[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, Bruce Fox. This information was originally published in 1993 in The Complete Guide to Walking Liberty Half Dollars]
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The Walking Liberty half dollar was first minted in 1916. The design is classic and was typical of most U.S. coins of that era, depicting strong American ideology.
Before looking at the new coinage, it’s interesting to understand the events and concerns of the time. Foremost was the impending outbreak of World War I. President Woodrow Wilson was to declare war against Germany in April 1917. But fighting took place long before that as Wilson prepared for the inevitable.
Internally, it was a very perplexing time because of extremes in wealth and poverty in this country. Look at some of the headlines from a 1915 Harper’s Weekly: “$28,000 Is Paid for a Salt Cellar,” “Husband and Wife Found Starved to Death—Too Proud to Beg After Long Unemployment,” “Enormous Prices Paid for Old Furniture,” “Thousands Out of Employment Appeal for Food and Shelter.”
The disparity led to increasing discontent. In the first six months of 1916, the country experienced more than 2,000 strikes and lockouts. Militants were campaigning for six-day work weeks, women’s suffrage, birth control, progressive education and prohibition. Socialists were demanding an overthrow of capitalism. But life wasn’t all war and strife. You could go to the moving pictures and see stars like Fatty Arbuckle, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops. And for $360, you could buy your own Ford “Tin Lizzie.”
Presidents of this era used coinage and currency design as a medium to draw attention to themselves or other politicians. During Theodore Roosevelt’s term, many significant changes had been made to the copper and gold coins, using the most talented artists available. President William Taft did much the same with the Buffalo nickel. Woodrow Wilson and his staff were no exception. Concerned about his re-election in 1916, Wilson looked to increase his popularity with the voters.
The fact that the dime, quarter and half dollar were legally eligible for redesign in 1916 was a coincidence, but an opportune one. New coinage, hopefully artistically superior to the previous design, could boost Wilson’s image. A competition was held among selected artists and the contract for the dime and half dollar awarded to Adolph Weinman, a German immigrant.
The following letter was written by mint director Robert W. Woolley to Charles Barber, the mint’s chief engraver, on March 3, 1916 informing him of the selection. (U.S. Mint Archives)
Dear Mr. Barber, I beg to advise you that selections have been made from a large number of designs submitted for proposed new subsidiary silver coins. The models submitted by Mr. Adolph Weinman have been chosen for the Half Dollar and the Dime, and the designs submitted by Mr. Hermon MacNeil have been determined upon for the Quarter Dollar.
It is understood that satisfactory, working models are to be delivered to the Mint no later than May 1st, 1916, and they are to conform in all respects to the requirements of the Mint.
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.
The implementation process was not smooth. There were personality conflicts between Barber and Weinman. Weinman dismissed this as “dealing with artistic temperaments” since Barber’s designs were being replaced. Weinman’s design was also selected for the Winged Liberty (Mercury) Dime, which he worked on simultaneously. He had much less trouble with the dime. The half dollar was reworked several times because the word Liberty on the obverse was pale and thin, and another time to alleviate uneven thickness in the edge of the coin. The different patterns known for the half dollar reflect experiments only hinted at in Mint correspondence.
Weinman’s difficulties continued as several small changes were made and a severe attack of tonsillitis put him further behind schedule. On April 25, Weinman wrote Woolley:
Dear Mr. Woolley: Since your visit to my studio on Friday last I have had the model for the reverse of the Half Dollar cast in hard bronze and have yesterday forwarded it to Mr. Barber at the Philadelphia Mint.
I have worked steadily upon the obverse of the Half Dollar and of the Dime, but they will not be in shape for your final inspection tomorrow. Though I am pushing the work as rapidly as possible, it becomes quite apparent that the four models for the Half Dollar and the Dime cannot be completed for the date at which I promised them and I would therefore request an extension of ten days or two weeks. Trusting this will not cause any embarrassment, I am, etc.
On June 22, Weinman wrote the director;
Dear Mr. Woolley: Your letter dated May 29, 1916 informing me that the design submitted by me for the proposed new Half Dollar and Dime have been accepted has just been received
I was at the Philadelphia Mint yesterday and Mr. Barber showed me two new Half Dollars, one with modelled background, the other with burnished background. I discovered that the word “Liberty” inscribed in field above walking figure is rather too pale and somewhat thin and I am convinced that this should be remedied before the final dies are made. If agreeable to you, I will make the change immediately. In order to help in this, I would request the loan of the two examples of the new Half Dollars, above mentioned. The making of the proposed change should not require more than ten days at most and I am sure will help the coin very much. If you approve of my request, will you kindly instruct Mr. Barber or the Superintendent of the Mint to forward the coins to me, with the understanding that I will guard them closely and return them safely to the Mint. Very sincerely yours.
A couple of days later Woolley wrote superintendent Joyce
Dear Mr. Joyce: The dime is all right. Please see that working dies for the three mints are made as rapidly as possible in order that the coinage of the new dimes may be begun quickly. The demand for these coins is exceedingly great.
The model of the obverse of the half dollar will have to be made over and Mr. Weinman informs me he is now at work on it. The same is true of the quarter dollar. The reverse of both the quarter dollar and half dollar, as shown on the coins struck from the polished dies, are satisfactory I can see no good end to be accomplished by having the models remade on plate bases.
Everyone to whom the coins have been shown here thinks they are beautiful. I beg to enjoin you not to pay out any of the new dimes until you have received special instructions from this office…
June 1916 issue of The Numismatist’s described the design in poetic fashion.
With branches of laurel and oak, symbols or civil and military glory Weinman’s Liberty strides into the dawn of American’s prominence as a world Power on the obverse of the half-dollar of 1916. Supremely confident like the nation she represents, the protective goddess of America moves with a supple grace, while her garments of stars and stripes seem to catch an invisible breeze. Like his teacher, Weinman created the illusion of movement and transformed the most ordinary item of commerce—the coin—into a work of art; a lump of silver was given life.
On the reverse is the finest representation of our national bird to appear on any coin. Wings unfurled, feather ruffled by the same winds of change that stir Liberty’s cape of stars, the eagle is poised for flight into the new century. Out of the rock at his feet pings a mountain pine, hardly like the republic. The piece is a tour de force, a subtle blending of symbolism and patriotism, and like the dime, an eloquent restatement of the philosophy of Theodore Roosevelt…
The mint director’s report for 1916 displays the overall satisfaction of the new coin design.
By far the most notable achievement of the mint service during the fiscal year 1916 was the selection, with your approval, of new designs for the dime, quarter-dollar, and half-dollars pieces. For the first time in the history of our coinage there are separate designs for each of the three denominations, and their beauty and quality, from a numismatic standpoint, have been highly praised by all having expert knowledge of such matters to whom they have been shown.
Adolph A. Weinman, the designer of the Walking Liberty half dollar and the Mercury dime is renowned for both his medallic work and his sculpture.
Born in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1870, the son of a shoemaker, Weinman came to the United States as a boy of 10. He showed great artistic aptitude and after completing public school was apprenticed to a New York wood and ivory carver, where he carved mirror frames, ivory pistol grips, mother-of-pearl powder boxes and meerschaum pipes. This experience fired his ambitions, and he enrolled in evening classes at Cooper Union, where he studied drawing and modeling. By his 20th birthday he had entered the studio of Philip Martiny, a protege of famed sculptor and medallist Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It was a trip with Martiny to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago that got Weinman interested in medallic art. There, Weinman was fascinated by a room devoted to the work of European medallists, leading him to try his own experiments In medallic sculpture.
In 1895 Weinman was promoted to assistant in the studio of Olin L. Warner. Following Warner’s death, he was invited to enter the studio of Saint-Gaudens, whose bas-relief artistry greatly inspired the young artist. When Saint Gaudens left for Europe in 1898, Weinman entered the studio of Charles Neihaus, where he worked for five years. Following two years of work with Daniel Chester French, with training from some of the world’s finest sculptors, Adolph Weinman opened his own studio in 1906.
Working on commissions, Weinman’s efforts became prolific. His sculptures adorn the Lincoln Monument at Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky, the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts in New York, the U.S. Archives Building in Washington, D.C., and many other museums and structures throughout the country.
He had at least as much success as a medallist. The list of Weinman medals is lengthy and impressive and includes personal renderings of family members and numerous commissioned pieces, among them the Sanford Saltus Award Medal given by the American Numismatic Society for achievement in the art of the medal. Several years later, Weinman himself was presented with the medal, honored by the numismatic community for excellence in medallic sculpture. He died in Port Chester, N.Y., on August 8,1952.
(Sources: The Numismatist; June 1981, Biographical Dictionary of Medallists (1916 and 1930 editions), Encyclopedia Britannica.
To this day, the Walking Liberty half dollar is considered one of the most beautiful coin designs in U.S. history. Yet when the coins went to the public, there was some reluctance to accept it. Most likely this was a normal reaction to something new. As time passed, the design became a huge success and was considered a monumental artistic accomplishment. But, you can’t please everyone. The Huntsville Mercury newspaper from January 22, 1917 ran the following article, entitled “New Half Dollars are Sick.”
One of the first of a lot of half dollars made in 1916 made its appearance in Huntsville today from Cincinnati. The mintmark is W.” [Author believed the designer's initial was the mint mark.]
The new coin is radically different from all other monies produced by the government mints. A suffragette is shown sowing small stars in a western field that hasn’t been plowed very deeply. The sun is setting and the old girl looks rather tired from her day’s labors, in fact perspiration can be seen trickling from her forehead. The lady wears sandals and her feet are rather dusty. She also appears, to have on overalls under her thin dress. She carries a load of firewood in one arm and wears a large napkin around her neck which leads to the belief that she left a small child at the house. The wind is blowing from the north and the sun has a blizzardly appearance. In great letters LIBERTY is spelled, extending more that half way around the entire surface.”
On the other side appears an eagle, grown to enormous size and marching madly toward Mexico, a cactus bush being shown in the background. The eagle has raised his wing, as if to strike; the old fellow looks like he could put up a good fight if aroused but he has a swell crop of feathers on his legs.
The whole coin seems to have been designed by some Republican officeholder after his Democratic successor had been announced, and bears a pale and hungry aspect generally.
WALKING LIBERTY HALF DOLLAR: Design Specifications
Designer: Adolph A. Weinman
Designer’s Initials: Reverse, right lower area under eagle’s wing feathers. “A” under “A” over “W.”
Years Issued: 1916-1921; 1923; 1927; 1929; 1933-1947
Issuing Mints: Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco
Mint Marks: “D” and “S”
Mint Mark Location: OBV Under “In God We Trust” 1916 and some 1917 REV below “E Pluribus Unum” some 1917 and later
Size: 30.61 MM or 1 3/16” in diameter
Weight: 12.500 grams (192.904 grains)
Specific Gravity: 10.34
Composition: 90% silver (.36169 oz. pure silver) 10% copper
Quantity of Business Strikes Minted: 485,478,441
Quantity of Proofs Minted: 74,400