The Bare-Breasted Standing Liberty Quarter of 1916 and 1917

1916 Standing Liberty Quarter close-up with Liberty's right breast exposed
Close up of a 1916 Standing Liberty Quarter. Heritage Auction Galleries

When the United States mint first introduced the Standing Liberty quarter in 1916, World War I was already raging in Europe and America was waiting on the sidelines. The Treasury Department chose this design to illustrate America's readiness to defend herself while at the same time seeking peace.

The Birth of the Standing Liberty Quarter

World War I was raging in Europe, and at home industrial technology continued to advance at a breakneck pace.

A style of artistic construction called Art Nouveau, characterized by elegant, flowing lines, and new freedoms of expression, reached its peak of popularity in America, as the musty old conservative ethic of the long Victorian Era finally breathed its last gasps. Surely placing a topless Miss Liberty on the coinage of the United States would be okay since we're an enlightened nation. History has proved otherwise.

The Standing Liberty Quarter Design

Of course, Mint officials didn't plot to put bare-breasted ladies on our quarters. The Treasury Department held a competition, and several top sculptors were invited to submit designs for use on United States coinage. The design selected for the quarter dollar was Hermon A. McNeil's, which depicts Miss Liberty standing between two large pedestals, holding an olive branch in her right hand, and a shield in her left. She wears a flowing garment that slips off her right shoulder to expose her breast.

Was Liberty's Bared Breast Wartime Propaganda?

There has been much speculation about why McNeil's design was selected and what the symbolism meant. The olive branch Liberty holds is a universal sign of peacemaking. The shield is a symbol of warfare and defense. What about Liberty's exposed breast? Was this wartime propaganda meant to imply, "come get your succor from the breast of the world's mother?" Or was it meant to say, "I come in peace, opening myself to you in earnestness?" History does not record the answer.

Leisurely Designed and Then Rushed Out the Door

The coin dies for the 1916 Standing Liberty Quarter were ready for production by July of 1916. But production didn't begin until the last half of December that same year. The reason for the delay in production is a cause for speculation.

Could it be that some persons who had seen the coin design had objected, and the delay was the result of discussions and re-thinking things? Perhaps the mint was busy producing other coins? Two other new designs were issued that year as well. Again, history doesn't tell and we can only speculate.

The 1916 Standing Liberty Quarters Leave the Mint

The 1916 minting run of Standing Liberty Quarters consisted of 52,000 pieces produced at the Philadelphia Mint facility, and all of which left the mint by December 29, 1916. This small mintage made its way through the Treasury distribution system in early January of 1917 and awaited release into circulation. In the meantime, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Denver began striking the 1917 Standing Liberty quarters and sent them out for distribution as well.

A Bare-Breasted Liberty Finally Meets Her Outraged Public

On January 17 of 1917, the bare-breasted Standing Liberty Quarter finally entered circulation, and the outcry was immediate and loud.

Religious leaders used words like "obscene" and "filthy" to describe the visage of our beautiful Miss Liberty with her breast exposed. Citizens' groups rallied their memberships to lobby Congress to have the disgusting coin recalled. Congress had little choice but to submit to the clamor. The bare-breasted Liberty Quarters began disappearing from circulation.

Liberty Taken to the Opposite Extreme

McNeil was obliged to modify his design. Miss Liberty would need to be properly covered, according to the citizens of our enlightened nation. It is easy to imagine that McNeil might have been a little resentful about the modification chore he had to undertake. Rather than simply rearrange the drapery on Liberty's shoulder to cover the offending breast, instead he crafted a suit of armor, and chastely clothed Miss Liberty nearly to the neck in chain mail!

The Three Types of Standing Liberty Quarters

The Standing Liberty Quarter needed a third design change starting in 1925 because the date was wearing off too quickly. The design was re-cut so that the date was recessed, rather than raised. A summary of the Standing Liberty Quarter types:

  • Type I - Liberty's breast exposed (1916-1917)
  • Type II - Liberty clothed, three stars below the eagle on the reverse (1917-1924)
  • Type III - Same as II, but the date is recessed (1925-1930)
  • One major error variety is recognized - the 1918 8-over-7 doubled die obverse

The 1916 Bare-Breasted Liberty Quarter as an Investment

Medium to high grade bare-breasted (Type I) Standing Liberty Quarters dated 1916 are not as rare as one might expect. First of all, it is the first year of a new coinage type, and many people stored them 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.

As an investment, however, it has been a volatile coin. Because more specimens exist than its low mintage would lead one to expect, the value is inflated over comparably scarce mid-issue, non-controversial coins. As a general rule, such coins are not a good candidate for pure investors, but like any other investment decision, you must make your decision based on the price you have to pay versus the likelihood it will increase enough in value to outperform inflation plus the interest you could have earned investing elsewhere. But if you need a specimen to complete your collection, or want to own one because of its curiosity value, buy the best grade you can afford and make sure it's in a quality slab.

Judge for yourself whether you feel the Bare-Breasted Standing Liberty Quarter is "obscene" or is it "art."

Note regarding the spelling of McNeil's name: Although many major numismatic references, including the "Red Book" spell the sculptor's name "MacNeil," a relative of his wrote to the author to say that the correct spelling is "McNeil." Research into Hermon A. McNeil's artistic background seems to indicate that both spellings have been used interchangeably for decades, but I have decided to follow the family's choice of spelling.

Edited by: James Bucki