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