The U.S. Standing Liberty Quarter, 1916-30
By: Marc Bink
Imagine if you will; a protest of thousands of people taking place in front of the Parliament buildings; – over a lousy quarter! This sort of thing did happen once, but not in Canada, it happened in the United States in 1917. All it took was one little coin, one with an effigy of Liberty standing carelessly with her right breast hanging out to bring people into the streets, writing nasty letters to their Congressmen, crowing in public places that the world was coming to an end, and that the Devil was on the loose. One has to remember that society was much more conservative back then, and more intolerant of nudity than today. But, like most things in human society, there was a double standard when it came to sexual values. I’m sure some people will look at this coin and wonder what the big deal was. We feel that we live in a very tolerant and liberal society, where nudity and sexuality is considered mundane. Or so we think. Remember the outcry after Janet Jackson got exposed on national TV? Or when Drew Barrymore flashed Letterman? So here’s what happened back in 1917, when Liberty allowed her top to slip just a bit.
In 1906 President Teddy Roosevelt passed a law requiring that American coin designs be brought up to date with what other countries in the world were doing. The existing coinage design dated back to the 1892 and was perceived to be old-fashioned. At that time, a new form of art and expression called “Art Nouveau” was sweeping the country, and the older more conservative Victorian styles (which the Barber designed coinage reflected) were being swept aside. The new coinage was to be in place for release in 1915, and competitions were held for the new designs. However, for some unknown reason, the quarter was delayed a while. The winning design for the Quarter Dollar was won by a sculptor named Hermon Atkins MacNeil (1866-1947) in 1916. His design featured Liberty standing between two large pedestals, holding an olive branch in her right hand. She carries an upraised shield with the American crest in her left. She wears a long, flowing garment that appears to slip off her right shoulder exposing her right breast. The legends “In God We Trust” is on the obverse, and “E Pluribus Unum” is on the reverse, as required by an 1866 edict that these legends must appear on all U.S. circulating coins. On the reverse, an eagle in flight is surrounded by stars and legends. The designer’s initial “M” appears on the bottom of the right-hand pedestal, and the mintmark (D for Denver or S for San Francisco, or in the case of Philadelphia, nothing) appears across from it on the left hand pedestal. This new design was the epitome of the Art Nouveau school of art and was approved with little or no objections by the US mint. But then the public got a look at it…
Type 1 Standing , as MacNeil initially designed it; note the busier wreath in her right hand, and of course, the bare breast.
The Reverse side of the original “Type 1”,
The eagle is low on the field and there are no stars under it.
Reaction to the new coin was immediate and loud. At first, it was the wives of Congressmen and Senators that protested the bare breasted coin. Soon after, the public got involved. The United States was a very sexually repressed country that held on to the Puritan values of its forefathers. Many religious groups deemed the quarters as “obscene” and “filthy”. Rumors of boycotts swept through the country, and citizen’s groups rallied their memberships in efforts to lobby Congress to get the coins recalled. The Press at the time whipped the public up into a frenzy. Most “decent” people were convinced that the coins were pornographic. I’m sure the only group who didn’t find it offensive was teenage boys, who probably found the design quite titillating (pardon the pun). All of a sudden, female nudity was thrust out front and centre in a society that thought short sleeves on women exposed too much skin (The “Flapper” movement of exposed shoulders and knee-length skirts was still about 10 years into the future). Women were still covered from head to toe, and hair still had to be put up into a tight bun lest one be “tempted by the long, lascivious locks of a common hussy”. “Decent” women fainted on the sight of these quarters.
In the “Old South”, an Afro-American man could still be illegally lynched by a mob for looking at a white girl the wrong way, even though Afro-Americans had been “emancipated” 54 years earlier. (In 1917, 44 Blacks across the U.S. were lynched, most of them falsely accused of “sexual improprieties”) National Geographic had not yet begun to run pictures of naked pygmies in their issues so people were not exposed to nudity unless they deliberately sought out pornography. Pornography was in those days very expensive and hard to get, and most of it came from Europe where standards were much more relaxed. Being caught with it in the U.S. usually meant jail time. Some people had never even seen an exposed female breast before. Sexuality in America at that time consisted of a lot of fumbling around in the dark under huge amounts of bedclothes, and was never talked about except in “bad company”. However, bordellos and burlesque halls flourished during that period, extra-marital affairs were tolerated, (but only as long as they were very discrete), and many “Art Nouveau” paintings in art galleries depicted female nudity; hence the double standard. This was a society that had just prohibited alcohol consumption nation-wide (Illegal bars, called “speakeasies” were soon popping up everywhere, and “bootlegging” became an occupation).
The women’s movement (which was directly tied into the Prohibition Movement) was just starting to make some gains in a very patriarchal society, and this coin was perceived to have set the women’s movement back 100 years by sexualizing them all over again. All of a sudden these coins became the very essence of all that was wrong in society. The public considered these coins as “disgusting” and “sordid”; mothers hid them from children, wives refused to accept them, and husbands probably secretly hoarded them for a cheap thrill. They were blamed by the clergy as a corrupting influence on youth, Satanic, and some people painted over the offending breast in an attempt to cover it up. And yet these coins remained in circulation long after the furor died down; possibly another interesting example of that double standard I referred to earlier. The initial production run of 52,000 pieces had made their way through the Treasury system by January 1917; by then the production of the “Type 1” 1917 issue was already in full-swing. Apparently, economic demand for quarters made it impossible to stop production and re-engrave the dies to something more appropriate, but by early 1917 clearly something had to be done. Hermon MacNeil was obliged to modify his design, which he strenuously objected to, and the reasons that were given to him by the mint were everything from poor striking characteristics, relief problems, die wear, coin wear, anything else but that exposed breast. The dies were modified in time for the 1918 strike, (known as “Type 2”) and it featured a now ‘clad-to-the-neck’ in chain-mail Liberty. Three stars were added below the flying eagle on the reverse, and the eagle was moved higher up in the field due to striking problems. No mention was ever made in the mint records of any bust-line cover-up. The design was further modified in 1925 with a recessed field for the date when it was discovered that the date tended to wear away prematurely in circulation. This last design was in place until the coin was replaced by the Washington Quarter in 1932. The last run of the Standing Liberty Quarter took place in 1930, with only Philadelphia and San Francisco minting them. None were made in 1931 or 1932 possibly reflecting an oversupply because of the Great Depression which had decimated the world economy in 1929.
There was a second controversy that involved this coin, one which has not been conclusively solved to this day. For years it was thought that Broadway actress and model Doris Doscher modeled for MacNeil on the original design. But in 1972, four months before her death, another Broadway actress and model named Irene MacDowell, confessed to being the actual model. She and her husband were friends of the MacNeil’s. (Her husband was MacNeil’s tennis partner). She claims to have stood for MacNeil for ten days, (supposedly during some of that time totally nude) and her husband did not approve. Rather than create another scandal in this sexually repressive society and heap scorn on the families for successive generations, it was decided amongst both families to keep the matter quiet. Upon looking at a photo of Mrs. MacDowell, (which I unfortunately can’t reproduce here) I would have to concur that she was probably the model, there is more than a striking resemblance to Liberty on the coin. However, both families have said nothing to corroborate or deny this assertion, and public credit is still given to Miss Doscher, who doesn’t look anything like the effigy on the coin.
Later version: note the chain mail shirt, and the smaller wreath. Also changed was the beading around the edge, and the area under the year was recessed to prevent premature wear of the date Reverse side, Type 2: Some stars were removed from around the eagle, the font was changed, and the eagle was moved higher up in the fi eld. Note that there are three stars under the eagle.
These coins are fairly common, and were circulated well into the 1960s. Physical specifications remained the same throughout the run; – the coin weighed 6.25 grams, and was made in .900 silver. The diameter was 24.3 mm, the same as the previous Barber issue. These coins are fairly easy to find in lower grades. Higher grades are tougher to find, (a quarter still had buying power then) and these coins saw heavy circulation and were seldom set aside. Because of the intricate design, the coin was difficult to strike, and the dies wore out quickly. Because of this, “full head” and “full nipple” examples carry a premium over “partial face” or “worn breast” examples in the same grade. On the reverse side, the eagle tends to strike weak and an example with full feathers is more highly prized. As previously stated, these coins had a tendency to wear out quickly once in circulation. The key dates in this series are 1916, which is next to impossible to find, and 1923 S, which is fairly rare. An interesting anomaly is the 1927 S. That year had low mintage figures and while the coin is available in lower grades, very few examples exist in higher grades. Recent price trends tend to reflect this. The most common year for this series was 1920 minted in Philadelphia, in which 27,860,000 examples were struck. The rarest, besides the 1916 example, was 1927 D and S, with around 900,000 and 400,000 pieces respectively.
This series of American Quarter dollar coins is regarded by many as one of the most attractive designs ever made. It was a fairly short-lived design, and a product of its era. By the 1930s however, a new art form was sweeping the nation, “Art Deco”, and these “Art Nouveau” designs were soon considered old fashioned, or “passé”. One of the largest problems facing contemporary art forms is that its popularity can be very temporary. New designs with famous former presidents on them were created after the success of the Washington Quarter (which was first issued as a commemorative), soon replaced the older Standing Liberty design. These were “politically correct” and inoffensive because dead presidents usually don’t appear disrobed. Patriotism on U.S. coinage was far more acceptable to the population than scantily-clad women. As far as I’m concerned, the older Standing Liberty Quarter is far prettier than the subsequent issue, and I’d rather look at a nice full-breasted Liberty as opposed to Washington’s ugly mug any day!
Previously published in the ENS “The Planchet” Vol-56 Issue-04