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Weinman's Half Dollar Design Praised and Criticized
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
September 16, 2010

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Adolph Weinman’s Walking Liberty design represented more than an attempt to beautify the half dollar. It was the culmination of an effort to revitalize the denomination and get half dollars back into circulation in a big way. The Mint turned out plenty of Walking Liberty half dollars in the design’s first year, but it was nothing compared to the mintages of Walking Liberty half dollars in the 1940s.

Weinman, better known as a sculptor and medal designer, won the competition to design the new half dollar. The Mint began striking the coins in November 1916. Although the first Walking Liberty halves were dated 1916, they were not released until Jan. 2, 1917.

The Jan. 23, 1917, issue of the Elyria, Ohio, Evening Telegram said the Walking Liberty half dollar was more “elaborate” than the Barber half. But the two coins had something in common—they both seem to have been inspired by French coin designs. In the case of the Walking Liberty half dollar, it was the figure known as “The Sower.”

Maybe that’s why Weinman worked the American flag into the Walking Liberty half dollar design—to set it apart and give it a more national character.

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There was some question as to whether Liberty was holding the flag, wearing it or using it as a backdrop. In the summer of 1916, the Grand Rapids Tribune said the half dollar’s obverse had “a background of the American flag flying to the breeze.” This was consistent with Weinman’s explanation of the symbolism:

“The design of the half dollar bears a full-length figure of Liberty, 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 reverse of the half dollar shows an eagle perched high upon a mountain crag, 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.”

Bird experts weren’t sure what to make of the eagle on the half dollar. It was unlike any other eagle on a U.S. coin. A leading ornithologist, Frank Chapman, thought it looked like a turkey.

Little was said about the branch of Mountain Pine, although it added a dramatic touch and may have been the coin’s most distinctive feature. For this reason alone, it probably deserved to be called the “Mountain Pine” half dollar.

Another distinctive feature was the placement of the mintmark on the obverse, for the first time on the half dollar since the 1830s. Because they resembled die defects, Denver’s “D” and San Francisco’s “S” were moved to the reverse during the 1917 production run.

Half dollar production fluctuated in the 1920s and 1930s. Sometimes it was suspended altogether. A post-World War I recession and the Great Depression were to blame. The Walking Liberty half dollar really took off during World War II as record mintages were reported.

Meanwhile, Mint officials and others were considering the merits of a coin tribute to Benjamin Franklin. The Walking Liberty half dollar gave way to the Franklin half dollar in 1948. By then, so many Walking Liberties had been struck that most examples from the 1940s are valued at less than $10 in Very Fine-20.

More Coin Collecting Resources:

2011 U.S. Coin Digest: Half Dollars

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