At first, I didn't notice Mississippi was missing.
My two boys and I started collecting state quarters in 1999, when the U.S. Mint started making them. The mint is releasing five quarters every year until 2008, in the order that the states became states.
According to the mint's Web site, more than 139-million Americans are collecting quarters, pressing them into books just like my boys.
The first couple of years, finding quarters was easy: We got Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey just by checking our change. The others showed up, too, almost in order. We didn't have to bug bank tellers or stake out coin shops. And we got all the 1999, 2000 and 2001 states.
We kept collecting through 2002.
In March of this year, I got Illinois at the Pinellas Bayway toll booth. Alabama, also a 2003 release, popped up at a change machine in May.
But wait. Where was Mississippi?
It was supposed to have been released in October 2002, the 20th state quarter. More than nine months had gone by, and we still didn't have it. The hole loomed large in my boys' books.
My quest for that elusive quarter lasted six months. It included 16 phone calls and two hours of surfing the Internet. I interviewed federal banking officials and laundromat owners, state spokesmen and professional coin collectors, vending company operators, parking meter attendants, teenagers who take tokens out of pinball machines.
I started out searching for a quarter. I ended up searching for answers.
Far and near
Some collectors take great pride in finding the first quarter from each state. CoinWorld.com publishes testimonials from such folks. The page is called First Reports.
It confirms that Mississippi made it out of the mint.
Nicholas Gates received a Mississippi quarter in change from an Arizona coffee shop Nov. 8. Brian Fiorino of Washington, D.C., got two Mississippi quarters at a bus stop Nov. 20. A Magnolia State quarter even made it to Alaska by Nov. 25, when David Hall got one from a customer at his meal counter.
John Perrie of Florida reported that he received a Mississippi quarter as change at a department store in Lake Park in November.
But in the Tampa Bay area, no one seemed to be finding such fortune, even as late as last month.
My husband changed two $5 bills in an Ybor City parking lot. He came home with his pockets full of quarters. No Mississippi.
My friends scoured soda machines, sliding in dollar bills when they could have dropped coins. Nada.
My editor dumped out his change jar. "53 quarters that are not state quarters," he wrote on the back of a business card. "31 state quarters from 15 states." Two Georgias, three Ohios, four Virginias.
Later, we found out why he found so many from Virginia.
But he never did find a Mississippi.
Checking the numbers
So I called Washington, D.C.
Michael White, the spokesman for the U.S. Mint, said that he was surprised that I couldn't find Mississippi quarters, especially in an area as populous as Tampa Bay. "The more transactions that take place in any given area, the quicker the coins circulate," White said.
He told me to hold on.
He came back with the figures.
"It may be a simple matter of the economy," he said.
When the economy is good, the country makes a lot of quarters, he said. In bad times, the mint doesn't make as many. When Mississippi was being made, in October 2002, the nation was still reeling from the first anniversary of 9/11. The president was starting to talk about war.
The U.S. Mint made 579.6-million Mississippi quarters. That sounds like a lot, but it was the smallest number of any state made until that date.
Compare that with Connecticut's 1.3-trillion or Virginia's 1.6-trillion and you'll see why those states keep cropping up in coin jars.
But that doesn't explain why it was easy to find Illinois and Alabama quarters in Florida. Fewer than 500-million quarters from those states were made, fewer than Mississippi.
"If you really want answers," the man from the mint said, "you need to call the Federal Reserve."
Pierce Nelson, the Federal Reserve's Atlanta spokesman, seemed intrigued by my query. He said he would look into it.
In the meantime, I kept hunting.
The hunt intensifies
Hadn't anybody around here seen Mississippi?
I called three banks. Four laundromats. Five vending machine companies. I even got desperate and called a couple of coin collectors.
Plus the state of Mississippi. Maybe someone there would know something about the quarter's mysterious absence.
The banks seemed aware of the problem. "Oh, I know I haven't seen any Mississippis. I've been looking," said a teller named Debbi from the AmSouth in St. Pete Beach.
A teller at SunTrust Bank in Palm Harbor said that I wasn't the first person to ask about Mississippi. "We just don't have any," she said. "It's strange. I have no explanation for it."
The laundromats hadn't seen Mississippi, either. Somehow that didn't wash.
And the coin collectors wanted 55 cents for a Mississippi quarter. "We have a whole roll for $10.75," Jay Arbutine said from Belleair Coins in Largo.
Sam Olivieri at Seminole Coin Exchange also offered a roll of mint-condition Mississippis _ for $15.50.
But I didn't want to buy one. I wanted to find one.
And, more important now, I wanted to find out why I couldn't find one.
"I see a lot of quarters. And I've never come across a Mississippi," said Barbara Bull. She's in the vending machine business. She helps her dad run Anthony's Snacks in Port Richey. They service 600 machines in 400 locations.
She said that she was wondering now. She said she would help search for Mississippi.
Too pretty to spend?
"Our quarters? Unavailable?" The man from Mississippi seemed amazed.
His name is Steve Martin. He's a state spokesman.
"Well, we're very proud of our quarter," he said from his office in Jackson. "It's such a beautiful coin, with the magnolia blossoms and all.
"We like to think that because it's such a beautiful coin, no one wants to spend them. It may be that all the Mississippi quarters are being held onto, for people's collections, so they're just not making it into circulation like the other states."
Spoken like a true statesman. Without 25 cents of truth to it.
The vending company lady called back that night. Barbara Bull had dumped the day's change, she said, and gotten down on her hands and knees. She searched through more than 500 quarters.
She found a Mississippi.
It was at the bottom of the pile. "It has magnolias or something on it," she said.
"I held onto it, now that I know how hard it is to find."
Then she asked me, "Did you ever find out why?"
A matter of timing
The Federal Reserve man called the next day.
"You see," Pierce Nelson said from his Atlanta office. "The Federal Reserve Bank receives new currency from the U.S. Mint. We put that money into circulation by distributing it to commercial banks."
Banks ask for a specific amount in quarters, depending on how many they need. They don't special-order Mississippi or Connecticut or Virginia quarters. They just order whatever is being made at the time.
When Mississippi quarters were being minted, it was early fall in Florida. Snowbirds had not arrived. No one in the Sunshine State really needed new quarters.
Florida has two branches of the Federal Reserve, in Jacksonville and Miami. Jacksonville brought in one shipment of Mississippi quarters, about $800,000 worth. Miami ordered two shipments worth $1.6-million.
"Once the initial minting is over, you can't specifically order any more state quarters," Nelson said. "So the only way those Mississippis would turn up down there now is through general circulation."
Okay. So Florida didn't get many Mississippi quarters to start with. Only 9.6-million, if you do the math.
But that still doesn't explain why we have no trouble finding Alabama quarters when the mint made even fewer of those, and those just came out.
"Well," Nelson said. "Jacksonville ordered six shipments of Alabama quarters, and Miami brought in eight." That means there are four times more Helen Keller coins floating around Florida than ones with magnolias on them.
But why? Why would the Sunshine State need so many more quarters in the spring than we needed in fall?
"My only explanation would be seasonal demand," Nelson said.
College kids like arcades and vending machines, laundromats and pool tables.
And they play a game in which they bounce coins into glasses of beer.
It's called quarters.
How many were minted so far?
STATE RELEASE DATE NUMBER OF QUARTERS MINTED
Delaware Jan. 4, 1999 774,824,000
Pennsylvania March 8, 1999 707,332,000
New Jersey May 17, 1999 662,228,000
Georgia July 19, 1999 939,932,000
Connecticut Oct. 12, 1999 1,346,624,000
Massachusetts Jan. 3, 2000 1,163,784,000
Maryland March 13, 2000 1,234,732,000
South Carolina May 22, 2000 1,308,784,000
New Hampshire Aug. 7, 2000 1,169,016,000
Virginia Oct. 16, 2000 1,594,616,000
New York Jan. 2, 2001 1,275,040,000
North Carolina March 12, 2001 1,055,476,000
Rhode Island May 21, 2001 870,100,000
Vermont Aug. 6, 2001 882,804,000
Kentucky Oct. 15, 2001 723,564,000
Tennessee Jan. 2, 2002 648,068,000
Ohio March 11, 2002 632,032,000
Louisianna May 20, 2002 764,024,000
Indiana Aug. 2, 2002 689,800,000
MISSISSIPPI Oct. 15, 2002 579,600,000
Illinois Jan. 2, 2003 463,200,000
Alabama March 17, 2003 457,400,000
Maine June 2, 2003 Still in production.
Missouri Fall 2003 TBA
Arkansas Fall 2003 TBA