The Seated Liberty Quarter represented the face of the denomination for much of the 19th century, with pieces struck from 1838 until 1891. Six different subtypes were produced during this period, due to multiple changes to the designs and specifications that took place throughout the series. Not all of these subtypes are always considered necessary for a full type set, but technically, they are all changes or improvements to the first Liberty Seated Quarters which were produced for circulation at the Philadelphia Mint in 1838.
At the time the new design for the quarter dollar was introduced, the same basic obverse design had already been in use for the half dime and dime since the previous year. The design would later be adopted for the half dollar in 1839 and the silver dollar in 1840. The “Seated Liberty” design was an old concept that was based on Britannia, who had been featured on British coins. Artist Thomas Sully made a number of sketches, which assistant engraver Christian Gobrecht would modify to become suitable for coinage.
The original obverse design features an image of Liberty seated on a rock, holding a pole in her hand with a Phrygian cap on top of it. She is looking over her left shoulder, and her right hand rests on a union shield with the inscription LIBERTY. The date is below the seated figure, thirteen stars are around, and no further lettering is included.
The original reverse of the Seated Liberty Quarter features an American Eagle, which is somewhat based on the earlier design by John Reich. Multiple modifications to the size and visual appearance of the eagle, make the two designs easily distinguishable from on another. For the present series, the eagle faces forward, with an olive branch and bundle of arrows in its claws. The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA appears above the eagle, and the denomination QUAR. DOL. appears below the eagle’s claws. Earlier quarter dollars featured no denomination or showed it as 25 C.
Circulation of the series was widespread, and some issues carried relatively large mintages. However, this does not preclude some issues from being among the foremost rarities in American coinage, making completion of a full set a monumental undertaking. More basic sets, such as those from a given period or from a certain Mint, are certainly possible to complete with patience. For type set purposes, all types are generally available, but some are scarce in high grade. Mid-grade circulated coins with original surfaces have become increasingly difficult to find, and now sell for reasonable premiums.