After 55 years, the Seated Liberty half dollar design had become somewhat of a dinosaur. A classic, yes. Exciting, no. The design was heavily influenced by English coinage, and American tastes had changed. Many felt the design was unartistic, even a bit clunky.
It was time for a change.
So in 1891, Mint Director Edward O. Leech, after authorization by Congress, ordered a design competition. Alas, since only the winner would get paid, the invited artists refused to participate. So Leech recruited a committee to judge a cattle call of submissions from around the country. The committee rejected them all. Needless to say, Leech was frustrated, and he turned to Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber for the designs.
Leech instructed Barber to model Liberty on contemporaneous French coins, a suggestion Barber promptly ignored, at first producing a slim, full-length Liberty with an eagle spreading its wings behind her. Leech rejected the design, and Leech and Barber’s working relationship deteriorated from there. Barber would submit a design, Leech would complain Liberty’s lips were too voluptuous. Charles Barber would include a wreath, Leech would say he didn’t want a wreath.
At one point, to address his concern regarding Barber’s rendering of an olive branch, Leech visited the National Botanical Garden, got an olive branch, and sent it to Barber – without comment. (An olive branch sent as a silent missive in an ongoing workplace dispute; how ironic!) Then Leech approved a design with clouds and ordered working dies of it, only to quickly change his mind and have two more versions made.
In the end, the design featured on the obverse a classical Liberty head facing right and wearing an olive-branch crown and a small headband bearing the word “LIBERTY.” “IN GOD WE TRUST” appears above Liberty’s head, the date below her head, and 13 six-pointed stars to her left and right.
The reverse shows a heraldic eagle, based on the Great Seal of the United States. Its left claw holds 13 arrows and its right an olive branch (oh troublesome olive branch). In his mouth he holds a scroll bearing the words “E PLURIBUS UNUM,” and he is encircled by the words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and “HALF DOLLAR.”
So what was the reaction to this coin produced under such laborious and strained circumstances? Well, this isn’t a 1920s flapper Liberty like last month’s America’s Treasure. This Liberty is dignified, restrained, classical. Some like that, some don’t–it all depends on your taste.
Art historian and curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Cornelius Vermeule, had this to say:
“… [T]hese essentially conservative but most dignified coins suddenly became extremely popular with collectors, as symbols of America coming to maturity and the hard-money era of transition from the post-Civil War era to the period between the two world wars.”
And while Barber may not have been an artist like Saint-Gaudens, what he lacked in that arena he more than made up for in technical skill, yielding further Vermeulian rhapsodies:
“Of all American coins long in circulation, no series has stood the wearing demands of modern coinage as well as the half-dollar, quarter, and dime developed by the Chief Engraver at Philadelphia.”
“The wealth of irregular surfaces and sharp angles is an almost electrifying aesthetic experience.”
1895 Historical Events Timeline
January – Dreyfus Is Publicly Stripped of His Rank
Jewish-French artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus is falsely condemned of passing military intel to the Germans in a case that demonstrated the pervasive anti-semitism in the French military. Three years later, the major who found the “smoking gun” used to convict Dreyfus admits that he forged much of the evidence against Dreyfus. Dreyfus spends five years imprisoned on Devil’s Island.
April – Minerva Lifts 3,564 Pounds; Millions Stop Going to the Gym
Strongwoman Josephine Blatt, known by the stage name Minerva, makes a hip-and-harness lift of 3,564 pounds, earning her an entry in The Guinness Book of World Records for the most weight ever lifted by a woman.
November – X-Rays Are Discovered
Physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen becomes the first person in history to view x-rays. Why did he call them “x”-rays? Because he wasn’t quite sure what they were. Upon further examination, he discovered that they penetrate human flesh and that they can be photographed, making them invaluable as a medical diagnostic tool. Two years after Rontgen’s discovery, x-rays are used on the battlefield during the Balkan War to find bullets and broken bones.