In 1916, the Liberty Head designs on the dime, quarter dollar, and half dollar turned 25 years old — an important anniversary since passage of an act in 1890 granted the Treasury secretary the authority to change without congressional approval a coin design that had been in use for at least 25 years. By 1916, however, Mint officials were mistakenly interpreting the act as requiring, not permitting, new designs.
By mid-1915, Mint engravers were working on replacement designs for the three silver coins. Mint Director Robert W. Woolley met with the Commission of Fine Arts on Dec. 5 and 6, 1915, where designs created by Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber were rejected by the commission. Instead, the commission recommended that sculptors Hermon A. MacNeil and Alexander A. Weinman be invited to submit designs, along with a third artist, Albin Polasek. Woolley met with the three men on Dec. 27 to discuss the project and all three agreed to submit designs.
Weinman won the commissions for the dime and half dollar. Polasek won no commission and the majority of his design submissions are lost today.
MacNeil’s Standing Liberty design for the obverse of the quarter dollar shows Liberty, partially draped in a gown, stepping through a gateway, her left arm supporting a shield and a peace branch extended in her right hand, which also holds the end of a sash that is draped across her middle. As an article in the April 1917 The Numismatist stated: “Though she offers peace first she is prepared to defend her honor and her rights. The design suggests a step forward in civilization, protection, and defense with peace as the ultimate goal.”
At the time, war was raging among the European powers and America, so far neutral, was slowly being drawn into the conflict. The quarter dollar’s design, showing the nation’s preference for peace but its willingness to defend itself, was representative of the nation’s mood in the first half of the year.
MacNeil’s submitted reverse depicted an eagle in flight flanked by a pair of branches, but no stars.
Once the Mint accepted his original designs, MacNeil expected to see a progression from his submitted models to finished coins. However, the sculptor was shut out of the transformation from concept to actual coinage, and the coins promised from the Mint before the Fourth of July were not forthcoming. In the meantime, though, progress was made on Weinman’s designs for the dime and half dollar.
In August, MacNeil sent the Mint a model of a revised obverse, having earlier sought permission. While the design continued to show Liberty stepping through a gate with shield (with the nation now at war with Germany, she had dropped the peace branch), the rendition is vastly different. Liberty’s overall appearance from head to foot had been modified; the device on the shield was changed from a Union shield to an eagle; the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was moved from the gateway to a sash held by Liberty; and added were flanking branches and two playful dolphins opposite Liberty’s feet. MacNeil also replaced the dot-dashes rim device with a chain.
The Mint, however, chose not to adopt MacNeil’s new obverse, opting instead for the original (though with slight modifications that Mint officials did not disclose to the artist). The engraving staff also made substantial changes to the reverse, repositioning the eagle lower on the coin and replacing the branches with stars (seven at the left and six at the right), again not informing MacNeil of the changes.
Finally, at the end of 1916, the Mint struck the first coins, just 52,000 pieces.