Weinman’s masterpiece: 100 years of the Walking Liberty half dollar

Walking Liberty half dollar served nation during two world wars and the Great Depression, beautifully
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 10/13/16
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On June 22, Weinman wrote Mint Director Robert W. Woolley, “I was at the Philadelphia Mint yesterday and Mr. Barber showed me two new Half Dollars, one with modeled background, the other with burnished background. I discovered that the word ‘Liberty’ inscribed in the field above the walking figure is rather too pale and somewhat thin and I am convinced that this should be remedied before the final dies are made.”

Weinman moved LIBERTY from the periphery to the right of the walking figure and enlarged the walking figure to fill the field, occupying space formerly held by the word LIBERTY. No changes, though, were made to the reverse with its unfamiliar placement of HALF DOLLAR.

Burdette’s chronology places this pattern (Pollock 2053, Judd 1992) as being struck between July 27 and Aug. 18. In a July 24 letter to Woolley, Weinman noted, “I strongly believe the new arrangement to be better as the walking figure fills the entire circle and thereby gains considerably in importance and force of presentation.”

In the letter Weinman also talked about altering the legends on the reverse. While he originally intended to add space between UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and HALF DOLLAR at the top, he decided, instead to move HALF DOLLAR to beneath the eagle and E PLURIBUS UNUM, which had awkwardly filled the space below the eagle, to the eagle’s left.

Nine examples are known, including two well-worn pieces. Pollock says many 1916 patterns show considerable wear and were apparently taken in a 1920s burglary of Woolley’s home. The thieves, thinking the patterns were just coins, spent them. One of the Very Good pieces fetched $21,850 at the 2010 Central States Numismatic Society auction. Heritage Auctions sold a PCGS Proof 63 piece for $79,312.50 at the 2014 winter FUN show. 

A pattern showing a large LIBERTY to Liberty’s right on the obverse and the modified reverse was struck between Aug. 21 and Sept. 20. Only two examples of Pollock 2055, Judd 1993 are known. One, a well-circulated NGC Proof 30 piece, sold for $52,900 in 2004.

The piece is the first pattern to bear Weinman’s AW monogram, indicating the Mint was close to entering full production. However, there was a problem — the thickness of the edge was uneven and that edge had an unacceptable fin or sharp wire edge.

F.J.H. von Engelken, who had just been confirmed as Mint director a few days before, reported Sept. 6 to a Treasury official that “a variation in the thickness of the coin, specifically noticeable at the edge ... make[s] it impossible to produce a coin of uniform thickness of edge, and to obviate the fin edge, as long as we maintain the high relief of the coin as it is at present.”

Weinman consulted with Barber and Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Adam M. Joyce on Sept. 11 and agreed to reduce the size of the design elements so they did not crowd the edge. Weinman produced a new version of the obverse a few days later that reduced the size of the design elements but also reverted to placing LIBERTY along the top edge.

The pattern (Pollock 2059, Judd 1994) was produced between Sept. 25 and Oct. 21. Only two, possibly three examples are known. One is in the Smithsonian; one was reported years ago but is currently unaccounted for; and one, previously in Egyptian King Farouk’s “Palace Collection,” sold for $115,000 in 2009.

Weinman’s modifications, though, did not solve the problem, giving Barber an opening to rework the design.

Rather than using the latest version of the obverse, Barber, for reasons unknown, reverted to Weinman’s first obverse, but lowered the relief and reduced the size of the overall design so that it was well away from the rim.

The effort (Pollock 2057, Judd 1995) is an inartful affair that solved the fin problem, but resulted in an unattractive coin. Burdette notes the work was done “with a clumsiness that Weinman would not have tolerated from his most inept apprentice.”

Only two examples are known. A circulated example was donated to the Smithsonian in 1963. Uspatterns.com reports the second, which was once part of the Farouk Collection, last appeared at auction in 2008.

Gold Walking Liberty half dollar 2016-W Walking Liberty gold half dollar release date announced by U.S. Mint: It will be the third and final gold coin to be issued in 2016 to mark the 100th anniversary of the coins' 1916 introduction in .900 fine silver. 

Barber gave it one last shot. He added beading around the inner border to break the gap between the lettering and the edge. These patterns (Pollock 2058, Judd 1996) are the last known to collectors and were produced between Oct. 1 and Nov. 11. Only two are known to exist and they have not appeared at auction since 1995.

It appeared that Barber’s beaded half dollar would enter production, Burdette wrote, but Mint Director Joyce stepped in at the last minute, saying that a slight lowering of the relief, better planchet preparation and adjusting the striking pressure could solve the fin problem without affecting the design’s integrity.

The adopted design is similar to Pollock  2059, Judd 1994, Weinman’s last effort before Barber started reworking the design. The Mint reduced the central design elements slightly, increasing the separation between the design and rim enough to overcome the finning problem.

Weinman was resigned to Barber’s beads and did not learn of the change until he opened a package of the newly struck coins that Joyce sent him just before Christmas 1916. On Jan. 2, 1917, Weinman finished a letter to Joyce with this closing, “With every good wish to you for every day of the New Year and with thanks to the Almighty and yourself that the beads are not on the border of the Half Dollar, I am.” 

Released into circulation

The Walking Liberty half dollar was released into circulation in early January 1917 to little fanfare. 

The Reading (Pa.) Eagle reported Jan. 7, 1917, that local coin collectors were delighted with the new dimes, quarter dollars and half dollars, especially the halves “which are reported to bear the profile of Mrs. Wallace Stevens, formerly Miss Elsie Mull, of Reading.”

The Meriden (Conn.) Weekly Republican reported Jan. 11, 1917, that a local men’s clothing store had cleaned out the bank and was using the new halves as a promotional item.

“The new United States half dollar is in circulation in Meriden and the House of Bernstein is to be credited with causing a big demand for the 1917 coin. All the new fifty cent pieces that the Home National bank had in stock were acquired Friday by the clothing store and the silver displayed in the store window,” the paper reported.

“People were immediately attracted by the display of glistening silver fresh from the United States bakery. ... The store generously exchanged new half dollars for old ones and the pile was cleaned out before night.”

Some, too, tried to profit from the new coins. The Jan. 26, 1917, issue of The Twin City Daily Sentinel of Winston-Salem, N.C., reported, “Reports reached the Treasury Department today from numerous sources that sharpees have been selling at a premium the newly designed quarters and half dollars coined in 1916, representing that the new coins are rare. To correct any impression that the coins are rare, officials today authorized the statement that 2,330,000 halves and 62,000 quarters of the new design were struck off.”

The Reading Eagle gave a nudge to collectors and waxed philosophic in its report. “As the new coins are sent out there will be a gradual ingathering of the old ones to be reminted, so now is the time for the numismatist to put away a few samples for future collections.

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