By Mike Garofalo for PCGS ……
One of my favorite 20th-century coin designs has always been the Standing Liberty quarter. It replaced the staid and certainly not provocative Barber quarter, which had been struck since 1892. But was the Standing Liberty quarter a controversial coin? Let’s review a quick history of this quarter dollar.
In April of 1915, Robert W. Woolley had been the Director of the United States Mint for less than one month. According to the U.S. Code, 31, Paragraph 5112 (d) (2) “the Secretary [of the Treasury] may change the design or die of a coin only once within 25 years of the first adoption of the design, model, hub or die for that coin.” Woolley interpreted that to mean that he MUST change the design of all coins that had been struck for at least 25 years. There were three coins at that time, all designed by the U.S. Mint’s Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, that he felt needed new designs. The dime, quarter and half dollar all had the exact same obverse. The reverse of the quarter and half dollar shared a common reverse, with the dime differing. Woolley wanted to change Barber’s coin designs.
Designs submissions were open to those qualified to submit them. Of the many designs submitted, the works of two skilled artisans were selected for the three coins. Adolph A. Weinman’s designs were selected for the dime and half dollar. Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s design for the quarter dollar was approved by Treasury officials in February of 1916.
Hermon Atkins MacNeil was born in Everett, Massachusetts in 1866. He studied art in Paris, came back to America to create sketches for the World’s Columbian Exposition and then went to Rome after winning an art scholarship. MacNeil was primarily a sculptor and created numerous statues of Native Americans. He created the Fountain of Liberty exhibited at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Another of his principal works was the William McKinley Monument, in Columbus, Ohio, created shortly after the assassination of the President. He created the magnificent sculpture Justice, the Guardian of Liberty that now sits appropriately at the Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC.
The First Scandal That Wasn’t
MacNeil’s design depicted Miss Liberty standing between two large pedestals, an olive branch in her right hand, and a shield in her left. World War I was raging in Europe and America had remained neutral up to that point. President Woodrow Wilson, running for re-election in 1916, even campaigned on the theme “He kept us out of war.” But MacNeil’s design demonstrated that America, through Miss Liberty’s symbolism, was ready for peace or for war. There were 13 stars adorning the pedestals or gateways. The designer’s initial “M” was located to the right of the date and the mintmark, if any, was located to the left. The reverse of the coin displayed the American bald eagle in full flight, surrounded by the 13-star motif again.
Miss Liberty was garbed in flowing robes which was a stylistic interpretation. But the years MacNeil spent learning his craft in Europe gave him a more cosmopolitan view of art. MacNeil had left Miss Liberty’s right breast exposed. Would that shock America?
According to Walter Breen in his Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, Anthony Comstock and his followers from the Society for the Suppression of Vice waged a war against immorality and Comstock waged a personal war against this “immoral quarter dollar”. They complained loudly and long to the Treasury Department, that sought to suppress the criticism. The story that Breen related was that Treasury officials complained that the coins could not stack well and the design required modifications. Only 52,000 1916-dated quarters had been minted, but by the time the Treasury got MacNeil to submit modifications an additional 12 million 1917-dated coins were struck in total by all three branch mints.
Changes to the coin appeared in 1917. The most noticeable change was that now Miss Liberty, in preparation for war, wore a chain of mail on her upper torso effectively covering her breast. The Society for the Suppression of Vice had won!
Well, not quite.
While that story makes for interesting reading, the facts don’t support it. Roger Burdette, in his remarkable trilogy on the Renaissance of American Coinage, disputes Breen’ assertions. Burdette rightly asserts: “The bare breast is not mentioned in contemporary documents or in a negative way. The ’massive opposition’ so greatly promoted is completely false. There are equivalent or more revealing images all over government buildings in state capitals as well as Federal buildings.”
Author Greg Daugherty also disputed these long-held beliefs. Daugherty, writing on the Smithsonian website, quoted the New York Sun headline of January 17, 1917 – “Crowds Flock to Get New Quarters and Miss Liberty’s Form Shows Plainly, to Say the Least”. The Los Angeles Times reported that few buyers of the new coin “found anything in her state of dress or undress to get excited about. In fact, Miss Liberty is dressed up like a plush horse compared to Venus de Milo.”
One other irrefutable fact is that Anthony Comstock did not personally lead the opposition to the “immoral quarter” minted in 1916. Anthony Comstock died on September 21, 1915, so he never even saw one.
The Second Scandal That Wasn’t
Most coinage would greatly suffer from a widely-believed scandal such as the “immoral quarter” but MacNeil’s coin was subjected to further controversy. More than one woman has claimed to be the model who posed for MacNeil as Miss Liberty.
Dora Doscher Baum, an actress, and model claimed to be the true model. Her undisputed claim to fame is having acted in The Birth of a Race, a silent movie about two brothers in a German-American family during World War I. One brother fights for the United States and the other for Germany. Doscher, using the stage name Doree, played a wife of one of the brothers.
Irene McDowell, a former actress, and model also claimed that she posed for MacNeil. Her husband was Hermon MacNeil’s tennis partner and until she was 92, she let Doscher take all of the credit. At her advanced age, she sought to set the record straight.
Again we will take the sage advice of Roger Burdette, the acclaimed numismatic researcher, who wrote, “Anyone can claim whatever they wish. But neither woman has proof – such as a letter from MacNeil – that the figure on the 1916 quarter is of a specific person. Many women and men modeled for the sculptor and his wife, who was also an accomplished artist.”
For whatever the reason, which is unknown to history, MacNeil’s original design was changed extensively as Miss Liberty’s torso was now covered in chain mail. After all, this was now 1917 and the United States had just entered the war in Europe. Miss Liberty should be clad in the appropriate garb to defend America. The number of rivets on her shield was reduced. The Eagle on the reverse was raised and, for symmetry, three of the 13 stars were moved to beneath the eagle. A further modification occurred in 1925, recessing the date that was one of the highest points on the coin and was frequently subjected to being worn away.
Collecting the Standing Liberty Quarter
Amassing a collection of Standing Liberty quarters is a very worthwhile pursuit. Collectors in the 21st century can find high-grade and Mint State examples of this beautiful coin and assemble a spectacular looking collection. In About Uncirculated condition the only coins that are prohibitively expensive are the 1916, the overdate 1918/7-S, the 1923-S, and the 1927-S. The remaining three dozen or so coins are relatively affordable. A further collecting pursuit is to collect Standing Liberty quarters awarded the “Full Head” designation. This special designation is awarded to coins grading AU50 or higher and show full detail of Miss Liberty’s hair (on Type I coins) or helmet (on Type II coins).
But for all the changes made to MacNeil’s Standing Liberty quarter, she has survived, as beautiful as ever. She survived controversy and scandal and remains today as one of America’s most beautiful coins and one of the brightest stars of the classical era of American Coinage.
This article is from the September/October issue of Rare Coin Market Report. To read the current issue, please visit the digital version here. You will be prompted to input the email address linked to your PCGS profile. All current PCGS Collectors Club members will have free access to the Rare Coin Market Report. To purchase a single issue or a one-year subscription, please visit the RCMR Homepage.
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Trust that Breen to repeat a myth as fact.