The longest running design used for the quarter eagle denomination was the Liberty Quarter Eagle. Introduced in 1840, the series would continue until 1907, when it was finally replaced with a new design. The large number of different circulating coins produced for the series includes issues that range from easily available to extremely rare, but luckily enough for devoted specialists, there are no issues that are unobtainable or even unique. However, enough issues have so few pieces known that completion of this set in any grade is a major accomplishment and a challenge taken by very few collectors.
The Liberty Quarter Eagle carried virtually the same design as the other two circulating gold denominations ($5 half eagle and $10 eagle). The designs were created by Christian Gobrecht, who had been working for the United States Mint since the mid 1820’s and had become the assistant engraver and eventually engraver at the Mint in 1935. His designs for the gold denominations would become one of the most recognizable due to their long duration in circulation.
The obverse featured a head of Liberty, facing left. The female representing Liberty appears young, perhaps in her twenties. Clearly, Gobrecht based his design on the earlier representations of Liberty, combined with a few additions of his own. The word “LIBERTY” is inscribed on a coronet, and Liberty’s hair is in a knot. Completing the design are thirteen stars around the image and the date just below the truncation of the neck.
On the reverse is the image of an American bald eagle, with roughly the same appearance as the previous type. The eagle’s claws grasp an olive branch and three arrows and a shield is placed at the eagle’s chest. Compared to the previous type, the lettering is larger, as is the Eagle itself. The inscription “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” is around, and the denomination, as “2 ½ D.” is below. Next to the denominations are two large dots which separate it from the lettering.
Unlike the large gold denominations that employed the same design, the Liberty Quarter Eagle did not see the introduction of the motto “In God We Trust” in 1866, perhaps because it was already seen as a relatively crowded. The only somewhat major change to the design would occur in 1859 when a new reverse hub was put into use at the Philadelphia Mint, which featured smaller lettering and arrowheads. During 1859, 1860, and 1861, quarter eagles may be encountered with with the old or new reverse. The old reverse always is the less available of the two, and those struck with the old reverse in 1860 and 1861 are quite scarce, especially in high grades.