Walking Liberty Half Dollars, arguably among the most beautiful of all circulating silver coinage, were born in the progressive era leading up to World War I. These silver 50-cent pieces were issued from 1916 to 1947, spanning a period of two World Wars. “Walker Halves” are plentiful, are a very popular half dollar with collectors, and premium quality rarities in the series demand exceptionally high values.
Back on September 26, 1890, the United States Congress had passed an act that would not restrict the development of coinage designs solely to employees of the Mint, providing: ” … the Director of the Mint shall nevertheless have power, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, to engage temporarily the services of one or more artists, distinguished in their respective departments of art, who shall be paid for such service from the contingent appropriation for the mint at Philadelphia.”
In 1915, newly appointed U.S. Mint Director Robert W. Woolley had the United States Commission of Fine Arts conduct a competition for the design of a new fifty-cent piece along with designs for new quarter and dime coins as well. Three noted sculptors of New York were invited to submit design sketches. As a result, sculptor Adolph A. Weinman was selected by the Mint to design the dime and half dollar.
A. A. Weinman, born 1870 in Germany, came to the United States at the age of ten in 1880. He honed his skills as a student of famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, creator of the sensational 1907 Double Eagle and, by 1915, Weinman was widely acclaimed as one of the nation’s finest sculptors.
Weiman’s half dollar obverse design pictures a full-length, full-figured Miss Liberty striding toward the dawn of a new day, clad in the Stars and Stripes, while carrying branches of laurel and oak symbolizing civil and military glory. His reverse design depicts a truly majestic eagle perched on a mountain crag, wings unfolded in a pose suggesting power, with a sapling of mountain pine springing from a rift in the rock, symbolic of an emerging and powerful United States of America. These strongly patriotic themes resonated well throughout the nation, which was then preparing to enter World War I. Ironically, the U.S. was to battle against the nation of Weinman’s birth. Proudly, Weinman scribed his “AW” initials on the reverse, directly under the eagle’s tail feathers.
The Mint delayed release of the new Walking Liberty half dollar coin until late November, when it drew immediate praise. For example, The New York Sun declared it a “lively” coin, typifying “hustle,” while the Boston Herald said it had a “forward look on its face,” supporting the coin’s testament to the progressive era. The model pattern coin of the spectacular initial design is seen here, and exemplifies the sculptor’s desire to overcome the limitations of circulating coinage and make the design represent a masterpiece bronze statue.
Production & Collecting
Over 485 million Walking Liberty halves were produced from 1916 to 1947. They were sporadically issued during the 1920s and early ’30s, with none minted in 1922, 1924-26 and 1930-32. Half dollars had substantial buying power in its early days of issue, enough to buy, for example, a loaf of bread, a quart of milk and a dozen eggs. Therefore, huge quantities of the coins were not needed to satisfy America’s requirements for commerce.
Mintages were particularly low in 1921, and the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco-minted half dollars from that year all rank among the major key dates of the series. Other scarce issues include the 1916, 1916-S, 1917-D and S, and the 1938-D. Brilliant proofs were minted from 1936 to 1942, totaling 74,400 pieces, and a very precious few satin-finish proofs were struck in 1916 and 1917. Proof examples enjoy extreme popularity and collector demand, especially when they exhibit exceptional visual appeal.
It is interesting to note that the first-year issues from the branch mints in Denver and San Francisco carry the “D” or “S” mintmark on the obverse, below the IN GOD WE TRUST motto, as do some pieces minted the following year. Sometime into the production year of 1917, the location of the mint mark was moved to the lower left of the reverse, just below the sapling, where it remained until the end of the series in 1947.
“Walkers,” as they’re frequently called, are large, 90% silver coins with a much-admired design. As a result, they hold great appeal not only for traditional coin hobbyists but also for non-collector investors. Many “Walkers” exist in grades up to Mint State-65. Even above that level, significant numbers exist for certain dates, particularly the later years. However, most dates come weakly struck, particularly on Liberty’s left hand and leg, head and skirt lines, and on the eagle’s breast and leg feathers. Sharply struck coins often command substantial premiums.
Walking Liberty half dollars will always be a favorite series with collectors. The series is simply gorgeous and relates back to an era of American history seeing dramatic changes, from opulence to depression, from social regulation to innovation, and from world peace to world wars, all in just three decades. The coins are often collected as three different sets (1916 to 1929, 1933 to 1940, and 1941 to 1947). The coins can be challenging because of strike problems, especially for the late San Francisco issues, and the low survival rates of such dates as the 1919-D and 1921-S.
The typical full set consists of 65 different date, mint and major varieties, and set-building is attempted and completed by many collectors. Although “Walkers” were not saved in any quantity by the general public, particularly in the Depression years, some collectors and numismatists did put away many early rolls during the ’30s. Uncirculated specimens of certain dates in the 1910s and ’20s are probably the result of that early hoarding. Later-date Walking Liberties have a strong following as many collectors assemble “short sets” from 1934 to 1947 or from 1941 to 1947, and type collectors seek a single, high-grade example.
As testament to the undisputed overall aesthetic appeal of the Walking Liberty design, the U.S. Mint in 1986 resurrected the Adolf Weinman design for the obverse of the new one ounce American Eagle silver bullion coin, introduced that year and minted annually ever since.