100 years of the Walking Liberty half dollar
- Published: Oct 13, 2016, 7 AM
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: 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.
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.
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.
|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.
“A writer says, ‘For the moralist there is a whole story behind each of these new coins. They come as clean as new souls to take their share in the great drama of life: they will lie in milady’s silken purse and in the ragged pocket of the street beggar. They will go clean from honest hand, and they will figure in the tainted loot of thieves. They will go up to God’s high altars in collection plates, and they will be the prize for which men fight and kill and the lure for which they sell their souls.’ ”
Collecting the coins
The Walking Liberty half dollar series is a great playground for collectors and history buffs. The series spans two World Wars, the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression and it has no prohibitive rarities.
A budget-minded collector can put together a complete set in Good condition for the cost of a kitchen appliance. An MS-65 set, though, would set you back the cost of a house or two or three.
Of the 65 date and Mint mark combinations (including obverse and reverse Mint mark coins), 37 have a Coin World Coin Values value of $7.50 in Good condition, 17 are worth $10 to $20, eight go for $25 to $60 and only three cost more than $100.
The whole set can be bought for less than $1,500. And because there are no rarities, it could probably be put together in one day at any larger coin show.
The three keys are the 1916-S half dollar, which catalogs for $110 in Good; the 1921 coin, which goes for $150; and the 1921-D half dollar, a $300 coin. The 1921-D half dollar has a scant mintage of 208,000, making it scarce, but by no means rare.
Mint State Walking Liberty half dollars can be very dear. An MS-65 set would set the buyer back more than $600,000, according to Coin Values.
The most valuable MS-65 coin is reasonably common in circulated grades, but jumps into the stratosphere at MS-63. Only a dozen or so MS-65 1919-D Walking Liberty halves are known and it’s been a decade since one appeared at auction.
In a 2005 catalog description, Heritage Auctions commented on the rarity of high grade 1919-D halves. “Once in a while, someone may have set one of these coins aside as a keepsake and it is these few examples that remain in high grades to satisfy current collector demand.”
In his 1993 The Complete Guide to Walking Liberty Half Dollars, Bruce Fox noted, the coin is “almost always weak in the hand and head area on the obverse.”
He said the 1919-D half dollar shows “good investment potential” and valued an MS-65 piece at $33,000. Today it catalogs for $172,500.
Common-date 1940s MS-65 pieces, coins that come with the added patina of a World War II connection, have a Coin World Coin Values value of just $100.
Because the coin’s high points (Liberty’s head, torso and left leg on the obverse and the eagle’s breast on the reverse) are opposite each other, the series is notorious for weak strikes. The series is an ideal place for cherrypickers to ply their trade.
With mintages in the millions, the 1927-S and 1935-D Walking Liberty half dollars are extremely common coins, except when they’re fully struck. Fox said he’d never seen a fully struck coin of either date.
In 1998, researcher David W. Lange wrote a series of articles in The Numismatist called, “Assembling the Ideal 20th-Century Type Set.” He detailed the best struck and most attractive coin for each series. For Walking Liberty half dollars he settled on the 1933-S coin. It is, he declared, “the coin with the greatest amount of fine detail this type ever possessed.”
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