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History of the Walking Liberty Half Dollar

 
The year 1916 marked a radical change in our US coins.  The Liberty Nickel had been replaced a few years before and now the dime, quarter and half dollar would be changed marking and end to the “Barber era”. 

Of all the coins produced throughout the history of the US, many will say the Walking Liberty Half, or “Walkers” as they are commonly called, is perhaps the most majestic of all US coins.  Who can argue when looking at a fully struck Walking Liberty Half in GEM mint condition?  It is simply exquisite.  Even though the Walking Liberty half ended its run in 1947, the beauty of the obverse can still be had today in the form of a one-ounce Silver Eagle silver bullion coin.  How many designs are ever repeated on a coin after nearly a 50 year hiatus?  So, how did this design come about?

In 1915, US Mint Director Robert W. Woolley offered the opportunity to three noted sculptors, Adolph A Weinman, Albin Polasek and Herman A. MacNeil to prepare designs for three silver coins.  Outside artists, not chief engraver Charles Barber, supplied designs for the previous six changes and Woolley felt this was a great option.  By 1916, Barber was 75 years old but had a track record of being hostile to outside artists designing coins he thought he should be designing.  With three new designs, all replacing coins Barber had designed, it could have gotten unpleasant.  The records suggest Barber was on his best behavior.  Maybe he finally just gave up or was too old to fight anymore or just recognized the beauty in the designs.  Barber died in February 1917 and was replaced by George T. Morgan, who had designed the Morgan Dollar. 

It is assumed that Woolley intended to award a different coin to each person.  It may not have been planned this way, but Weinman ended up getting two of his designs as the winning designs.  One being what would become known as the Walking Liberty Half and the Mercury Dime.  MacNeil won the design for the quarter with Polasek getting shut out.

Adolph A. Weinman was born in Germany and came to the US at the age of 10 in 1880.  He was a student of well known sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.  Saint-Gaudens is also credited with some truly outstanding coin designs.  By 1915 when the design process began, Weinman was widely celebrated as one of the nation’s best sculptors.  His work can be seen on the state capital buildings in Louisiana, Missouri and Wisconsin.

For the obverse of his design, Weinman chose a full-length figure of Liberty.  In Barbers report he had described the half dollar as “a full length Liberty, the fold 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."

These strongly patriotic themes resonated perfectly across a nation then preparing (knowingly or not) to enter World War I, ironically against the land of Weinman's birth. Weinman placed his initials (AW) directly under the eagle's tail feathers.

Even though the Barber half was not produced in 1916, the new design of the Walking Liberty Half was not released until late 1916 with mintages of 608,000 at Philadelphia, 1,014,400 at Denver and 508,000 at San Francisco.  It drew immediate praise from major metropolitan newspapers in New York, Boston, etc.  While these mintages seem low today, it was not all that different from mintage figures for the last few years of the Barber Half.  Also, back in 1916, a half dollar was a large amount of money as it could buy nearly a whole basket of groceries.

The Walking Liberty half would be replaced in 1948 by the Franklin Half ending a run of nearly two centuries of US coins with symbolic figures to coins with actual historic individuals although Franklin was the first non-president to appear on a coin.

Collectibility


General


Walking Liberty Halves, “Walkers” as they are frequently called, are heavily collected due to their beauty.  They hold great appeal for traditional collectors as well as non collectors.  Over 485 million of these coins were produced between 1916 and 1947 with many that still exist in MS65 condition or better.  A full set of 65 different date-and-mint combinations can be bought for around $1000 in average circulated condition (AG-VG for earlier years and F to XF for later years) making this series achievable for many collectors.  As always, coins in higher grades and mint state condition will command huge premiums. 

You can also start with what is called the short set with are coins dated from 1941 to 1947 which is 20 coins.  Acquiring these in better grades can be very rewarding. 

One thing to look for in high grades is weakness of strike.  Most dates are weakly struck, particularly on Liberty's left hand and leg, head and skirt lines and on the eagle's breast and leg feathers. As you would guess, sharply struck coins typically demand substantial premiums. An effort to improve this issue was attempted by Chief Engraver George T. Morgan in 1918 and again by Assistant Engraver John R. Sinnock in 1937 and 1938. None of the revisions seemed to help though as later issues were still weak in the central parts of the design. Places to check for wear and weakness include Liberty's head, breast, arms and left leg and the breast, leg and forward wing of the eagle. 

Key/Semi Key Dates

Although over 485 million Walkers were produced, they were issued sporadically during the 1920’s and early 1930’s which is generally where many of the key dates are.  A couple dates/mints in the teens can also be challenging.  Coins dated 1916 can run around $50 for a 1916P or D in VG-8 condition and over $130 for a 1916-S.   When first issued, the mint mark appeared in the obverse of the coin. This changed during production in 1917 resulting in two types for that year.  Halves with the mint mark on the obverse command a premium over coins with the mintmark on the reverse as coins with obverse mint marks had a lower mintage.  Still, each type is generally very available at reasonable prices.

The coins of 1919 has similar mintages of other dates but is priced much higher.  The 1919-D in MS65 lists for $130,000 making it the most costly of MS65 type coins.

The rarest of Walkers are coins dated 1921 from Philadelphia and Denver with mintages of 246,000 and 208,000 respectively.  An example of each of these will cost you several hundred dollars each for even a G4.  The 1921-S had a higher mintage of 548,000.  Though not has pricey in lower grades as the other 1921 examples, finding this coin in MS gem condition is extremely tough with the 1921-S in MS65 retailing for $105,000 in the March 2006 issue of Coins Magazine.  The reason for the low mintage can be partially attributed to the fact that the 3 mints were busy making Morgan Dollars to satisfy the Pitman Act.  Total production for Mercury Dimes and Standing Liberty Quarters also suffered in that year.  Demand for coins though was beginning to wane as evident in mintage numbers for subsequent years.

For the remainder of the 1920’s and 1930’s, production never fell below 1 million except for the 1938-D.  This date is considered a key.  Total mintage was 491,600 making it the third lowest coin in terms of production.  A G4 coin could cost you around $100 while a MS65 lists at $1,550 well below the 1919-D even though the 1919-D had a mintage of triple of the 1938-D.  Simply put, there are far less 1919-D’s in MS65 condition.  PCGS has graded only 10 of these coins while 669 1938-D’s in MS65 have been graded.

During the 1940’s production boomed.  Prior to 1940, production exceeded 10 million only three times.  From 1940 through the end of the Walker run, production exceeded 10 million 12 times making supplies of 1940’s dated Walkers readily abundant.  The only exception being 1946-D, 1946-S, 1947 and 1947-D where production ranged from 2-4 million.

Errors

The Walking Liberty series has only one significant error, the 1946-P double die reverse.  It is the only one listed by PCGS.  There are some less notable varieties/errors that have been reported such as 1928-S large and small mint marks, 1942 D over S and a 1943/2 overdate.  Also, proof coins in 1941 were struck without the designers initials.

Proofs

Only about 74,000 Walking Liberty ½-dollar proof coins were minted, all from 1936 to 1942, and a few matte-finish proofs in 1916 and 1917, as documented by Walter Brien, but this is disputed. Well-struck coins have higher values as many Walkers display weak striking. Some minor revisions were made to improve the striking and design but were not dramatically successful. Later issues of Walkers also have striking problems. For grading purposes, typical areas of wear should be looked for around the eagle's leading leg and wing, and Liberty's left hand and leg, head and skirt lines.

Vital Statistics Summary

Key Coin Info

Designed by: Adolph A. Weinman 
Issue dates: 1916-1947 
Composition: 0.900 part silver, 0.100 part copper 
Diameter: 30.6 mm 
Weight: 192.9 grains 
Edge: Reeded 
Business strike mintage: 485,320,340 
Proof mintage: 74,400  

Keith Scott has been a collector for over 30 years. His website has US coins for sale. He also writes Coin Collecting Articles for fun. Visit his websites for a history of US coins, metal market updates and news about your favorite coins.

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