Prior to the United States’s involvement in World War I, the U.S. Treasury determined that three of its circulating coins—the dime, quarter, and half dollar—were in need of a new, more modern look. In 1915, Mint director Robert Woolley invited three New York City sculptors to submit designs to replace the ones created in 1892 by Mint engraver Charles Barber.
A German immigrant named Adolph Alexander Weinman was awarded the designs for two out of three of the coins, the Mercury dime and the Walking Liberty half dollar, both of which were first minted in 1916. Weinman had developed his sense of artistry from non other than Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose 1907 Double Eagle is considered by many to be the most beautiful U.S. coin ever minted.
The Walking Liberty coin, which went through as many as seven revisions, depicted Lady Liberty wrapped in an American flag and walking towards a rising, radiating sun. The direction of her gait, east, was no accident; Europe, which was in the throws of war, is east of the United States, so Liberty’s positioning on the coin could be seen as solidarity with, if not yet outright support for, the old country.
In her left arm, Liberty carried oak and laurel branches, which are symbols of strength and peace respectively. The reverse featured a stern eagle perched on a rock, its wings outstretched and a pine bough in one of its talons. Half dollars were minted in Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco. Those minted in 1916 and some in 1917 placed the local mintmark (D for Denver, S for San Francisco, but nothing for Philadelphia, as was the practice) on the obverse below “In God We Trust”; subsequent coins had the mintmark on the reverse. Weinman’s initials, AW, were also on the reverse, under the tips of the eagle’s left wing.
Despite the beauty of its design, which was widely admired, the Walking Liberty half dollar was beset by technical problems. A variety of small modifications were made over the years, including changes to Lady Liberty’s garments and alterations to the sun's rays. Among the engravers who worked on the coin was John S. Sinnock, who is credited with the design for the Franklin half dollar in 1948. Even with these modifications, though, many of these coins have defects, the most common of which is poor striking of Lady Liberty’s head.
During the coin’s lifetime, almost half a billion “Walkers,” as they are sometimes called, were circulated in 65 date-mint combinations. Years with particularly low mintages include 1919, when less than four million coins were struck, and 1921, when barely more than one million coins were produced.
In 1947, Weinman’s Walking Liberty half dollars were replaced by Sinnock’s Franklins, but the design was so beloved that in 1986 it was reused for the American Silver Eagle one-ounce bullion coin; it continues to be used for this purpose today.
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