The U.S. Mint’s Most Progressively Beautiful Silver
“3-Coin Liberty-The-Beautiful Silver Type Series”
At the turn of the 20th Century, in 1900, the landscape of the world was highly progressive and innovative and was represented in the aesthetic era known as Art Nouveau, commonly referred to as Art Deco in the United States, popularized as Jugendstil in Austria and appropriately called Stile Liberty in Italy. In the U.S., beginning in 1905, successive presidential administrations attempted to bring modern, beautiful designs to United States coins, most importantly using progressive sculptors of the times to create incredible works of art that proved to be a challenge to strike in circulating coinage.
Following the redesign of the double eagle, eagle, half eagle and quarter eagle in 1907 and 1908, as well as the copper cent and nickel redesigns of 1909 and 1913 respectively, advocates of replacing the silver “Barber” coins began to push for a change when the coins’ minimum terms expired in 1916. As early as 1914, Victor David Brenner, designer of the Lincoln cent, submitted unsolicited designs for new silver coins. He was brazenly told in response, however, that Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo was completely occupied with other matters. It seemed that government Mint employees responsible for production were not all that enthusiastic about any new progressive coinage.
On January 2, 1915, an interview with Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Adam M. Joyce appeared in the Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record:
“So far as I know … there is no thought of issuing new coins of the 50-cent, 25-cent, and 10-cent values. If, however, a change is made we all hope that more serviceable and satisfactory coins are produced than the recent Saint-Gaudens double eagle and eagle and the Pratt half and quarter eagle. The buffalo nickel and the Lincoln penny are also faulty from a practical standpoint. All resulted from the desire by the government to mint coins to the satisfaction of artists and not practical coiners.”
In an era when World War I was escalating, Robert W. Woolley took office as Mint Director in April 1915, which began the advance of the silver liberties. On April 14th, he asked Joyce to request Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, then in his 36th year in office, to prepare new designs.
Woolley met with the United States Commission of Fine Arts to view sketches produced by the Mint’s engraving department. Barber was present to explain the coinage process to the Commission members. Woolley suggested to the members that if they did not like the Mint’s work, they should select sculptors to submit designs for the new pieces. It was Woolley’s intent to have distinct designs for the dime, quarter and half dollar, which was a departure from previous years.
The Commission disliked the sketches from the Mint and selected sculptors Adolph Weinman, Hermon MacNeil and Albin Polasek to submit proposals for the new coins, and each could submit multiple sketches. Although the Mint could decide to use a design on a denomination not intended by its sculptor, the designs were not fully interchangeable, because by statute, an eagle was required to appear on the reverse of the quarter and half dollar, but could not appear on the dime.
The three sculptors submitted design sketches and met with Woolley in New York City to make presentations of their work and to answer his questions. Weinman proved to be a clear favorite, winning the commission for both the dime and half dollar, while MacNeil was awarded the commission for the quarter. On March 3rd, the new coins were publicly introduced, with the Treasury noting, “designs of these coins must be changed by law every 25 years and the present 25-year period ends with 1916.”
Since that day, much artistic progress has taken place in the world’s coinage. However, these two progressive sculptors, of exceptional reputation in their day, set the standard for amazingly beautiful silver coinage.