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MacNeil's masterful design: Standing Liberty quarter a collector favorite
By R.W. Julian
November 13, 2017

In the early 1950s, one could still find Standing Liberty quarter dollars in daily circulation, though many of them no longer carried a date. The enterprising collector could acquire most of the issues dated 1925 and later but coins with visible dates prior to 1925 were rarely seen in the marketplace. Because of this problem not all that many collectors were interested in these earlier dates.

In the 1960s there began to be a change in collecting habits as more and more individuals became interested in this once ignored series. As the interest grew, so did the stories about the first issues of 1916-1917. Today there is still controversy as to exactly what transpired in 1917 when an “obscene” design was supposedly changed because of public outrage.

The story began in mid-1915 when Treasury officials discovered that the 25-year rule about changing coinage designs was falling due for the dimes, quarters, and half dollars first struck in 1892. They had been designed by chief engraver Charles E. Barber, who was perhaps less than thrilled to find that his artwork was to be replaced.

Mint Director Robert W. Wooley wrote several artists in December 1915 that the government was planning to change the designs of the minor silver coins. Hermon A. MacNeil received one of these letters as did noted artist Adolph Weinman. (One other talented artist, Alvin Polasek, also received one of the letters but his entries were not used.)

MacNeil, born in February 1866 at Prattville, Mass., was then 49 years of age and at the height of his artistic career. He had studied in Paris in the 1880s and then worked in Chicago in the early 1890s. From 1896 to 1900 he had studied under Italian masters in Rome; upon his return to America he established a studio at College Point on Long Island, where he was to spend the rest of his life. He died in October 1947.

The terms of the contest were that the artist would receive $300 for his entry as such and $2000 if the design was adopted for the regular coinage. The artists began work immediately but at this stage only pen and ink drawings were considered; plaster models were not prepared until the designs had been accepted by the Treasury secretary.

There has long been a view that artists were free to choose their own designs for the coinage without so much as a hint from the Treasury or Mint Bureau. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is clear that in all cases the artist was given some latitude, but the overall direction of the artwork was carefully spelled out.

A case in point is the Barber coinage of 1892. The engraver was required to use the contemporary French head of Liberty as a model while the reverse (for the half and quarter dollar) had to have the Great Seal of the United States. Charles Barber had room to interpret the instructions, but not all that much.

Wooley informed MacNeil that one of the obverses was to have Liberty standing in a doorway, symbolizing defense of the nation while the other two suggested designs were, of course, similar to the finished Weinman work on the 1916 dime and half dollar. All three artists were given the same instructions. On the basis of the drawings he submitted in early February 1916, MacNeil was given the commission for the obverse of the quarter dollar.

Once the Treasury had determined which artist would be designing which coin, MacNeil and Weinman started work. By May MacNeil had completed an acceptable design for the reverse and the Mint now informed him that both sides had been accepted for use. The next step was to prepare the plaster models, a difficult piece of work considering that MacNeil had not executed any for coinage dies in the past. He spent time at the Mint carefully studying the necessary techniques.

In preparing models for coinage, the artists were told that there could only be a small distance between the highest and lowest points. The parameters were very tight and for this reason coinage models are executed at a much slower pace than similar work for medals.

It should be noted, with respect to the models, that coins are struck only once in the coining press. If the design is too deep in the dies, all of the design will not come up on the finished coin. The 1921 Peace dollar, for example, is well known for this problem.

The first plaster models by MacNeil were finished about the beginning of June 1916. This design differed from that finally struck in December 1916 in several ways. First of all, there were two dolphins at the lower part of the obverse while the motto “In God We Trust” was on a ribbon stretching from Liberty’s right hand to the shield.

Even on the this first model Liberty is topless and her right breast is clearly shown. It is important to note that no official comments were made on this aspect of the models, merely that the dolphins and the motto were a problem. The next obverse model, probably finished by the end of August, was somewhat closer to the finished product of December.

In early September MacNeil learned that Barber wanted to “rub down” the fields of the models, presumably meaning that the rough finish in certain areas was to be eliminated. Both MacNeil and Weinman argued strongly against this practice, indicating that it changed the character of the work.

During September and October a series of changes was made to the original models, some of which were done without MacNeil being informed. (One of the major changes, with his knowledge, was the removal of the dolphins.) By early in October lead impressions were taken from the dies and submitted to Mint and Treasury officials for examination.

These high-level examinations produced additional changes in the design, mostly very slight in nature. There was also a series of letters concerning MacNeil’s request to have his initial on the obverse; at length permission was granted so long as they were relatively inconspicuous. They were, in the end, placed at the lower right edge.

After a considerable number of changes, coinage finally began in December 1916. Some 52,000 quarter dollars were struck in the final days of the year, creating a rarity, at least for later generations of collectors.

Wooley, in his report on Mint affairs for fiscal 1916, reported that the new quarter “is intended to typify in a measure the awakening interest of the country to its own protection.” He further noted that Liberty is “stepping forward to the gateway of the country.… The left arm of the figure of Liberty is upraised, bearing the shield in the attitude of protection, from which the covering is being drawn.”

The first quarters were the subject of intense scrutiny, no more so than at the present time. The most important point to collectors, when considering high-grade specimens, is whether or not Liberty has a full head—in other words if the details of the side of the head are present or not. Only a small proportion of uncirculated specimens have a full head and for some dates it is virtually unknown.

Although some writers have stated that full head coins are from new dies, this is unlikely. Rather it was the skill of the press foreman in setting the dies in the coining press. If properly set, all the details came up; if not, the coin appears slightly soft and there is not a full head.

The 1916 quarter, in superior condition, brings a strong price whenever offered for sale. According to the price guide in Coins in Extremely-40 the value is $9,000 while even in Fine-12 there is a strong price tag of $5,500.

According to researcher Walter Breen, the first quarters of the new design were not released until January 17, but six days earlier MacNeil had already written complaining of the new design. Apparently this was his first view of the coin and he did not like what he saw. In particular there had been numerous modifications to the August design; MacNeil noted that several of the changes had originally been considered but discarded as not artistic enough for the coinage.

It has been reported, on doubtful authority, that there was a great hue and cry from the public over the new design. Writers in the past have drawn an analogy from the uproar over the 1896 Educational series of Silver Certificates. These notes had attracted the unwelcome attention of Anthony Comstock, whose anti-vice activities are well known. However, it is one thing for a drawing to be attacked and quite another for sculpture—as on a coin—to get the same treatment in the newspapers.

The request from MacNeil was almost certainly ignored at first but then reconsidered in light of something entirely different. Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo (who was the son-in-law of President Woodrow Wilson) had strong presidential ambitions. It is likely that McAdoo saw what might happen in the election of 1920 if a group raised an outcry about the “obscene” design on the new quarter dollar.

Once McAdoo had been notified by political advisors of the possible fall-out over the new quarter, he took steps to make certain that all was taken care of. What happened next is not clear, but it seems likely that MacNeil had a private conference with high officials of the Treasury during late February or perhaps early in March. MacNeil was probably now told that Barber’s changes were being reconsidered; Barber, who did most of the changes to MacNeil’s design, had conveniently died on Feb. 18, 1917.

Someone realized that major revisions would require congressional approval and McAdoo chose a close friend—congressman William Ashbrook of Ohio —to introduce the measure. The bill, passed in early July 1917, allowed the Mint to change the position of the reverse stars and the eagle as well as lettering and concavity of the fields. All other changes were specifically forbidden. The “concavity” matter was in response to the claim that the coins would not stack properly; this has been disputed, however.

It is not clear who did the revised diework, but it was probably MacNeil and new chief engraver George T. Morgan. If MacNeil had not been allowed to make the changes he wanted, McAdoo faced the risk of the artist blowing the whistle on the entire operation. It was a quid pro quo in the classical sense.

MacNeil changed the obverse to let Liberty have a chain mail vest, thus hiding that which McAdoo thought might cause him political problems. In return for this, other substantive changes were made, as required by the July 1917 law.

The addition of chain mail to the obverse figure of Liberty has been attacked as a violation of the law but this is uncertain. It had been Mint practice to order minor changes in the devices from time to time and no one ever said that these were illegal.

A good argument could be made that the chain mail addition did not, in reality, change the basic design. It may have altered the appearance of the Liberty figure slightly, but certainly it did not change the meaning. The law specified that the devices were to conform to the artist’s drawings of May 1916, which may have given McAdoo the necessary loophole.

It has been stated that Congress knew the real reason for the law; this is unlikely. McAdoo had his share of political enemies, even within his own party, and that sort of thing would have soon seen the light of day. The new dies were completed in August 1917 and from then on the “McAdoo/MacNeil” design would be struck.

There has been considerable interest in the identity of MacNeil’s model. By the spring of 1917 the name of Doris Doscher—later a famous actress—had appeared in the numismatic press; in 1972, however, after Doscher died, Irene MacDowell also claimed to have been the model. As it is likely that MacNeil had more than one person pose for him, both women were probably telling the truth.

The coins of 1917 Type I (the obverse of 1916) from all three mints are quite easily obtained in decent condition by the collector at a nominal price. In Extremely Fine-40 the price ranges from about $110 to less than $200 for the scarcest of the three, from the San Francisco Mint. Those of Type II for 1917 are somewhat scarcer, though the prices do not reflect this; the major demand for Type I is from type collectors whereas there is a reasonable choice of dates for Type II after 1917.

The great rarity of this series is the 1918/7-S overdate, which is valued at $7,000 in EF-40. Several of the dates in the late teens and early twenties are scarce but there are no really rare dates except 1916 and the overdate. The 1921 is scarce, with EF-40 specimens bringing about $600. The 1923-S is perhaps the third scarcest coin, being valued at about $1100 in EF-40.

In 1924 it was finally noticed that the date wore off too easily (coins which might grade Fine otherwise had a barely legible date) and chief engraver Morgan modified the dies so that the date was now recessed. The post-1924 coinage could be found with little trouble by collectors well into the late 1950s. Most of the later dates (1925-1930) are available in EF-40 for reasonable prices, typically under $40.

In 1931 there was no coinage but for 1932 Congress approved a commemorative quarter dollar honoring George Washington. The Standing Liberty design was supposed to resume in 1933 but instead the Washington design has been struck since 1934. It was the end of a series that has more controversy now then it had originally.

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