial edition) or a $2 bill. Rarely see them now, but they too bring back a flood of memories from that lost decade.
Matthew Healey

My favorite thing to get in pocket change is pre-1982 pennies. I always check them and toss the good ones in a bag for later rolling into 50-cent coin rolls. The bad ones go in a big jar. After October 22, 1982 the US Mint started putting out pennies made of copper-coated zinc in order to save money. The good old bronze ones became history. If you have some 1982s, you can weigh them to see if they're real. Use a sensitive scale. The real ones weigh 3.11 grams. The fake new ones weigh 2.5 grams. Aside from being cheated out of having "real" pennies anymore, the copper-plated zinc ones can kill you if ingested. Several dogs have died, along with some young children. But then, people who are allergic to nickel, the main ingredient of our 5¢ pieces, can suffer from just handling them. Money can be just plain dangerous!
Tom Hurley

Money, especially coins, does bring back memories. I was showing my three-year old a "wheat" penny this past weekend. And while she didn't really see the "wheat" it made me smile.

I am not sure who had the idea, but as a child I collected stamps, while my father collected coins. For some reason, we took new two dollar bills to the post office on July 4, 1976, placed special edition stamps on them, and had them postmarked. I haven't a clue if they have any additional value today, but we have several!
Kevin Wyatt

Im a sucker for wheat Pennies, ever since I was a kid I have loved them. Also pre-64 nickels tend to wear in an interesting way.

What, no Bitcoin?

No collection can be called complete without one.

Joe Stirt

I do the same exact thing with bicentennial quarters. They were such a huge deal when I was a kid — particularly because I spent July 4, 1976, in ENGLAND of all places, and missed all the festivities back home (I was 8) — that I find it impossible to spend them when they turn up in my change.
Josh Glenn

I was 16 in 1974. I can assure you the Bicentennial was a bummer.

My father went through his pocket change in similar manner, but starting much earlier, so I have one of those metal file boxes full of buffalo nickels, Liberty dimes, Franklin half-dollars, and silver dollars by the fistful (I sincerely doubt the latter was to be found in pocket change). I learned to look for mint marks, learned about steel pennies being a part of WWII rationing, and have watched in dismay as our coinage has gotten consistently uglier. The attempts at a dollar coin have been abject failures. Truly, the Benjamin Harrison dollar is a thing to be beheld in awe...at just how bad a portrait can be. And what a figure to start with!

And the old school shield on the back of the new pennies...potentially cool somewhere, but not on the back of the Lincoln cent.

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