The Walking Liberty Half Dollar is widely considered America’s most beautiful silver coin. Adolph Weinman, a renowned sculptor whose motif won over numerous competing submissions, conceived the gorgeous design. Although the design was difficult to produce, it was extremely well-received by the general public. In fact, the Walking Liberty motif was so popular that it was re-introduced in 1986 for the American silver eagle—and is still used for that purpose today.
In 1890, Congress passed legislation giving the US Mint director the power (with approval of the Treasury Secretary) to redesign coinage designs that were 25 years old. However, US Mint director Robert Woolley misinterpreted the verbiage. He believed, incorrectly, that he was required to change designs every 25 years. With that in mind, he began work on revamping the silver denominations in 1915, as they would be hitting the 25-year mark in 1917.
Woolley first consulted with Mint engraver Charles Barber, whose design first appeared on the dime, quarter and half dollar in 1892. Then, the two men met with the US Commission of Fine Arts to discuss the look of the new silver coins. The Commission and US Mint staff were soon at odds with each other; the former group was mostly concerned with aesthetics while the latter was focused on logistics and ease of production. Mint employees wanted a simple design that was easy to strike in mass quantities, but the Commission was tired of the staid, uninspiring images that adorned America’s coins for decades.
Eventually the Commission declared that outside artists should be brought in to submit proposals. This was not without precedent; the gold denominations were successfully designed by outside sculptors in 1907 and 1908. Then in 1909 and 1913, the penny and nickel were both revamped by outside artists. For the silver denominations, the Commission solicited design entries from Adolph Weinman, Herman MacNeil and Albin Polasek.
Weinman’s submission for the half dollar was stunning. The obverse displayed a figure emblematic of Liberty, wearing the American flag and striding towards the sun. The reverse featured a perched eagle engraved in exquisite detail. Every facet of the design, from the leaves on the branches to the eagle’s feathers, was executed with tremendous precision. All parties involved in the redesign process—except Charles Barber—were extremely enthusiastic about Weinman’s proposal.
Barber was highly critical of Weinman’s design for two reasons. First, he was still bitter from having been excluded from the redesign process. As best historians can tell, Barber wasn’t even given an opportunity to submit a proposal. Secondly, he had some legitimate concerns as to how well the coin could be mass-produced. He felt that Weinman and the Commission totally ignored practicalities; they created a design that was virtually impossible to execute in reality.
Eventually, Charles Barber was given some leash to modify Weinman’s half dollar design. The core visual elements were retained, but Barber lowered the relief, moved a few items and changed the rim. Even after making these adjustments, the format proved difficult to strike. In particular, the central portion of the obverse often came out flat and incompletely struck. Exasperated, the US Mint eventually came to accept this imperfection and released millions of coins with a weak strike.
The Walking Liberty Half Dollar would be produced until 1948, when it was replaced by the Franklin half dollar. The US Mint was slowly phasing out the portraits of Liberty in favor of famous Americans. The “Walker” was one of the last designs to be retired, largely due to its popularity and beauty. However, the design would return in 1986 when the United States silver eagle program began. Weinman’s beautiful motif was selected for the obverse and continues to grace the silver eagle to this day.