Mr. Potato Head on the back of a quarter? Or the Nike swoosh? Or the Golden Gate Bridge?
These are a few of the ideas - silly and serious - being batted around as Congress finalizes a proposal to let every state put its own artwork on the reverse side of America’s most used coin.
Starting in 1999, George Washington and his silver pigtail would head a series of redesigned tails. Five new coins would be minted each year for nationwide use, honoring states in the order they were admitted to the union.
In 2009, the American eagle would return. Nor surprisingly, the plan has inspired some wild imaginings.
In Illinois, the Chicago Tribune suggested chiseling Michael Jordan onto its 25-cent piece. The San Francisco Chronicle urged a California bas-relief of “a motorist beating a bicyclist to death with a stuffed spotted owl.” And New Jersey residents have floated such ideas as a tollbooth, Thomas Edison with a light bulb and the slogan “Washington slept here.”
The federal government, meanwhile, has another vision - an estimated $1 billion savings from coin collectors and schoolchildren keeping the 50-state sets as souvenirs.
That could be overly optimistic. Treasury Department rules forbid anything truly catchy: no living people, no busts of dead celebrities (to prevent two-headed coins) and nothing “frivolous.”
So the Los Angeles Times consulted its own panel of pseudo experts and told them to ignore the guidelines.
First, our suggestions for several other states. Arizona: two governors in handcuffs (Evan Mecham and Fife Symington). Nevada: just a simple inscription, “Kiss this goodbye.” Hawaii: Jack Lord, a.k.a. Steve McGarrett of “Hawaii Five-0.” Wisconsin: a hunk of Tillamook with the state’s unofficial motto, “Eat cheese or die.” Idaho: Mr. Potato Head.
For more serious musings, Newsweek columnist George Will recently offered such intriguing advice as: Huck Finn for Missouri (“lighting out for the territories and away from the boneheads who today want to censor him”), artist Georgia O’Keefe for New Mexico, Mount Rushmore for South Dakota (“an agreeable example of American excess”), pitcher Nolan Ryan for Texas (he “played baseball like a gunslinger”) and Pearl Harbor’s USS Arizona for Hawaii (“lest we forget”).
He also suggested that Vermont’s coin be engraved with native son Calvin Coolidge, who “presided over a 45 percent increase in America’s ice cream production” - and that Oregon choose a shoe logo: “The symbol of Beaverton’s Nike corporation is everywhere else, so the swoosh might as well be on the quarter.”
For California, Will nominated William Mulholland. “Forget the movie ‘Chinatown,”’ he wrote. “Honor the man who brought water to Southern California.”
No way. Well, maybe if Mulholland is wearing Ray-Bans.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how each state (wrestles with) the question of ‘What is the one image that we all agree represents us?’ ” says coin historian Alan M. Stahl, of the American Numismatic Society in New York City. When Canada tried a similar program in 1992, “they used animals because that’s all anyone could agree on.”
Under the legislation before Congress, the method by which states pick their artwork isn’t specified. But the images would be subject to approval by the Federal Fine Arts Commission, the Citizens Commemorative Coin Advisory Commission and the Treasury secretary.
The bill has already cleared the House, on a 413-6 vote, and is expected to win Senate OK in a few weeks. The sponsor, Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, says the plan would be fun, educational - and profitable. Because the government pays just 4 cents to manufacture each quarter, every coin taken out of circulation by collectors shaves 21 cents off the amount of money that the Treasury would otherwise have to borrow to back up the coin’s face value. That, in turn, reduces interest payments on the national debt.
In this case, Congress predicts a savings of $1 billion over 10 years. But an awful lot of quarters - 15.4 billion - would have to be squirreled away for that to happen.
No problem, Castle insists: The last time the 25-cent piece was altered - for the bicentennial in 1976 - collectors hung onto 80 percent of the 1.7 billion coins minted.
Still, not everyone believes the state quarters will be as popular. “We could see a lot of dull designs,” says John Kleeberg, curator of modern coins for the American Numismatic Society.
Stahl’s guess is that most states will settle on birds or flowers. “I don’t think you can choose just one dead person or one building anymore,” he says. “If you do, someone is bound to feel offended or left out.”