When renowned sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s 1916 quarter-dollar design was first released into circulation, it was immediately controversial, critics claimed it was immoral and indecent. The public outcry was swift and loud. Religious leaders used words like “obscene” and “filthy” to describe this lovely, silver, now rare American coin. Citizens’ groups lobbied Congress to have the disgusting coin recalled. Why? Because Standing Liberty Quarters depict Miss Liberty with her right breast completely exposed.
The Standing Liberty Quarter, sometimes referred to as the "Bare-Breasted" Standing Liberty because her right breast is fully exposed, created quite a scandal when it was released to the public. Today, we might simply describe this coin as having a “Wardrobe Malfunction” but in 1916, it was out-of-character for the US to produce a coin for circulation depicting outright nudity such as MacNeil’s quarter did.
Back in 1916, Europe already had silver coins displaying some nudity, but it seems that America was not quite ready for it. Even though Art Nouveau was gaining popularity and America was embracing it’s elegant, flowing lines, and new freedoms of expression, including the nude female figure as a legitimate art form, still the musty old conservative ethic of the long Victorian Era finally hadn’t breathed its last gasps.
So how did all of this controversy come about?
A new Mint Director, Robert W. Woolley, was instated in April 1915 and came to believe that he was required by law to replace coin designs that had been in use for 25 years. Woolly began the process of replacing the 1892 Barber coinage designs by long-time Mint Engraver Charles E. Barber. It was Woolley’s intent to have distinct designs for the dime, quarter, and half dollar—previously, the three Barber pieces had been nearly identical.
A design competition was held, for the three coins, and Sculptors Adolph Weinman, Hermon MacNeil, and Albin Polasek were selected to submit designs for possible use on the new quarters. Hermon McNeil’s design was chosen for the Quarter and depicted a pretty Miss Liberty standing between two large pedestals, holding an olive branch in her right hand, and a shield in her left symbolically indicating America was ready for peace or war prior to entering World War One. She wears a flowing gown that gracefully slips off her right shoulder to expose her breast.
The naughty design immediately created a scandal when the coin was placed into circulation late in 1916. Congress had little choice but to submit to the clamor and the bare-breasted Liberty Quarters began disappearing from circulation.
The 1916 production of Standing Liberty Quarters consisted of 52,000 pieces. All were produced at the Philadelphia Mint, and all left the mint by December 29, 1916. They seemed to get stuck in distribution during January of 1917.
As the 1916 liberty quarters were removed from circulation, congress realized that the original design of Miss Liberty would need to be properly covered and in 1917, the quarter's infamous design was modified to portray a more modest Miss Liberty. In fact, McNeil was ordered to modify the design of his beautiful conception. It is easy to imagine that McNeil might have been a little annoyed about the modification chore, but his solution was simple and ingenious. Rather than simply rearrange the drapery on her shoulder to cover the offending breast, he cleverly crafted a suit of armor instead and chastely clothed Miss Liberty nearly to the neck in a chain mail type pattern dress.
During the 15-year run of the Standing Liberty quarter, two changes were made to the design, resulting in three type coins. The first, the covering of the Bare Breast as described above. The second took place in 1925 because the coin’s dates were wearing off quicker than anticipated. They changed the design and it was re-cut so the date was recessed, rather than raised.
High-grade bare-breasted Standing Liberty Quarters dated 1916, surprisingly aren’t as rare as you might expect. Since it was the first year of a new coin type, many people stored some away as a curiosity. Their subsequent recall ensured that even more were stashed away without seeing much circulation. Although many were presumably melted down, the 1916 Standing Liberty Quarter is fairly readily available despite its small mintage. However, the original 1916 bare-breasted Standing Liberty Quarter is significantly more expensive than its 1917 counterpart. At 100 years old and counting, this coin is still very beautiful with her natural raw coin toning, full breasts, full head and face, and sharp detail.
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