The Mystery of the 1917 Quarters

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 2/1/2004

The Standing Liberty quarter dollar of 1916-30 was designed and sculpted by Hermon A. MacNeil. Most collectors of United States coins are familiar with the two distinctive versions coined during 1917...

David Lange

The Standing Liberty quarter dollar of 1916-30 was designed and sculpted by Hermon A. MacNeil. Most collectors of United States coins are familiar with the two distinctive versions coined during 1917. These are known as Type 1 and Type 2, respectively, though the term subtype is really more accurate. All three mints in operation at that time coined both subtypes in large enough numbers that none of the six resulting issues are rare in any but the highest grades.

It's generally believed that the 1917 Type 1 quarters are identical to the rare 1916 issue, but this is not strictly true. For the 1917 Type 1 coinage, the stars, the shield rivets and the motto IN GOD WE TRUST were all sharpened, producing a much better rendition of the design. In addition, subtle changes were made in Liberty's gown, the most noticeable of which concerns the lowermost drapery fold, just to the left of her right leg. Other very slight distinctions may be made between 1916 and 1917 Type 1 quarters, and these are described fully in J. H. Cline's book Standing Liberty Quarters, Third Edition.

On April 16, 1917, Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo requested of Congress that the Mint be permitted to make more extensive changes to the quarter dollar. As these changes exceeded the merely cosmetic ones made at the beginning of 1917, he believed that Congressional approval was required under the law of 1890, which specified that coin designs were not to be changed more often than once in 25 years. This approval finally came in June, resulting in the Type 2 quarter.

Conventional wisdom holds that the reason for this change was to silence complaints over Liberty's exposed breast, and it was not until recently that numismatic researchers dared to challenge this notion. I agree with many contemporary writers that no evidence exists to support the "obscenity" story. Indeed, there is evidence to contradict it. In Cline's book appears a page from the Congressional Record in which Secretary McAdoo's letter to Congress is reproduced. In it he specifically states the reason for the change being that "the artist has found that they (the Type 1 dies) were not true to the original design and that a great improvement can be made in the artistic value and appearance of the coin by making the slight changes the act contemplates."

The act to which he refers specifies only the relocation of the eagle upward, the rearranging of the stars and lettering around it and the furnishing of concavity to the dies which, on the Type 1 issue, had flat fields. This simplicity understates the true nature of the changes made. A study of the pattern coins and plaster models illustrated in Cline's book reveals that MacNeil's earliest designs bore a greater similarity to the Type 2 quarter than they did to the Type 1, as issued. While it's true that his early models featured dolphins, peripheral olive branches and other minor elements eliminated before any coins were made for circulation, it is the relief of his models, their style of lettering and the figure of Liberty herself that were essentially identical to those seen on the Type 2 quarter.

The fact that MacNeil's plaster models do not look like the 1916 and 1917 Type 1 quarters, but do bear a stylistic resemblance to the 1917 Type 2 quarter, begs the question of who actually created the Type 1. It has long been assumed that the Type 1 quarter was MacNeil's original work and that the Type 2 version was created by U. S. Mint Chief Engraver George Morgan to answer the Mint's own concerns with the design. The letter from McAdoo, however, reveals that it was MacNeil who expressed disfavor with the Type 1 quarter and whose concerns prompted the extensive changes. I therefore contend that the Type 1 quarters of 1916-17 were the Mint's alteration of MacNeil's design and that the Type 2 issue was a restoration of MacNeil's original concept, sans the dolphins and olive branches.

This notion is supported by the fact that the Type 2 quarter features many of the unique characteristics of MacNeil's rejected models. For example, his early models feature the eagle centered on the reverse, surrounded by stars that rise to a point at their centers. This is true of the Type 2 quarters, but not of the Type 1. The lettering on the reverse is tall and closely spaced, with prominent serifs. Again, this is typical of Type 2 quarters and not true of Type 1 issues. The figure of Liberty, including her hairstyle and the number of rivets on the shield, provides a direct tie between the early models and the Type 2 quarter. Indeed, a casual comparison of the early models illustrated in Cline's book with the two subtypes as issued clearly shows that the Type 1 quarters are stylistically out of step and clearly the work of a different sculptor entirely.

Whatever the true story, the fact remains that the Type 2 quarter failed to furnish the improvements promised by McAdoo. While the 1917 Type 1 quarter struck up well, the Type 2 used for the remainder of the series never did produce sharp strikes, and die erosion was quite rapid, too.

David W. Lange's column USA Coin Album appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.