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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In a time of war abroad, economic disruption at home and discord at the United States Mint, the Walking Liberty half dollar, which marks its centennial this year, was conceived.

During the coin’s life of circulation, two world wars bracketed the Great Depression.

The coin’s obverse, Liberty walking toward the rising sun, reflected a spirit of optimism that would not be realized until the post-World War II peace and prosperity of the last two years of the coin’s 31-year run.

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The Walking Liberty half dollar, with its iconography of hope, was released at a dismal time. World War I raged across Europe and threatened to engulf the United States.

On Feb. 1, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking seven American merchant ships in the first two months.

Walking Liberty half dollar

Walking Liberty half dollar: Adolph A. Weinman's obverse design for the Walking Liberty half dollar has been hailed as one of the greatest of all time. It depicts a full-length allegorical Liberty striding left, garbed in the stars and stripes of Old Glory. How much are Walking Liberty half dollars worth?

A saddened Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned on the slogan “He kept us out of war” during the 1916 presidential election, asked Congress on April 2, 1917, to declare war on Germany.

“The world must be made safe for democracy,” he declared as America prepared to enter the war to end all wars. “We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make.”

Three months after the first coins were released in January 1917, the United States entered World War I.

Economic disruption at home

As the United States was preparing to enter World War I, the national economy was entering a five-year period of massive inflation. The 1915 inflation rate was below 1 percent. It jumped to 7.7 percent in 1916 and a 20th century record of 17.8 percent in 1918. The Walking Liberty half dollar, which was released into circulation in early 1917, saw its purchasing power decline until the economy hit the skids in 1921. 

In 1916 a half dollar was worth the equivalent of $11.04 in today’s money. Four years later, it was worth just $6.02. 

World War I inflationary pressure also forced the end of the true dime-store era when S.S. Kresge Co. raised prices on some items to 15 cents. 

“The consumer found that food, fuel, shelter and clothing which cost a dollar in April 1916 had risen to almost $2 by 1920,” Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. wrote in a 1943 report to Congress on the state of the nation’s finances.

As war consumed Europe after the July 28, 1914, assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Europe turned to the United States for armaments, food and manufactured goods. 

“A large inflow of European gold to pay for U.S. exports increased the money supply. The young Fed was powerless to offset the gold inflow or halt the resulting inflation. And once the nation entered the war, the Fed dedicated itself mainly to supporting the war effort,” Phil Davies of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis wrote in the online Federal Reserve History.

At home, Davies reported, “Federal spending surged as the military mobilized. Outlays for troop training, weapons, and munitions increased fifteen-fold from 1916 to 1918. In addition, the Treasury lent generously to U.S. allies.”

The inflation was followed by equally horrendous deflationary periods at the beginning of the Roaring 20s and during the Great Depression.

Remarkably, by 1947, when the Walking Liberty half dollar series ended, a half dollar was worth about $5.40 in today’s money, just 10 percent less than it was 27 years earlier at the end of World War I.

Discord at the Mint

By 1915 Charles E. Barber’s 1892 designs for the dime, quarter dollar and half dollar were getting long in the tooth and ripe for replacement. Barber’s coins shared a common and unloved obverse of Liberty wearing a freedom cap. The design did not stand up well against the recently redesigned cent (Victor D. Brenner’s Lincoln in 1909), 5-cent piece (James Earle Fraser’s Indian Head in 1913), gold $2.50 and $5 coins (Bella Lyon Pratt’s raised-incuse Indian Head in 1908), and gold $10 and $20 pieces (Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ dramatic Indian Head and Striding Liberty in 1907).

As early as 1914 the influential New York Numismatic Club began agitating for a change in the Barber designs. Noted coin dealer Thomas Elder, a member of the club’s executive committee, gave a presentation to the American Numismatic Society in January 1915 calling for a redesign. “These [Barber] coins are almost unparalleled in modern issues for ugliness,” Elder declared.

With the 25th anniversary of the Barber coins’ authorization coming up, the Treasury Department looked for ways to elevate the silver coins to the artistry of the already redesigned copper, nickel and gold coins.

Roger W. Burdette, writing in Renaissance of American Coinage 1916-1921, said Assistant Treasury Secretary William P. Malburn raised the issue Jan. 18, 1915, with Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo, who replied, “Let the mint submit designs before we try anybody else.”

The Mint’s engraving staff, busy with that year’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition commemorative coinage, did not work on the project until the summer. Chief Engraver Barber’s and Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan’s efforts were less than stellar.

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