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Who Designed the Quarter?


On this date in 1996, the United States issued its newly redesigned $100 bill. What does that have to do with North Dakota? Nothing, really. But now that we’re on the topic of money design, we’ll tell you the story of who did or didn’t design the Washington quarter – which does link to North Dakota history.

In 1981, the magazine Coin World discussed the history of the quarter and gave credit for its design to John Bernard Flannagan, a painter and sculptor who was born in Fargo in 1895. John Flannagan’s father, Martin, was a semi-employed police reporter who died when the boy was only five. Flannagan’s mother was destitute and put John and his brothers into an orphanage.

Between 1914 and 1917, John studied at the Minneapolis Institute of Fine Arts, after which he worked as a merchant marine for five years. By 1923, Flannagan was an alcoholic sleeping in subway cars.

About this time, Arthur Davies, an artist, befriended Flannagan and offered him shelter on a farm in Congers, New York. By the end of the year, Flannagan was painting and exhibiting his work again. He also started sculpting. He couldn’t afford good stone, so he worked with fieldstone and soon gained recognition for creating minimalist animal figures.

Six years later, life was looking up for Flannagan. He got married, and in 1932, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to travel to Ireland to study. His work was now being exhibited in some of the country’s most prestigious galleries, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Chicago Institute of Art.

Unfortunately, Flannagan’s happiness was fleeting. Two years later, his wife left him and he suffered a breakdown. A few months later, Flannagan remarried, but four years later, he was hit by a car and had to undergo four brain surgeries. He never really recovered. Two years later, he sent his wife to Boston for Christmas and turned on the gas in his studio in New York. He was found dead on January 6th, 1942.

Flannagan’s reputation didn’t disappear, though. In 1995, when his first wife died, a collection of his work was found in an outbuilding on her property. Two years ago, the work was auctioned for approximately $83,000. The major piece in the collection, a granite bust of a woman sculpted in Ireland in 1932, sold for $35,000.

Now, getting back to the Washington quarter... the Coin World article credited Flannagan with its design. 1932 was George Washington’s 200th birthday, and Congress had authorized a new 25-cent piece, the design of which was to be based on a 1785 bust of Washington.

It turns out that the Coin World article attributed the design to the wrong John Flannagan. Our Fargo Flannagan never worked in metal, only stone. The other John Flanagan was from Newark, New Jersey, spelled his last name differently, and had an extensive background in creating medals of honor, including one for the British commander of the Carpathia, the ship that rescued 704 passengers when the Titanic went down. It is generally agreed that it was this Flanagan who designed the Washington quarter.

Nonetheless, our John Flannagan was a notable artist who deserves recognition in his own right.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm