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Weinman’s Walking Liberty Well Received
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
September 03, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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Superlatives abounded when the Walking Liberty half dollar made its debut in 1916. Art lovers rejoiced at the news of sculptor Adolph Weinman’s victory in the Treasury Department’s design competition. He lived up to his reputation with a half dollar that received as much coverage in art publications as it did in numismatic periodicals.

“As a designer of medals, Weinman stands among the foremost in the United States,” said the Bulletin of the Pan-American Union. “The medals of honor of leading literary and scientific societies and the new silver [Winged Liberty Head] dime and [Walking Liberty] half dollar are among his works.”

For the half dollar, Weinman may have used as his model for Liberty either Elsie Stevens or, as some recent biographers have suggested, Aubrey Munson. An unattributed newspaper clipping, apparently saved by Weinman, said it was Stevens:

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“It can be stated with the utmost assurance that the face of Mrs. Wallace Stevens of 594 Prospect Ave., Hartford, will soon become one of the most popular in the United States. She posed for the head of Liberty on the new half dollar.”

The design was more important than the model. According to Weinman, the half dollar’s obverse depicted Liberty striding toward the dawn of a new day. The reverse pictured an eagle perched on a mountain crag, with a branch of western pine in the background.

The Literary Digest said the design symbolized “the new spirit of preparedness.” World War I was raging in Europe, but the United States had not yet gone to war. Preparedness was the central issue in the 1916 presidential election campaign.

Interest in the new half dollar was expected to cross political lines and bring the half dollar back into widespread use after years of neglect. The Literary Digest said the Walking Liberty half dollar “ought to be popular, if the workmanship comes up to the description of the design.”

That was the catch. The Mint had a hard time preparing the Walking Liberty half dollar dies. The new coin was supposed to be released in July 1916. The Aug. 15, 1916, issue of the Waterloo Evening Courier said, “Waterloo banks will soon be handing out bright new half dollars.” But the first examples would not be ready until November.

Anticipation was increasing. “Much artistic progress has been made in our coinage,” Art World said. “Sculptors of reputation have been employed and have produced admirable results…and now we are to have a new half dollar and a new dime by Weinman and a new quarter by MacNeil. Altogether, in retrospect, it seems an incredible achievement....

“If the laws of the United States did not forbid the reproduction of our coins in periodicals, the contrast between the old and the new could here be made pictorially instructive.”

A small point of great interest to collectors was the mintmark’s location on the obverse instead of the reverse. It didn’t last long. Because of complaints that it resembled a die defect, it was moved to the reverse during the 1917 production run.

Despite the Walking Liberty half dollar’s delayed introduction, no 1916-dated Barber halves were struck. An item in the Sept. 9, 1916, issue of the Des Moines Daily News, with a San Francisco dateline, said, “There is a dime famine and half dollar famine on the Pacific coast.”

The San Francisco Mint struck only 508,000 Walking Liberty half dollars in 1916. The Philadelphia Mint turned out 608,000, and San Francisco more than 1 million.

A Very Good-8 1916-S is valued at $135. The Coins value guide lists 1916 Philadelphia and 1916-D half dollars at $55. Common Walking Liberty half dollars from the 1940s are available for around $30 in Mint State-60.

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