After 55 years, the Seated Liberty half dollar design had become somewhat of a dinosaur. A classic, yes. Exciting, no. The design was heavily influenced by English coinage, and American tastes had changed. Many felt the design was unartistic, even a bit clunky.
It was time for a change.
So in 1891, Mint Director Edward O. Leech, after authorization by Congress, ordered a design competition. Alas, since only the winner would get paid, the invited artists refused to participate. So Leech recruited a committee to judge a cattle call of submissions from around the country. The committee rejected them all. Needless to say, Leech was frustrated, and he turned to Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber for the designs.
In the end, the design featured on the obverse a classical Liberty head facing right and wearing an olive-branch crown and a small headband bearing the word “LIBERTY.” “IN GOD WE TRUST” appears above Liberty’s head, the date below her head, and 13 six-pointed stars to her left and right.
The reverse shows a heraldic eagle, based on the Great Seal of the United States. Its left claw holds 13 arrows and its right an olive branch (oh troublesome olive branch). In his mouth he holds a scroll bearing the words “E PLURIBUS UNUM,” and he is encircled by the words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and “HALF DOLLAR.”
So what was the reaction to this coin produced under such laborious and strained circumstances?
Art historian and curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Cornelius Vermeule, had this to say: “… these essentially conservative but most dignified coins suddenly became extremely popular with collectors, as symbols of America coming to maturity and the hard-money era of transition from the post-Civil War era to the period between the two world wars.”
And while Barber may not have been an artist like Saint Gaudens, what he lacked in that arena, he more than made up for in technical skill.
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