Today at noon, the Mint will release the third and final coin in the commemorative trio honoring the historic U.S. coin designs of 1916. The first in the series was the Mercury Dime Centennial Gold Coin, issued on April 21 and honoring the 1916 Winged Liberty design by Adolph A. Weinman. This was followed on September 8 by the Standing Liberty Centennial Gold Coin, honoring Hermon A. MacNeil’s 1916 quarter-dollar design. The third and final coin commemorates Weinman’s Walking Liberty 1916 half dollar.
The symbolism on the three coins was influenced by 1916’s dark international mood. The Great War was underway on the far side of the Atlantic, and although President Woodrow Wilson was invested in organizing an international peace conference, it seemed to many that the involvement of American troops was unavoidable. The July 16, 1916, “Report of the Director of the Mint” describes the emblems on the coins:
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, symbolical 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, symbolical of America.
The design of the 25-cent piece is intended to typify in a measure the awakening interest of the country to its own protection… 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 right hand bears the olive branch of peace…
The design of the dime … shows a head of Liberty with winged cap. The head is firm and simple in form, the profile forceful. The reverse shows a design of the bundle of rods, with battle-ax, known as “Fasces,” and symbolical of unity, wherein lies the Nation’s strength. Surrounding the fasces is a full-foilaged [sic] branch of olive, symbolical of peace.
These coins were a welcome change from 25 years of Barber designs on the dimes, quarters, and halves. (One newspaper writer described Barber’s Liberty as having “the neck of a coalheaver, the face of a Flemish cook and no top to her head under the liberty cap.”) All were produced as business strikes in 90% silver, and were struck at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints. In 1936, the Philadelphia Mint began to strike Proofs as well as business strikes for the dimes and halves; this continued through 1942.
The diameters of the original circulating coins were 17.9 mm for the silver dime, 24.3 mm for the silver quarter, and 30.6 mm for the silver half. For the 99.99% fine gold commemoratives, the Mint was aiming for weights that would be symbolic of each denomination; this meant altering the coins’ diameters slightly. Thus, the 1/10-ounce dime was struck at 16.5 mm; the 1/4-ounce quarter, at 22 mm; and the 1/2-ounce half, 27 mm. The gold commemoratives, like their 1916 counterparts, have a business-strike (also known as a circulation-strike) finish.
The original circulating coins were very well received. The responses to the gold Centennial commemoratives, however, have been mixed. The Mint’s stock of the first coin, the Winged Liberty Dime Centennial (which has mintage limit of 125,000), sold out within about 45 minutes of its release. The second coin—the Standing Liberty Quarter Centennial—did not fare as well. The mintage limit of 100,000 was more attractive, but in response to criticism from collectors who’d been shut out on the first coin, the Mint placed an order limit of one per household on the Standing Liberty Quarters. Initial sales were sluggish; the Mint later lifted the order limit, but it was too little, too late. (Due to lower gold prices, the Mint has reduced the SLQ—which opened at $485—to $460. A little less than 20,000 of the maximum mintage is still available.)
Today’s Walking Liberty Centennial Half Dollar still has a chance to do well. Weinman’s design is a perennial collector favorite. The mintage has been reduced yet again, to 70,000; and the household order limit—although not a generous 10 or zero—is 3, which is better than the SLQ’s original limit of 1. On the other hand, $865 is a lot of money for a coin containing 1/2 ounce of gold (about 613 dollars’ worth as of this posting), in a series with an inconsistent track record.
One thing is certain: many collectors have determined since early this year that this coin will be their highlight purchase of 2016. Many will be waiting for the clock to strike 12, when, with a few swift keystrokes, the Walking Liberty Centennial Gold Half Dollar will be theirs. ❑