Every once in awhile I’ll come across something a bit arcane that will catch my eye and really make me wonder.
For example, consider the pattern on the back of this cat:
I know; I can’t believe it either.
I’ll never forget the time I came across an eggplant at my local grocery store that looked exactly like Richard Milhous Nixon. I’m not kidding.
OK, on second thought, the eggplant didn’t look exactly like America’s 37th president — but the resemblance was definitely uncanny.
Not too long ago I came across something in my change that always made me scratch my head: a red quarter.
In fact, it looked very similar to the one in this photo:
I remember occasionally finding red-painted quarters in my change ever since I was a kid — and I’ve always wondered about their significance. How about you?
The truth is, red quarters are more common than you might think, and there are several good explanations floating around the infallible Internet explaining exactly how those scarlet-colored coins entered into circulation over the years.
Here are a few of the more plausible answers:
They’re old test coins. In the past, repairmen used them to check out the coin-operated pay phones, vending machines, and laundromat washers they were fixing in order to avoid being accused of stealing. That makes sense to me.
They were “house” money. Red quarters are sometimes used by business owners as perks; they give them to their preferred customers for free plays on the coin-operated pool tables, pinball machines and video games. Red quarters were also used by waitresses to “prime” otherwise quiet jukeboxes in order to encourage other patrons to add their own quarters and keep the music coming.
Somebody painted it as a sign of defiance. According to Answers.com, the red coins were part of a campaign in the 1970s to protest New Jersey officials’ decision to increase the toll on the Garden State Parkway from 15 cents to a quarter.
They were once used for free laundry. For some apartment managers, free laundry is apparently a fringe benefit. Landlords will often give their building supervisors red quarters for use in the apartment laundromats. The managers would get their quarters back when the owner or laundromat vendor removed the cash from the machines.
So there you have it. The next time you come across an old quarter that has the remnants of red paint or a little bit of scarlet nail polish on it, you won’t have to wonder anymore.
Now if I could only figure out how to explain that darned eggplant.
Photo Credit: picshag
I have a friend who with his brothers owned several pinball arcades (he’s now retired, having sold his share to his brothers). The red quarters were handed out to customers for reimbursement (e.g. when a vending machine ate your quarter) or as comps for free games.
When the money was collected from the machines, the red quarters were returned to the office for re-use, and thus were not counted as revenue for accounting purposes.
Than joe says
How much is the coin worth?
Angela Collins says
During school, I worked summers as a manager at a campground in the summer, and the vendors gave them back to us when the guys who did our washers and dryers came to empty out the coins, and when the video game guy collected his money or changed the games. Bonus! I hardly ever see them circulating any more. Thanks, Len. Good memories.
We have a bunch of them going into circulation in Maine. They arrived at Walmart from the bank (?). We have had many several comments and questions concerning the odd red quarters. Now I am informed and can explain them. I saw one 1969 , on thru 1990’s. Interesting knowledge.
I might be missing something, but if they’re giving the quarter to someone to use, why does it matter which quarter they pull out of the pile of quarters at the end of the day?
I think they do it because it makes the accounting easier. If bar owners didn’t do that, they would have to constantly remember in their head how many quarters in the coin boxes were given out as house money.
Len Penzo says
KC @ genxfinance says
Cool pattern on the cat’s back. I like it that there are a lot of stories for the red quarters. I stumble upon them every now and then, wondered but dismissed it immediately. Now I know. 🙂
Red quarters? I have never seen this! I will be on the lookout for them now. And once I find it I won’t have to wonder why. 😀
Billy Bob says
You might be too young. Plus, money was handled much more when I was younger. These days I rarely if ever handle coins.
Joe @ Retire By 40 says
I haven’t seen one of these in a long long time. They are probably more common in the old days.
I’ve never seen this, either! I guess I just don’t use enough cash. My quarters are for the occasional toll of Aldi’s shopping carts.
Cherleen @ My Personal Finance Journey says
Very informative post! Though I hardly see a red quarter these days, your post is a great FYI to everybody. Thanks for the information.
Never seen any – very interesting stuff! The political activism theories get quite complex.
I’m surprised no Joe McCarthy-types suggested a communist plot behind the red quarters. Or maybe they did.
Doable Finance says
I used to live in a small apartment building, 3 stories high. The landlord gave us red coins whenever our regular coins disappeared in washer or dryer. So the washing or drying was then on the house.
Your washing or drying was then on the house. No the washing or drying was NOT on the house. He was simply refunding the money you lost in the machine.
I have seen colored quarters over the years on occasion. But they haven’t always been truly red as this one shown is. I have seen red ones, green ones, and I’m pretty sure I have seen a pink one or two. I have seen various paint materials, including what looked like permanent marker dye, enamel paint, and nail polish. I always thought that it was probably just children playing with coins and painting them for fun. The idea that coins were painted by business establishments for accounting purposes never crossed my mind, but I guess it does make sense.
I used to see them in old carnival games – you would put in your quarter and roll them onto a pile of others where they would either cause others to drop into the return or fall into the operator’s bucket via a moving mechanism. If a red one dropped into your return you won a prize.
yup! love these coins… have a few red dimes myself from back in the day.
but you forgot reason #5: the more you have, the sexier you get! d’uh
I always see red quarters, but I never knew why they were painted. Since I live in New Jersey, I like that last reason to most
I’ve seen these before I thought it was just some bozo trying to be funny! This was actually and interesting article because I’ve always wondered where those marks came from.
the phone company would put them in pay phones and when the collectors came in the office to turn in the boxes they would have them empty their pockets. Any red quarters would be a dead give away as to who was stealing the change. This was 1960s, I know some guys who were fired for stealing from pay phone change. Remember in the 60s a quarter bought a pack of cigarettes or a gallon of gas and a lot more.
Brian MacLeod says
I had heard that these were the first “blood chips” handed out at Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings and that the newcomers were told that if they had a craving to drink, the were to see if the quarter melted in the mouth — if yes, he could have a drink; if not, he was to use it to call a fellow member for help.
Aging Child says
I can confirm the arcade usage, at least; I worked in one 1979-82. We didn’t hand the quarters to customers, but put them directly in the pinball and video machines for the customer… say, when their own quarter had been lost in a game, or we were testing a machine. (Most games then were 25 cents per play.)
We also had green-painted quarters that we put into the games when a customer was redeeming a free-game coupon.
In both instances, we’d separate out the painted quarters during the weekly counts of games played and quarters received – of course the coins stood out. And this allowed us to monitor the free/test games and the return on coupons.
Trouble was, heh-heh, over time the paint would scrape/peel off in the coin mechanisms, eventually causing them to jam.
Ah, memories… thanks, Len!
I remember an arcade in the 80’s that had a “Five quarters for a dollar” promotion. You’d give them a dollar and a coupon, and they’d give you 5 red quarters. I assume it was so they could determine how many of the quarters were used and how many went out the door.
My father owned a bowling alley with an arcade and every summer he would paint $20-40 in quarters red for me to use in the arcade. When the game vendor would come to empty the coin boxes he and my dad had an agreement that he would return the red quarters to us to reuse again. That was in Oshkosh WI so I know we put at least $200-400 of red quarters into circulation over the years.
Today 1/4/2016 here in Times Square New York City I received a worn red quarter dated 1967 in my change…here in The City a red quarter in your change is considered very good luck. These were very interesting posts. I knew laundromats in the 1960s-1970s here in New York that had red quarters to use in the washing and drying machines…they were painted red to remind you to use them in the store so they would not always run out of change…the store re-used the quarters whenever they emptied the machines of change
I knew the owner of a pizza place in Jacksonville Beach Florida who would paint quarters with red nail Polish as house money to jump start the jukebox in the 70s&80s.
They also come in blue. I was given blue quarters to use with the air pump at a gas station in the last few years. They apparently gave people who also got gas free air if you asked. I need change and got “free” blue quarters to use instead.
Thank you for sharing such a nice and interesting blog Len. This was great!!
Mikey Rox says
Really interesting information. I’ve never thought about this much, but great for trivia.
Colour is not important to me. I will better pay more attention to buying home insurance or at least renter’s insurance
I have a green one of these. It’s a fairly new quarter as well.
Thanks for the good answers about the red quarters! I just pulled my ‘Aldi’s quarter’ out of a coat pocket and was noticing the little bit of red paint still on the 1965 quarter. I had heard, too, they were used as test quarters in machines. I liked reading about the other uses.
The crazy cat pattern was cool too!
Len Penzo says
The pattern on that cat is truly amazing.
William Etheridge says
Here locally in the 80s the hotel girls would put their nail polish on quarters to use in the ‘Magic Fingers’ beds. The manager would give them back every week…
Len Penzo says
Huh? Are you telling me there is a Cheers reference to a Nixon potato? You’ve got to be kidding me.
If so, it is pure coincidence. I saw the Nixon eggplant back when I was a kid; I’ll never forget the day I saw it. It has a secondary appendage that, when looked from the side, looked just like the caricatures of Nixon. I’ve been telling that story to my friends and relatives for decades.
Perhaps I should look into filing a lawsuit. What do you think?
clete baxter says
All the red quarter I’ve seen were always dated from the 60’s and 70’s. In fact that’s how I spot silver ones. 1964 was the last year the U.S used silver in coins.
A barkeep in a 1979 Sears Radio Theater episode (Over Night Guest) offers a “red quarter” to the protagonist to put in the jukebox. I’ve heard this episode enough times and finally wondered what a red quarter is. I thought maybe it was just a silly way of referring to a penny or something. Note I know! Thanks! (31 Aug 2021)
Len Penzo says
My pleasure, MC.
Charles johnson says
The red coins that you may find started in 1936 as proof coins collectors purchased as the painted coin was to be able to survive a 100 years and still be able to see exactly what the coin was. In other words if the coin was lost out in the element of nature it still in a 100 years could be told by cleaning it exactly what coin it was.