The Walking Liberty half dollar is turning 100 years old in 2016. Liberty walks toward the rising sun, reflecting a spirit of optimism, but during the coin's life of circulation, two world wars bracketed the Great Depression.
Pittsburgh Press front page from Jan. 17, 1917, tells of German submarine attacks on Allied and U.S. merchant ships just before the United States entered World War I.
President Woodrow Wilson asking Congress to declare war on Germany. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.
Mint Director Robert W. Woolley was placed in the middle of the conflicts between Barber and Weinman. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
At $300, the 1921-D Walking Liberty half dollar is the most expensive coin in the series in Good condition. Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
Heritage Auctions sold this PCGS MS-67 fully-struck 1933-S Walking Liberty half dollar for $12,925 in 2013. Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
A surviving Barber design essentially reprises a failed 1906 proposal for the $20 double eagle and fairly well resembles the much-maligned Barber coinage. Burdette said a surviving Morgan design looks more like a “dance contest award” than a United States coin.
On Dec. 3, 1915, Mint Director Robert W. Woolley met with the National Commission of Fine Arts, which oversaw coinage designs. “I take pleasure in submitting to you a number of tentative designs prepared by the Engraver of the Philadelphia Mint and ask for your early criticism thereof,” Woolley wrote to the commission. “Should you deem it necessary to call for other sketches I beg that you suggest the names of artists for undertaking this work.”
The commission, Woolley reported to McAdoo, was “not pleased” with Barber’s designs and suggested Hermon A. MacNeil, Adolph Weinman and Albin Polasek.
The three were paid $300 to offer designs and $2,000 for each coin if their designs were accepted.
Polasek did not make the cut. MacNeil got the quarter dollar. Weinman’s designs were selected for both the dime and the half dollar.
Woolley told Barber about the decision in a letter March 3. The letter closed with a note of consolation that apparently did nothing to lessen the taste of gall in Barber’s mouth. “In advising you of the decisions reached I beg to express the appreciation of the Secretary of the Treasury and myself of the very beautiful designs submitted by you, and to thank you for your deep interest in the matter.”
For the next several months Barber retained a deep and bitter interest in the matter.
In the letter, Woolley told Barber, “It is understood that satisfactory working models are to be delivered to the Mint not later than May 1st, 1916, and they are to conform in all respects to the requirements of the Mint.”
The statement gave Barber license to protest, under guise of making the pieces “coinable,” to obstruct the process and, at one point, to rework the Walking Liberty design.
Woolley in a March 29, 1916, letter to Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Adam M. Joyce noted, “Confidentially, the sculptors designing the new coins felt that on their last trip [to the Mint] Mr. Morgan was much more cordial and cooperative than Mr. Barber was. I realize I am dealing with artistic temperaments at both ends.”
Barber maintained Weinman’s design for the half dollar was unusable, causing sharp “fins” to form where metal flowed at the edge of the die. He complained to Assistant Secretary of the Treasury William P. Malburn, “(A)ny endeavor to urge the artists to conform to mechanical restrictions was invariably met with objection, that it would interfere with their artistic conceptions of what the design should be.”
At one point, Barber proposed scrapping Weinman’s design altogether and replacing it with one of his own. When this didn’t go anywhere, he made a last stab in October or early November at making the half dollar coinable, by reducing the size of the design elements and placing a beaded border around the edge.
Weinman, who was largely locked out of the process by the fall of 1916, believed this unfortunate reworking of his design would actually enter production. In the end, the Mint found a workaround for the fin problem and went with Weinman’s original design. Weinman learned about the change just before Christmas when Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Adam M. Joyce sent him 20 of the soon-to-be-released coins.
Barber died Jan. 18, 1917, just as the new half dollar was entering circulation. Morgan succeeded him.
The Walking Liberty half dollar outlasted its brother 1916 coins. The Winged Liberty Head dime ended in 1945 essentially with the death of wartime President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Standing Liberty quarter dollar fell in 1930 to a desire to mark the 1932 bicentennial of the birth of George Washington with a coin.
Other U.S. coins turning 100 in 2016:
|Winged Liberty Head dime celebrates 100th anniversary milestone: The Winged Liberty Head dime series is extremely popular with collectors, many of whome began in the hobby by retrieving examples from general circulation.|
|Standing Liberty quarter dollar celebrates centennial: Hermon MacNeil's 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.|
In The U.S. Mint and Coinage, Don Taxay said Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross had been planning a Benjamin Franklin coin since seeing John Sinnock’s 1933 medal of the patriot. Sinnock, unfortunately, died in 1947, before the half dollar with his design could enter production in 1948.
However, Weinman’s beloved design did not end there. In 1986 Weinman’s Liberty walked again on the obverse of the popular American Eagle silver bullion coins. This year, the obverse and reverse designs are being resurrected for a gold striking to mark the coin’s centennial.
The Walking Liberty half dollar the Mint produced in late 1916 looks remarkable like the original design Weinman submitted the winter before, though in the months between submission and minting, legends were moved, design elements resized and rims widened and narrowed, mostly to no avail.
Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, whose designs were being replaced, even made a stab at reworking Weinman’s concept, temporarily reducing a fulsome design to lifelessness.
“Time has not been kind to either the visual or the written record of the 1916 design competition,” Burdette wrote in his definitive book on the redesign of the nation’s silver coinage, Renaissance of American Coinage 1916-1921. However, he did find preliminary sketches in the Smithsonian Institutions’ Archives of American Art that show the germ of the production design.
One shows Liberty with cloth billowing behind her striding left. Another shows Liberty holding a fasces with the word LIBERTY along the upper rim and the date below.
Burdette’s chronology of the patterns begins with a pattern (Pollock 2056, Judd 1991) that looks remarkably like the finished coin. This was the first of six known patterns, though a seventh has been speculated.
The first pattern, which Burdette believes was struck between May 29 and June 21, 1916, is distinguished from the adopted design by different letter spacing on LIBERTY and different placement of HALF DOLLAR and the nation’s motto on the reverse.
Only four, all unimpaired Proofs, are known. One is in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian. In 2104, Heritage Auctions sold a Professional Coin Grading Service Proof 63 example for $70,500.