Standing Liberty quarter dollar celebrates centennial

Mint officials and artist Hermon MacNeil clashed over design changes
By , Coin World
Published : 04/15/16
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This is the first of several segments on the Standing Liberty quarter dollar, published in the May 2016 issue of Coin World Monthly:

On May 23, 1916, Hermon MacNeil was informed by the director of the Mint that his designs for the new quarter dollar to be released later that year had been accepted “and are hereby approved.” The Standing Liberty quarter dollar had just been born. 

A week later, the Mint announced the new designs, not only for the quarter dollar but also for the dime and the half dollar. “The first of the new coins will be struck shortly after July 1st, the beginning of next fiscal year,” the Mint promised. 

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In the lengthy press release, the Mint called the new designs “a radical departure” from the traditional approach of having the obverses of the three denominations share the same design, as on the Liberty Head designs current in use in 1916 and the Seated Liberty designs before them.

The designs for the 25-cent coin, which would be called the Standing Liberty quarter dollar, are arguably the most beautiful for the denomination in its long history. It is a short series, issued only from 1916 to 1930, totaling 37 different coins by date and Mint mark. It has one significant die variety and most collectors consider a collection incomplete without an example, making for a total of 38 pieces. The series is not a good one for completists who are on a limited budget, particularly if Mint State coins are preferred; the series will be pricey at those levels, with the two key coins in the series (the 1916 issue and the major die variety) both bringing six-figure prices in Mint State 60 and up. For those who could never afford even a well worn example of the two keys, both can be cherrypicked at prices that are often at their bullion value — if you know your coins.

The design would undergo minor revisions from the original 1916 version to the first 1917 version; a major revision later in 1917; and another minor though sorely needed tweak in 1925. The major change in 1917 would years later spark a myth about the reason for change — a myth involving nudity and a supposedly shocked public that is still widely repeated today despite a complete lack of any supporting documentary evidence.

Here’s the fascinating story of the beautiful Standing Liberty quarter dollar. 

Designing, then redesigning it

Since 1907, the United States had been engaged in coinage redesign, a project unmatched in its achievement of stunning results. By 1916, only the four silver coins had not been redesigned (and the silver dollar had last been struck in 1904).

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.

In preparation to begin full-scale production of the coin in 1917, the engraving staff made additional and substantial modifications to the obverse for the first 1917 quarters. Again, none of these changes were communicated to the artist.

Production of the 1917 tweaked version of MacNeil’s first obverse was already underway, and yet the artist had seen none of the coins of either date already produced. In fact, according to numismatist Roger Burdette, MacNeil assumed that the coins bore his second obverse and original reverse. He was, thus, surprised and angered that the coins he finally received from the Mint did not match his expectations or vision.

He asked the Mint, therefore, to allow him to make substantial modifications to both obverse and reverse, even enlisting the chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts to support his demands to the Mint. Mint officials not only agreed to allow MacNeil to make modifications, they also held back release of 1917 quarters for a week. In making these changes, MacNeil not only created a second subtype for the coin, he also helped create a myth that is believed by some today — that he gave Liberty some additional apparel to mollify a public who felt the original Liberty was too immodest. In reality, there was no outraged public and the claims that public pressure forced the Mint to cloth Liberty were concocted by researchers years later.

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