Hawaii's New Quarter is More than Just Chump Change

12/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jim Noles Environmental Attorney and Author

Next week, the long-awaited Hawaii state quarter will jingle and jangle into hands, pockets, and coin purses across the United States. Its inscription will remind Americans that "the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness"; its engraving of Hawaii's historic King Kamehameha the Great will remind them that it is not a hollow boast.

Hawaii's will be the fiftieth quarter produced through the U.S. Mint's 50 State Quarters Program -- a remarkable endeavor legislated into existence by Congressman Mike Castle (R-Del.) and the late Senator John Chafee (D-RI) in 1997. In 1999, the U.S. Mint started issuing five new quarters a year in the order the states entered the Union, beginning with Delaware.

To date, some 34 billion of the state quarters have been issued -- with millions of them being hoarded by coin collectors. In fact, so many quarters are being taken out of circulation and not being spent that, according to some estimates, the U.S. Mint is realizing a profit of close to $6 billion on the program.

But these new quarters have offered intangible value as well. Just sneak a peek at the quarters in your pocket.

Do you have one for Massachusetts? The Minuteman Statue on its reverse probably looks familiar to you, but did you realize that it depicts a real minuteman -- Isaac Davis, to be precise -- who gave his life at Concord's North Bridge?

Or what about New Jersey? Its quarter illustrates Washington crossing the Delaware River to attack Trenton. On the coin, though, you can not see that Washington's men were rowing into the teeth of a blizzard so brutal that some of his men literally froze to death in their tracks. Nor can you recognize that it is future president James Monroe holding the Stars & Stripes aloft.

How about Delaware? Its coin depicts Caesar Rodney galloping on horseback and en route to Philadelphia, 80 miles away, to cast a deciding vote for independence on July 2, 1776. What you can not see, however, is the painful facial cancer that eventually took his life when he was unable to travel to London for treatment.

Louisiana's quarter depicts a brown pelican. For years, Louisiana had to endure the irony of having a state bird that was virtually extinct within its own boundaries. But thanks to the outlawing of DDT and other state and federal protective measures, the bird's population has rebounded and today can be found in Louisiana on piers and quarterdecks as well as merely on quarters.

Iowa's design is based on Grant Wood's painting "Arbor Day." Although Wood is probably best known for his work "American Gothic," the explanation he gave when he decided to leave his art studies in Europe to return home to Iowa was equally memorable.

"It was then that I realized that all the really good ideas I'd ever had came to me while I was milking a cow," Wood declared. "So I went back to Iowa."

New York's coin depicts an even more famous work of art -- the Statue of Liberty or, more precisely, "The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World." Of course, on a mere coin, you can not see Emma Lazarus' famous poetry inscribed on the statue's pedestal.

Then again, neither could Emma. She penned the poem "The New Colossus" and her famous words -- "Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses" - to help finance the statue in 1883. But Emma died of Hodgkin's disease at the age of 38. It was scarcely a year after the statue she helped finance was completed. Her poem would not be placed on the statue's pedestal until 1903.

Sometimes the lessons are even more subtle. Consider Kansas' quarter, for example. Like Montana's and North Dakota's, it relies on buffalo for imagery. But its buffalo also has the potential to remind us of the famed Buffalo Soldiers of Kansas' Fort Leavenworth -- men who helped teach a nation that courage knows no color.

Hawaii's quarter promises to deliver similar lessons of patriotism and pride in the years to come. So hold onto them for your children and grandchildren. For that reason alone, they'll be worth far more than twenty-five cents each.

Jim Noles, an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, is the author of the book
A Pocketful of History: 400 Years of America--One State Quarter at a Time (Da Capo Press, 2008).