By Kathleen Duncan – Pinnacle Rarities ……
The entire run of American coinage received a major overhaul and aesthetic upgrade between 1907 and 1921. Each and every denomination was redesigned, and with the exception of the two-and-a-half and five-dollar gold coins, each had its own unique appearance. These designs were a clear departure from the nation’s less artistic numismatic past, and remain among the most beautiful and beloved of all United States coin types.
It was the beginning of the 20th century and to President Theodore Roosevelt’s thinking America’s coinage was unworthy of a first world power. Necessarily, he turned to talents of outside artists, as Mint engravers previously focused on the mechanical suitability of a design rather than its artistry. So departing from the Mint’s hundred-plus-year tradition, Roosevelt set America’s foremost sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to the task. In 1907, Saint-Gaudens produced his namesake 20-dollar and gorgeous 10-dollar gold designs. Bela L. Pratt was recruited to work on the two minor gold denominations. Victor D. Brenner and James Earle Fraser were also chosen outright for their respective designs for the cent and nickel, and it was not until 1915 a competition was held among prominent artists of the day for the dime, quarter and half dollar designs that would replace the Barber type.
According to the Law of 1890, coin designs could be changed after 25 years tenure. The Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars had been in use since 1892, so replacements were allowed in 1917, although not mandatory. As the public’s response to the other new numismatic designs was overwhelmingly positive, on December 28, 1915 the Treasury held a competition for these three denominations. For the first time in the history of the United States Mint, distinctive designs were going to be created for these issues. Adolf Weinman won the rights to the dime and half dollar, and the winner for the new quarter was prominent American sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil. He was well known for his works depicting Native Americans and historical events, and went on to create Justice, the Guardian of Liberty on the east pediment of the United States Supreme Court Building among a vast many other professional achievements.
MacNeil’s quarter features Liberty striding confidently through a waist-high gateway, carrying a shield bearing the national arms in her left hand. The sheath from her shield is being removed by her right hand, in which she also holds an olive branch. MacNeil stated that Liberty is “stepping forward in … the defense of peace as her ultimate goal.” (Of course 1917 was also the year that the United States entered World War I, after striving for years to maintain its neutrality.) Thirteen stars representing the original colonies are displayed on both the obverse gateway and flanking the eagle in flight on the reverse. The designer’s initial M is located to the right of the date, while the mintmark appears just to the left.
Standing Liberty quarters were struck at the Philadelphia Mint from 1916 until 1930 with the exception of only 1922, when no quarters were produced at any mint. Strikings at Denver and San Francisco were more sporadic. In 15 years of production, 226 million coins were struck. Interestingly, this is the only 20th-century regular issue U.S. coin for which no proof coins were produced. There are 37 regular issues as well as one overdate: a 1917-S Type 2 die, unused by the San Francisco mint, was recut and used to strike several thousand 1918-S coins, creating a rare variety and the most elusive issue in the series. While the series contains many challenges to the advanced collector, the two other most notable keys are the 1916, which saw a low production of 52,000 pieces and the 1927-S, one of the foremost condition rarities in all of 20th-century U.S. numismatics and the toughest date to find with a fully struck head.
Chief Engraver George Morgan, who replaced the late Charles Barber that February, made extensive changes to MacNeil’s design mid-way through 1917, creating a distinct Type 2 format. His modifications made the eagle higher on the reverse and moved three of the thirteen stars from its sides to below it. Liberty’s nude torso is covered with chain mail and her shield rivets are reduced from 30 to 16. Finally, a convexity was applied to the dies to aid in striking production. Unfortunately, the changes had the opposite effect, with Type 2 examples displaying poorer definition overall and notably to Liberty’s hair and face. Like Fraser’s nickel, the Standing Liberty quarter’s date was one of the highest features of the design and tended to wear quickly. A subtype (sometimes called Type 3) was created in 1925, at which time the date was recessed.
The Type 1 issues of 1916-1917 display straight sides on both the first and second numerals with very subtle serifs at either side of the top and bottom. Due to incomplete striking, these often appear to be sans-serif, having only subtle bulges at either end. The 9 had a loop that was not quite closed and a tail that pointed directly to the left, which is a contrast to the upwardly curved tail found in Hermon MacNeil’s original models. It’s probable that adjustments were made by the Mint’sengraving staff. With the Type 2 issues, the 9 pointed upward as originally intended and the loop of the 9 is larger.
The Type 2 issues of 1917-24 display plain, block figures throughout, except in 1921. As with so many United States designs of this date, the 1921 had a distinctive appearance, in this case with broader numerals than the coins preceding or following it.
When the date was recessed for the coins of 1925-30, all numerals were altered. The previous san-serif style was replaced with curved, serif-style figures. The 1 began displaying a tilting left serif at the top and broad, straight serifs at the bottom. The 2 transitioned from flat to curved at the bottom. The uniform upper and lower loops seen on the 8 in 1918 were changed to a small loop above a larger on in 1928. The flat-topped 3 of 1923 was replaced with a curved one in 1930.
Particularly beginning with the Type 2 format, coins graded Full Head are much scarcer and more valuable than those lacking this feature. To qualify for this designation a coin must possess three attributes: the three leaves in Liberty’s hair must be visible; her hairline must be complete; and her ear indentation must be evident. Other areas that are prone to striking weakness on some but not all issues are Liberty’s right knee, the date, the eagle’s breast feathers, and the rivets as well as the center of the shield.
1916: By the time dies were finally ready, the year 1916 near its end and only 52,000 coins were minted. As such, it is among the premier rarities of 20th-century numismatics. That being said, examples in almost any condition are available up to MS66 if you are willing to pay the price. As with any new design, many were saved from circulation by collectors and the general public alike. While the 1916 and Type 1 1917 quarters share the same reverse design, there are subtle differences between the obverse designs used for the two years: Liberty’s hair detail is slightly different; her gown drapes a bit lower and is folded alternately; and the beading on the coin’s rim is cut to make room for her head. Other more subtle differences exist as well.
1917 Type 1: For those seeking a high-quality, inexpensive example of the Type 1 style, this is the coin. Over 12 million were produced by the three Mints in the first half of 1917, and roughly three-quarters of that number originated from Philadelphia. Unlike their Type 2 counterparts, Type 1 examples usually display solid definition on Liberty’s head and shield. Examining the population reports in gem and finer grades, the numbers are 5 to 1 in favor of Full-Head issues, so premiums are accordingly reasonable for well-struck examples.
1917-D Type 1: Although not as common as its P-mint sibling, this is still an affordable example of Hermon MacNeil’s beautiful design and relatively obtainable even up to MS67FH.
1917-S Type 1: Although 443,000 more pieces were struck of the S-mint Type 1 than the D-mint, the S-mint is the most challenging of the three Type 1 issues to locate with Full-Head detail.
1917 Type 2: The modifications made to Liberty’s hairstyle, the eagle, stars and added chain mail caused the obverse to be more weakly struck than the Type 1 examples. However, on this issue, the majority of mint state examples have fully struck heads and out-number the non-Full Heads about two to one. This is the most common of the 1917 to 1924 Standing Liberty quarters. The 1917-1924 dates, however, are notably rarer in all grades than their 1925-1930 counterparts.
1917-D Type 2: Fully struck examples are a bit more elusive for this Denver Type 2 issue and Full Head examples in gem and finer bring strong premiums.
1917-S Type 2: Although a bit scarcer than it’s Denver cousin in absolute terms, the Type 2 San Francisco examples are a bit easier to acquire at the MS67FH and higher level, with a dozen coins so graded between PCGS and NGC combined. Of course it is unknown just how many of these are resubmissions. As an aside, an important factor to consider when judging any coin’s rarity is the number and frequency of auction appearances, as some the population data for some issues is more accurate than others.
1918: The economy in 1918 was booming and the need for minor coinage had all three mints running at full capacity. The result was quantity (more than 32.5 million pieces were struck at the three Mints) over quality. The Philadelphia Mint did by far the best job in producing a high-quality product, and about 40% of mint state survivors have fully struck heads. Locating a high-grade, Full Head example is not overly difficult.
1918-D: Although often overshadowed by its San Francisco counterpart, this issue is conditionally scarce and infrequently encountered at the Gem level or finer. It is much rarer than you would guess from its almost 7.5 million coin production. Strike is usually a problem, with most examples displaying poor definition on Liberty’s left (facing) leg, the date, and the eagle’s breast feathers, as well as on Liberty’s face and hair.
1918-S: This is one of the great strike rarities in the series. This is also the case with the Mercury dime and Walking Liberty half dollar series, with the 1918-S being a high mintage (over 11 million) issue with abysmal availability of candidates with strong striking characteristics.
Our date-by-date analysis will continue in Part 2, resuming with 1918/17-S and proceeding through 1930-S.