The first quarter dollars struck in the United States were the Draped Bust Quarters. This series was produced with two distinctive reverse designs, creating two rare and important subtypes. The first of these was struck in a single year in 1796, also representing the first year for the denomination. Following a gap in production, the second reverse design was used from 1804 until the conclusion of the series in 1807. Only a limited number of coins were produced during the brief duration of the series, with both the 1796 and 1804 dates being rarities. The remaining dates of 1805, 1806, and 1807 are a bit more available, but far from common.
The Draped Bust Quarter had been introduced four years after the Mint Act of 1792 and three years after the first coins were struck under the Act. This was the result of the limited demand for the denomination within the American monetary system at the time. For everyday commerce, the quarter dollar was just a little too large, as most transactions were conducted in cents and other small denominations. Silver depositors, who requested their metal to be struck into federal coinage at the Mint, usually requested larger denominations, which were more convenient. Most transactions between banks and companies were conducted in larger denominations as well.
The first quarter dollars were designed by Robert Scot, who is also credited with the designs of other early American coins. The silver denominations introduced in 1794 and 1795 featured the head of Liberty with flowing hair. The quarter dollars introduced in 1796 featured what was seen as an improvement to that design. The full bust of Liberty is depicted, older in appearance and facing right. Her hair is still flowing, but closer to her neck and loosely bound by a ribbon. The portrait is surrounded by fifteen stars, representing each of the states in the Union at the time. The date, slightly curved, is near the bottom, along the rim.
The original reverse of the Draped Bust Quarter featured the same design that had been introduced on the half dollars and silver dollars of 1794. An eagle appears with wings spread, placed within a field free from other parts of the design. A wreath surrounds, with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA around the periphery of the coin. No denomination is given, as was the case with all other early American coins. The only possibility to make the distinction between the various denominations was through the size of the coin, and in some instances the edge.
Production of the first reverse type occurred for only a single year in 1796. Further minting of the denomination did not occur until 1804, when a different reverse design was introduced. The obverse was not altered, except for the number of stars, which was reduced to thirteen. The new reverse, designed by Robert Scot, was completely different in appearance than the original.
An eagle was still featured in the central part of the design, no longer in natural state, but rather in heraldic form. A large shield is placed in front of the eagle, with an olive branch in one claw and a bundle of arrows in the other. Thirteen stars appear above the eagle’s head, and a ribbon is held in the eagle’s beak with the inscription E PLURIBUS UNUM. A number of clouds appear above the stars, and inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and 25 C. surround the image.