The Striding Liberty Half Dollar|
July 28, 2008
One contest, three outstanding silver coins. That's what happened when the Treasury Department decided it needed new designs for 1916 for the dime, quarter and half dollar. A Liberty head had appeared on all three denominations since 1892. Many people felt it was time for a change.
A design competition was staged in December 1915. Three New York sculptors were invited to participate - Adolph A. Weinman, Hermon MacNeil and Albin Polasek. Each was to receive $300. An additional $2,000 was promised for each design chosen for production. The winners would be chosen by the Director of the Mint and the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Fine Arts Commission.
A newspaper described the tedious coin design process:
"An idea must be crystallized, and when executing so imortant a piece of work a sculptor finds it hard to satisfy himself. The first idea does not always seem right. Others are then worked over until a final decision is reached. Then this is done in relief on a medallion 14 inches in diameter.
"When the first image has been studied, and perhaps changed many times, it is reduced to a medallion five inches in diameter. From this a hard bronze cast is made and sent to the Mint in Philadelphia. From this a reduction is made, this time to the size of the coin."
The winning entries in the design competition were unveiled May 30, 1916. According to a Treasury Department press release, they had been selected "from 50 sketch models,"
although this seems unlikely with only three sculptors submitting designs. Hermon A. MacNeil's Standing Liberty design was selected for the quarter. Both the Winged Liberty Head or "Mercury" dime and the Walking Liberty half dollar were the creations of Adolph A. Weinman.
Of the three denominations, the Walking Liberty half dollar had the longest run. It remained in production through 1947. The Standing Liberty quarter series ended in 1930, and the Mercury dime in 1945.
All three designs were praised for their beauty but resulted in varying degrees of technical problems at the Mint. Weinman's Walking Liberty design has been the only one to make a comeback. Since 1986 it has appeared on the obverse of the American Eagle silver dollar, a bullion coin containing an ounce of fine silver and not intended for circulation.
The half dollar had almost disappeared from circulation at the time the Walking Liberty half dollar made its debut. The government announcement of the design change promised that efforts would be made to get half dollars back into general circulation. Record production and a beautiful design helped achieve that goal, at least for a while, which may have been the Walking Liberty half dollar's greatest achievement.
Adolph Weinman was born in Germany in 1870. He came to the United States 10 years later with his widowed mother and was soon apprenticed to an ivory and wood carver. He later studied under Philip Martiny and then became an assistant to Daniel Chester French, Olin Warner and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. While working for Saint-Gaudens, Weinman modeled one of Theodore Roosevelt's inaugural medals.
A photograph taken at the Art Students League in New York showed Weinman with Charles Keck, who went on to design the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition commemorative gold dollar.
By 1906 Weinman had opened his own studio in New York and had been elected a member of the National Academy. Known mainly for his sculptures, Weinman also designed many medals, including a bronze plaque for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the Navy Expeditionary Medal and the Navy Occupation Service Medal.
Weinman reportedly worked on his silver coin designs in his rooftop studio, high above the dirt and noise of the street. Around the time he was perfecting the Walking Liberty half dollar, and newspapers were publishing descriptions of the design, the Frederick (Md.) Post noted that Weinman was well-known in Baltimore as the designer of the Union Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
Weinman died in 1952, five years after the last Walking Liberty half dollars were struck.
Robert Weinman believed his father used a professional model for the half dollar. According to the book American Venus, by Diane Rozas and Anita Bourne Gottehrer, she was Audrey Munson, who was also the model for the Manhattan statue and for three-fourths of he female figures at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, including Weinmann's "Fountain of the Setting Sun." A contemporary description noted:
"'The Rising' and 'The Setting Sun,' by Adolph A Weinman, stand high against the heavens on tall shafts that rise from fountain bowls. They are inspired with a sort of rapturous imagery and they so inspire the beholder. 'The Rising Sun,' a youth with outstretched wings, a figure suggestive of gladness, hope and the dawn of high adventure, is a fitting symbol of the sunrise. He seems 'a-tiptoe for a flight' on the summit of his column; his profile against the sky is superb.
"On the opposite column 'The Setting Sun,' a young woman with pensive face, shaded by her hair and drooping wings, sinks to rest. These figures stand on translucent shafts that are pillars of light in the evening. They bear garlanded capitals and rise from double fountain bowls bound together by rising and falling jets and sheets of water. The column bases are finished with beautiful friezes, one symbolic of the Sun of Truth, the other of the Peace of Night. Winged mermen support the upper basin; sea-creatures gambol in the lower."
In addition to her work as a professional model, Munson also appeared in silent films and wrote a newspaper column. She was committed to a psychiatric facility at the age of 39 and died there in 1996 at the age of 105.
Early in the design process, Weinman took issue with some of the conditions of the design competition. On Dec. 31, 1915, he wrote to Director of the Mint R.W. Woolley:
"Permit me to acknowlege the receipt of your letter of Dec. 23, relative to the making of designs for the new subsidiary coins of the United States.
"Regarding the conditions under which the designs are to be submitted, I may say that they are satisfactory to me, with the exception of the second paragraph, which states that I am to submit several designs, but does not state whether for one or more coins. I gathered from our conversation on the subject that the three sculptors commissioned to submit designs are each to make designs for all three new coins, but in view of the fact that, as you have pointed out, one design may probably be used for two or even for all three coins, the consequent possibility may arise that the designs submitted by one or two of the sculptors may not be used at all. In such an event the remuneration of $300 for the production of designs for more than one coin would seem rather inadequate.
"Furthermore, it would place the procedure in a form of competition, by reason of the fact that but one sculptor's models may possibly be used for all three or even two coins.
"It is, of course, perfectly fair and reasonable that the right of approval or rejection of any or all the models may be reserved to yourself and the Secretary of the Treasury with the advice of the Commission of Fine Arts, but I believe every one of the three sculptors concerned would prefer to be asked to make one or a number of designs for but one of the three coins, subject to approval, modification or rejection. This would enable each to concentrate his efforts in the production of designs eminently fitted for one of the three denominations, and I venture to say that such a procedure would be more certain of bringing about a satisfactory result. I respectfully submit this suggestion in anticipation of its meeting with your favorable consideration.
"May I also trouble you to state at what date the sketch models, showing the general arrangement and conception, will have to be submitted for approval, and whether I am correct in my understanding that April 15, 1916, is the date before which the completed working models must be finished and submitted for final approval.
"Wishing again to assure you of my keen appreciation of your desire to secure a complete artistic result in the new coins, I am, Very Respectfully Yours, A.A. Weinman."
The Mint director's reply to Weinman stated in part:
"One design for the obverse side can be used on either the half dollar, quarter dollar or dime; the reverse of the quarter dollar and the half dollar can be alike under the law, but the eagle cannot be used on the dime. Therefore, it would be necessary for each of the three sculptors to submit one obverse design and two reverse designs."
In a letter dated Feb. 28, 1916, more than a month before the official announcement would be made, the Mint director informed Weinman that his designs for the dime and half dollar had been selected, and that Weinman's eagle reverse for the quarter would also be used, in combination with Hermon MacNeil's Standing Liberty obverse. The director wrote:
"It give me pleasure to notify you informally that your models have been accepted for the half dollar and the dime, and that one of the eagles submitted by you is to be used on the reverse of the quarter. In other words, the Secretary of the Treasury and I have awarded you tentatively two and one half out of a possible three designs. One of Mr. MacNeil's models has been selected for the obverse of the quarter dollar.
"I regret that it will be impossible for me to return your models until Saturday next. I wish to show them to the Fine Arts Commission.…
"Of course, the contents of this letter are to be treated as confidential until such time as the Secretary of the Treasury and the Director of the Mint decide to make the awards public."
Responding to a request for biographical information, Weinman wrote to George Kunz of New York on May 10, 1916:
"Many thanks for your kind leter relative to the models for the new coins. I have but today finished the two obverses of the half dollar and the dime and am now finishing the reverse for the latter. All this has kept me rather busy in the past few days and caused me to neglect my correspondence, else your letter would have received more prompt acknowledgement. I have recently been at the Mint and saw the hub for the eagle side of the half dollar as a reduction.
"As to the biographical data concerning myself, I may say that after a five year apprenticeship with Wallenberg in carving in wood and ivory, during which period I studied drawing in Cooper Union, I entered the studio of Philip Martiny, and under him and at the Art Students League I continued my studies for several years under Olin Warner, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel C. French.
"The Saint-Louis Exposition offered the first opportunity for individual work in a commission for a large group 'The Destiny of the Red Man.' Shortly thereafter I won in competition the commission for the monument to General Alexander Macomb, for Detroit, and following it, the Maryland Union Soldiers and Sailors Monument for Baltimore.
"Among my most important other works are the Lincoln statue at Hodgenville, Ky., the Lincoln statue at Frankfort, Ky., Decorative sculpture and statue of Alexander Cassatt, Pennsylvania Railroad Station, New York City, Monument to Lieut. Colonel William F. Villas, National Military Park, Vicksburg, Miss., Lincoln Statue in rotunda of State Capitol, Frankfort, Ky., War Memorial, Forest Hills, N.Y., War Memorial, George Newhall Clark Memorial Chapel, Pomfret, Conn., Grave Memorial to Mrs. James Speyer, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Tarrytown, N.Y.
"Works of Architectural Character: Decorative Sculpture, facade and interior, Pennsylvania Station, N.Y. City. Decorative Sculpture, facade and tower, Municipal Building, N.Y. City, 'Power of Music,' 'The Light of Truth' panels in facade of library of J. Pierpont Morgan, Esq., N.Y. City. Pediment Sculpture for Senate Wing, Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison, Wis., 'The Sphinx of Power' and 'The Sphinx of Goodness' flanking entrance to Scottish Rite Temple, Washington, D.C.
"Medals, Coins and Insignia: Designed medal for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, designed medal for Institute of American Architects, designed medal for the National Institute of Arts and Letters, designed medal for Lifesaving on Railroads, designed Dime and Half Dollar for the United States Treasury Department, designed Victory Button for the United States Army and Navy, designed J. Sanford Saltus Medal of the American Numismatic Society….
[Awards and Offices]:
"Gold Medal of Honor Award for sculpture, Architectural League of New York, 1913. Silver Medal, Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915. National Academician, 1911. Member National Institute, Arts and Letters.
"Hold office of First Vice President, Architectural League, Second Vice President, Naitonal Sculpture Society. Chairman of School Committee, National Institute of Arts and Letters."
Making It Official
Writing on Mary 29, 1916, the Mint director officially informed Weinman that his designs had been accepted for the new dime and half dollar. But he failed to mention Weinman's eagle reverse for the quarter, which Weinman had been told would also be used:
"Dear Mr. Weinman, It gives me pleasure to notify you formally that the designs submitted by you for the proposed new Half Dollar and Dime have been accepted, and are hereby approved. Very truly yours, R.W. Woolley, Director of the Mint."
A Work In Progress
Weinman may have won the design competition for two out of three coins, but his work was far from over. On Aug. 7, 1916, he wrote to Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo regarding changes to the Walking Liberty half dollar design:
"I am sending you herewith three photographs of the changed design for the reverse of the Half Dollar, for your inspection and approval.
"The changes seem to me a decided improvement over the first design, and together with the change I have made on the design of the obverse of this coin, which you have recently approved, I believe the general appearance of this coin will be much enhanced.
"In connection with the designs, please permit me to draw your attention to the matter of the making of the dies. The dies made from the first set of models prepared by me were rather weak, the amount of relief being relatively less than my models called for, and the background or field had been rubbed in the dies so the struck coin shone like a mirror. All this helped to mar the artistic qualities of the coins. In order to avoid a recurrence of this in the final dies, may I request that the Engraver at the Philadelphia Mint be instructed to use the strongest possible relief in both coins and not rub or burnish any part of the dies.
"I should be pleased to visit the Mint at any time the Engraver has the dies ready, and I should like to be present when the first examples are struck.
"You are undoubtedly conversant with the fact that it has been customary to allow sculptors who have designed coins the privilege to place their initials or monogram on some inconspicuous part of the coin, and I respectfully request you to grant me this privilege."
McAdoo answered in a letter dated Aug. 10, 1916:
"Replying to your letter of the 7th instant, I hereby approve the changed design for the reverse of the Half Dollar, which you submitted for my inspection.
"I take pleasure in granting you permission to place your initials on the new Half Dollar, provided the letters are small in design and are placed on an inconspicuous part of the coin, as is the case in connection with coins now in circulation.
"I have given instructions to the Director of the Mint that great care be taken to strike proper dies for the new coin, and have advised him of your desire to visist the Mint when the first samples are made."
Apparently Weinman wanted to provided the New York World with advance photographs of his new coin designs. The new Mint director denied his request in a letter dated Nov. 4, 1916, which stated in part:
"I beg to acknowlege the receipt of your letter of the 3rd instant making inquiry in regard to the publication by the World of reproductions of parts of the designs of the new Dime and the new Half Dollar.
"Replying I have to state that such reproduction would be in violation of law. I am enclosing herewith a copy of Section 171 of the Penal Code, for your information."…
Weinman made three trips to the Philadelphia Mint and was reimbursed for his travel expenses. On Nov. 11, 1916, A.M. Joyce, the superintendent of the Mint, wrote to the sculptor:
"I am forwarding herewith, for your signature and return to this office, two vouchers in your favor, one for $22.55 traveling expenses incurred September 11th, September 25th and 26th from New York to Philadelphia and return, the other for $2,000 for the new designs for the half dollar.
"If you have a letter authorizing the second trip to that city, will you please send a copy of it when you return the voucher."
On Nov. 20, 1916, the chief clerk for the acting auditor of the Treasury Department sent Weinman a completed Notice of Settlement of Claim, which stated:
"Sir: Your claim for designs for half dollar furnished the United States Mint Service as per authority of the Treasury Department dated June 28, 1916, amounting to the sum of two thousand and 00/100 dollars, has been allowed per audit No. 53920, payable from the appropriation, 'Contingent Expenses, Mint at Philadelphia, 1916.'
"Treasury Warrant No. 9649 enclosed herewith is in full settlement of said claim."
Six or seven varieties of pattern 1916-dated Walking Liberty half dollar varieties were struck, differing slightly from the design that was approved for production. Somehow a few of the patterns were placed in circulation at face value. As late as the 1930s, letters appeared in The Numismatist from collectors who had received the patterns in change in the Philadelphia area.
A circulated 1916 pattern Walking Liberty half dollar starred in a Heritage Numismatic Auctions Inc. sale in 2004. A press release provided the history of the coin:
"Heritage Numismatic Auctions will be offering an extremely rare 1916 Walking Liberty Half Dollar Pattern in its official ANA Signature Auction taking place in Pittsburgh, August 18-21. This seldom-encountered Pattern circulated for some time, as evidenced by its PR30 grade assigned by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. The Pattern has been accorded an R.8 rarity factor, and is listed as Judd-1993 and Pollock-2055.
"'The Judd-1993,' explained Heritage President Greg Rohan, 'one of several different varieties of 1916 Walking Liberty half dollars in existence, features LIBERTY in large letters in the right obverse field. The reverse is very similar to the final version of the Walker design with only minor differences, which may explain how this item circulated for so long before some astute observer noticed. While there is some dispute whether six or seven 1916 varieties exist, pedigree research by Saul Teichman on his uspatterns.com website indicates that only about 20 examples of all different varieties are currently known. Five of these are in the Smithsonian Institution, leaving a net available population of just 15 patterns.'
"'This particular pattern variety is extremely rare,' noted Heritage's Senior Cataloger Mark Borckardt, 'with only one example previously known to Saul Teichman. This is a second example of the variety, apparently not previously known within numismatic circles. According to current research, it is believed that this variety was struck somewhere between August 21 and September 20, 1916.…
"'While well circulated, this example is highly attractive with completely natural grayish-silver surfaces and pale heather highlights. On the reverse, a tiny rim bruise is visible over ER of AMERICA; however, the balance of the surface on each side is nearly flawless. For the pattern specialist, this is an extremely important opportunity, as is any offering of a 1916 pattern coin, regardless of the denomination.' Dave Bowers noted: 'Under the best of circumstances, the pattern specialist is unlikely to encounter patterns of this date except when specialized collections are brought to market. Even then, only a few pieces are likely to be offered.'
"'The Judd-1993 variety, concluded Borckardt, 'was not listed in previous editions of the Judd reference, however, is similar to the older Judd-1797a listing, except for the addition of Adolph A. Weinman's AW monogram on the reverse.'"
On May 12, 2005, Heritage announced that another 1916 pattern Walking Liberty half dollar would appear in a forthcoming auction:
"Heritage Numismatic Auctions, Inc. (HNAI) will offer an extremely rare 1916 Walking Liberty half dollar graded PR65 by NGC, in their upcoming Signature Auction, to be held June 1-4, 2005 as part of the official auction of the Long Beach Coin Expo.
"'This is a significant 20th century pattern with LIBERTY (appearing as LiberTy) and IN GOD WE TRUST in large letters in the right obverse field,' said Greg Rohan, President of HNAI. 'The reverse features an eagle that is a likeness of the final version of the Walking Liberty design, but there the similarity ends.'
"'The legends UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and HALF DOLLAR are above the eagle, while E PLURIBUS UNUM appears beneath the branch on which the eagle is perched,' continued Rohan. 'There are several different variations of 1916 Walking Liberty Half Dollar patterns known. The earlier issues and the eighth edition of the Judd reference listed six varieties, while Andrew Pollock included a seventh variety. … "'This particular coin is widely believed to be the Morris Evans piece,' Rohan stated, 'sold by Bowers and Merena in August, 1998 as an uncertified (and moderately toned) PR64, where it sold for what now seems like the bargain price of $40,250. The surfaces here display a radiant gray-silver finish with innumerable die striations in the field. There are no abrasions or other notable disturbances to report on either side.'
"'Collectors were essentially unaware of the prototype 1916 strikings until the late 1930s when one was described in the April 1937 issue of The Numismatist," said Rohan.…' "Rohan added, 'For the pattern or advanced Walking Liberty specialist, this is an extremely important opportunity, as is any offering of a 1916 pattern coin, regardless of the denomination. The specimen offered here is quite possibly the finest available of any 1916 Half Dollar pattern and should generate unprecedented interest.'
"This coin bears a pre-auction estimate of $100,000."
The rare pattern sold for $113,000.
Still another 1916 pattern half dollar crossed the auction block at Heritage's January 2008 Orlando, Florida (FUN) Signature Coin Auction No. 454. It was an example of Judd-1991, believed to be the earliest of the Walking Liberty pattern varieties. Graded PR-63 by Professional Coin Grading Service, it realized $74,750.
Collectors call it the Walking Liberty or Liberty Walking half dollar. Some early newspaper items - and later the first coin "boards" - referred to the coin as having a Standing Liberty portrait. A more awkward name might have been the "Ideals Civic and Military Glory" half dollar, derived from the New York Times' interpretation of what Liberty represented on the coin. But based on an explanation by its designer around the time of its release, and many contemporary descriptions, maybe it should forever be known as the Striding Liberty half dollar.
"The design of the half dollar bears a full-length figure of Liberty, Weinman explained, "the folds of the stars and stripes flying to the breeze as a background, progressing in full stride toward the dawn of a new day, carrying branches of laurel and oak, symbolic of civil and military glory. The hand of the figure is outstretched in bestowal of the spirit of Liberty."
The portrayal of Liberty bears a strong resemblance to "The Sower" on certain coins of France, by Louis Oscar Roty. Whether Weinman's work was purely original or not, however, it was far different from the head-and-shoulder portraits which had appeared on previous half dollars and most other coins.
If the Walking Liberty half dollar were named for its reverse, it might be known as the Fearless Eagle half dollar, according to the official description. "The reverse of the half dollar shows an eagle perched high upon a mountain crag," the Mint director noted, "his wings unfolded, fearless in spirit and conscious of his power. Springing from a rift in the rock is a sapling of Mountain Pine symbolic of America." It was a dramatic change from familiar eagle and shield designs on the reverse of many United States coins.
The themes may have been inspired by ancient times, but their symbolism was right up to the minute as the United States prepared for possible active involvement in World War I. Peace and preparedness were popular themes during 1916, a presidential election year. Apparently collectors liked what they saw in the new half dollar, because in 1920 the ANA awarded Weinman the J. Sanford Saltus Award for Medallic Art in acknowledgement of his talent.
Smoothing the Wrinkles
The U.S. Mint often had trouble when artists or sculptors outside its employ designed coins. Their work could be beautiful, but it was not always suited to the technical requirements of the Mint. The Walking Liberty half dollar was no exception. The January 1917 issue of Mehl's Numismatic Monthly, published by Fort Worth coin dealer B. Max Mehl around the time the first Walking Liberty half dollars were released, said, "Smoothing out the wrinkles in Miss Liberty's dress and keeping the die-makers from cutting off the tips of her fingers took seven months of the hardest kind of work."
The effort was not entirely successful. Weak strikes remained a problem throughout the Walking Liberty half dollar's production run. Even on some Mint State Walking Liberty half dollars, Miss Liberty's left hand is blurred or indistinct as if from wear, and some of the lines in her skirt might be missing. The detail in Miss Liberty's head and face can also be indistinct on imperfectly struck specimens.
Weak strikes were a particular problem at the San Francisco Mint. Current values reflect the production problems. For example, a 1927-S Walking Liberty half dollar, despite a mintage of more than 2.3 million, is valued at $10,000 in MS-65 grade.
A Late Arrival
Plans originally called for the first Walking Liberty half dollars to be released by July 1, 1916, only about a month after the design was unveiled. It was an unrealistic schedule, but optimism was still running high throughout the month of June. The June 21, 1916, issue of The Iowa Recorder reported:
"Coins to be minted. The U.S. Treasury Department has announced that after the 1st of July it is going to mint dimes, quarters and half dollars of an entirely different design from those used at the present time. The new coins will be as welcome as those of the present design, and if they are as artistic as the Buffalo nickel and the last series of gold pieces, the appreciation will be still high."
Apparently some newspaper stories about the coins' release were prepared in advance, and then published on schedule, even if the coins themselves were late. An interesting item with a July 2, 1916, dateline appeared in the New York Times. It incorrectly claimed,"The new design half dollars made their appearance in Washington today."
In reality, the coins were nowhere near ready to be released. Weinman and workers at the Mint were still trying to adapt the design for mass production. On July 18, the designer wrote, "The obverse for the half dollar is now being reduced, and I am now busy with the reverse."
Despite the changes and fine-tuning, the basic design would remain the same. As the July 8, 1916, issue of the New York Times put it, a full-length figure of Liberty, outlined against an American flag, would appear on the half dollar. The Aug. 8, 1916, issue of the Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel said that half dollars, quarters and dimes were to "come out in new dress."
On Aug. 23, 1916, the U.S. Sub-Treasury in St. Louis shihpped by express one million half dollars to the Denver Mint. They were to be "recast into half dollars of a different design," according to the Christian Science Monitor. But production of Walking Liberty half dollars was still a few months away.
In September 1916, newspapers reported the Mint was having trouble with the Walking Liberty design, and that satisfactory dies had not yet been made. A Philadelphia press dispatch dated Sept. 15, 1916, said:
"The United States Mint here is having trouble in making satisfactory dies for the new dimes, quarters and half dollars from the designs furnished by the Treasury Department, and there is delay in getting the new currency in circulation. The Treasury officials hoped to have the new silver money in circulation July 1.
"According to Dr. Albert A. Norris, chief clerk of the Philadelphia Mint, the die-makers usually have trouble when designs are made by artists who are not familiar with the mechanical problems. At present the Mint is working nights manufacturing silver coin of the old design to keep up with the demand."
Although millions of Barber dimes and quarters were struck in 1916, no 1916-dated Barber half dollars were produced. There was no sense of urgency with regard to the denomination. In May 1916 the government disclosed that the half dollar "has fallen practically into disuse." It promised that once the new design was introduced, efforts would be made to bring back to general circulation the neglected half dollar.
On Nov. 13, 1916, the Daily Kennebec Journal, published in Augusta, Maine, reported, "The dies for the half dollar have been made, and the minting of the new coins [is ready to begin]." Once more, however, it proved to be an inaccurate report.
A Christmas Wish
The Annual Report of the Director of the Mint for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 1916, took great pride in the new silver coin designs and predicted that all all three denominations would be in general circulation in plenty of time for Christmas. "By far the most notable achievement of the mint service during the fiscal year 1916 was the selection, with your [President Woodrow Wilson's] approval, of new designs for the dime, quarter dollar and half dollar pieces," the Director wrote.
The Mercury dime did arrive in time for Christmas. The first Walking Liberty half dollars were dated and struck in 1916 but were not released until 1917, a disappointment to anyone who had hoped to give the coins as Christmas gifts. The following item with a Washington, Dec. 27, 1916, dateline appeared in The Lancaster Daily Gazette:
"New Half Dollar Coming. New silver half dollar coins will be placed in circulation on Jan. 2, Treasury Department officials expect." This time the forecast was accurate.
At long last, the Walking Liberty half dollar made its debut on Jan. 2, 1917, but not in all major cities. The Sub-Treasury in New York City received a small shipment of the new coins that day, but it was not ready to distribute them, the New York Times reported. The newspaper said that distribution of Walking Liberty half dollars would begin "next Tuesday."
In Washington, D.C., eager collectors were more fortunate. The new coin was released as scheduled. The Jan. 3, 1917, issue of The Washington Post said the new half dollars were in use, with the figure of Liberty on one side and, the newspaper mistakenly claimed, a "Flying Eagle" on the other side. According to the Post, the Walking Liberty half dollar differed from the old Barber or Liberty Head half dollar in that it was considered more artistic. No one seemed to disagree.
Walking Liberty half dollars were released in Sandusky, Ohio, on Jan. 4, 1917. The Sandusky Star Journal ran the following item:
"New Half Dollars. The latest new coin issued by the Mint is the half dollar. The figures on it resemble in a way those on the new gold pieces. The Commercial National Bank has received a supply of these coins."
It took a while longer for Walking Liberty half dollars to arrive in some other cities. The Jan. 20, 1917, issue of The Star and Sentinel, published in Gettysburg, Pa., reported:
"First of the new half dollars shown here. The new 1917 half dollars have made their appearance here. On the one side of the new fifty-cent pieces the Goddess of Liberty can be seen with her right hand extended."
Coin collectors weren't the only ones who liked to set aside examples of a new coin type, although the high face value of the half dollar prevented it from being hoarded in the same numbers as smaller denominations. At first, supplies of Walking Liberty half dollars were limited, and distribution was a problem in some parts of the country. That's where some enterprising individuals stepped in and began peddling the coins at a premium.
Treasury officials decided to step in to deter the profiteering. A press release dated Jan. 26, 1917, said:
"Reports reached the Treasury Department today from numerous sources that sharpers 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 were struck off in 1916."
The advice was intended for the public's protection, but it proved unsound in the long run. An MS-65 1916-S Walking Liberty half dollar is now valued at more than $6,000, according to Coin Prices. In the same grade, the 1916 Philadelphia half dollar is listed at $1,800, and the 1916-D at $2,400.
Few new coins have received as much scrutiny as the Walking Liberty half dollar. The New York Sun called it a "lively" coin. The Boston Herald said it had a "forward look on its face." The Jan. 23, 1917, issue of The Evening Telegram, published in Elyria, Ohio, said simply that the Walking Liberty half dollar was "more elaborate" than the Barber half dollar.
According to the newspaper, the new coin depicted "a full-length relief of a thinly-draped woman, walking with lithe step." Another critic, however, claimed, "Liberty in sandals taking giant strides across [the obverse of the half dollar] might burn her toes if she should step one millimeter nearer the rising sun."
The Numismatist said the designs for the dime, quarter and half dollar formed "the most attractive set of silver coins ever issued by this or any other government."
It may not have been mentioned in the general press, but one of the notable aspects of the Walking Liberty half dollar from a collector's standpoint was the placement of Denver's "D" and San Francisco's "S" mintmark on the obverse of the coin, directly below the motto "In God We Trust." It was the first time since 1839 that a mint mark had appeared on the obverse of a half dollar. The New Orleans Mint had placed its "O" mint mark above the date on 1838 and 1839 Bust half dollars. The 1838-O was a proof-only issue with an estimated mintage of only 20 pieces. The 1839-O was struck for circulation. More than 178,000 examples were minted.
Obverse mintmarks appeared on 1916 and early 1917 Walking Liberty half dollars. Later in 1917 the letter was moved to the reverse as a running change. The explanation given was that the Mint director thought it looked like it had resulted from an imperfection in the die. From 1968 to the present, mint marks have appeared on the obverse of the Kennedy half dollar.
The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association, praised Adolph Weinman's depiction of the American eagle on the reverse of the new half dollar. "At last we have on our coins the great American eagle in a natural form. As represented on the half dollar, he is, as the small boy would say, 'some bird,' and his size and proportions are in keeping with the greatness and power of the country."
At least one prominent ornithologist, however, disagreed with the assessment of the eagle in The Numismatist. Frank Chapman was the curator of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He was also a pioneer in photographing and filming birds, the author of many articles and books on ornithology, and the founder of Bird-Lore magazine, which was eventually acquired by the National Audubon Society and renamed Audubon.
Chapman was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, who as President had set in motion the coin redesign program which culminated in the new silver releases of 1916.
Concerning the half dollar, Chapman claimed that Weinman had made the eagle "a terrestrial fowl, striding or marching on the ground like a turkey…and with as much dignity as one."
Chapman was not alone in his criticism of the Walking Liberty half dollar. Someone else claimed the eagle appeared to be wearing overalls and marching through hot tar.
But you can't please everyone, and although an eagle was required by law to appear on the reverse of the half dollar, it was not required to be a realistic rendition. The designer was free to use his imagination, to exaggerate details, or to rely on his own vision for artistic reasons. One can only wonder what Chapman and other critics might have said about the stylized eagle on the reverse of the Connecticut Tercentenary commemorative half dollar. In comparison, Weinman's depiction of the American eagle on the Walking Liberty half dollar looks like a photograph of a real bird.
The 1917 World Series
It happened in Cincinnati on Sept. 20, 1917. A half dollar, probably a mint state 1917 Walking Liberty, was tossed to determine where the first two games of the World Series would be played. Harry Hempstead, president of the New York Giants, called "heads." But the coin landed "tails" side up. So the first two games were played in Chicago. The White Sox won those two games and went on to beat the Giants four games to two.
The intricacy of the Walking Libetty Half dollar design probably should have deterred counterfeiters. But it didn't. As early as Jan. 25, 1918, the Warren (Ohio) Evening Times reported, "Counterfeit Half Dollars. A spurious half dollar is circulating and already several citizens of Warren have received them in change."
The next day, a similar item appeared in the Ogden Examiner:
"Bogus Half Dollars. Salt Lake, Jan. 25. This city has been flooded with bogus half dollars. The police have investigated a number of complaints."
In December 1919, feds investigated counterfeit half dollars in shipments from banks in Southington, Conn. In July 1921, counterfeit half dollars were seized in a raid in New York. Although no authentic half dollars were minted in 1922, phony half dollars in a lead alloy circulated in Baltimore that year. Counterfeits also turned up in Hartford, Conn.
Production of the genuine half dollars was limited in 1921 because of a post-war recession. Half dollar output consisted of only 246,000 from the Philadelphia Mint, 208,000 from Denver and 548,000 from San Francisco. The 1921-D is especially prized by collectors. Coin Prices lists it at $940 in Very Fine-20 grade.
Half dollar mintages soared in 1917 and 1918. "The Mint is now hurrying the output of the half dollar," the Jan. 31, 1917, issue of The Newark Advocate reported. The newspaper said the new coin was being widely used, despite the fact that many people didn't like it.
In July 1918 came news the Mint's output in the fiscal year had broken all coinage records. The Philadelphia Mint struck more than 6.6 million half dollars in the 1918 calendar year. The Denver Mint turned out more than 3.8 million and the San Francisco Mint more than 10.2 million.
After the initial surge, half dollar mintages trailed off in 1919 and rebounded in 1920. Production of Walking Liberty halves was hit-or-miss during the remainder of the 1920s. None were recorded as struck in 1922, 1924, 1925 or 1926. In 1924 the government tried to get half dollars into more widespread use, but the effort was unsuccessful. The stockpile of coins on hand was more than enough to meet the demand.
Walking Liberty half dollars with mintages less than 1 million include the 1916-P, 1916-S, 1917-D obverse, 1917-S obverse, 1919, 1921, 1921-D, 1921-S and 1938-D.
In 1938, someone in Watkins Glen, N.Y., decided to bank 2,000 half dollars that had been lying around his house. The Denver Mint struck fewer than half a million half dollars in 1938. A Very Good-8 1938-D Walking Liberty is now valued at $100.
Half dollar production soared during World War II. In 1943 the government announced its plan to melt 50 million worn silver dollars and use the metal to strike denominations ranging from the dime to the half dollar. The 1943-P has the highest mintage of any Walking Liberty half dollar, more than 53 million.
Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross and others were already thinking about using a portrait of Benjamin Franklin on a coin. The cent and dime were considered, but eventually a Franklin half dollar was decided upon. It succeeded the Walking Liberty half dollar in 1948, after a total of nearly 500 million Walking Liberty half dollars had been struck.
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On July 31, 2008 Barry Popik
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