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Philadelphia Walkers: strange story

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Who doesn’t like the Walking Liberty half dollar design? The Saint-Gaudens design for the gold $20 might win the honor of being called the most beautiful coin of the United States, but the Walking Liberty half dollar surely was the most beautiful coin design accessible to the average person.

Only the Buffalo nickel might dispute that title with the Walking Liberty half dollar.

If we didn’t all collect Walking Liberty half dollars out of change in the 1950s and early 1960s, it wasn’t for artistic reasons. It was purely financial. A half a buck was just too much money to tie up in one coin. Years of inflation might make that statement hard to believe for youngsters today, but it was true.

And if we had been able to collect Walking Liberty half dollars from circulation in those happy days of childhood, I think it is fair to say that we wouldn’t have been especially watchful for the Philadelphia strikes as a group, but certainly there are some very scarce early dates that we would have realized very fast.

This is perhaps what makes reviewing the situation today so interesting.

It’s easy to make assumptions when it comes to Philadelphia coins especially during the first half of the past century. As the main facility, the Philadelphia Mint would frequently turn out far high mintages than the other facilities. Moreover, as had been the case historically there was significant saving of new issues in and around the Philadelphia area. The result is that in many cases coins from Philadelphia are more available than the same date and type from Denver or San Francisco. While that is a general pattern, it does not apply in every case and some of those cases can be found in the Philadelphia Walking Liberty half dollars, which sometimes can be surprisingly tough.

The message that Philadelphia would not always be the top producer of Walking Liberty half dollars was immediately clear as when the Walking Liberty half dollar was introduced in 1916, the Philadelphia mintage stood at just 608,000, which was well below the Denver total of 1,014,000 and just 100,000 coins higher than San Francisco.

To have the main facility produce significantly few coins than Denver and close to the San Francisco total was highly unusual. The situation could at least in part be explained by the fact that Philadelphia in 1916 was a very busy place. After all, there were three new designs being introduced that year and that was unusual as historically the dime, quarter and half dollar basically had the same design. The dime because of its size did not have an eagle on the reverse but otherwise the three designs were the same. That was changed in 1916. For the first time in history the three denominations would have very different designs.

Time was another factor. The historical record was mixed, but even with the designs being basically the same, a design change was not always accomplished on all three denominations in the same year. All designs had been changed in 1892, but if you went further back to the Seated Liberty design, it took well over a year before the design would be used on all denominations.

In 1916 they were attempting to get three new designs ready in the same year. Even with better technology and a larger staff, it was a real challenge as Philadelphia not only had to produce its own coins but also prepare the designs and in addition make and ship the dies for all denominations to the other facilities.

As it worked out, the A.A. Weinman Mercury dime was prepared first because there was more commercial demand for dimes. The A.A. Weinman Walking Liberty half dollar was the second to be prepared and the Hermon MacNeil Standing Liberty quarter was third. The fact that they barely completed their work is seen in the fact that the first Standing Liberty quarter had a mintage of just 52,000 pieces and no 1916 quarters were produced at either Denver or San Francisco. This is probably because there was no time to get the dies to the other mints and begin production before the year was finished.

Here is another factor, which is that heading into 1916 there was a very definite pattern of low production of half dollars at Philadelphia. It is hard to know why the pattern existed as the assumption would be that Philadelphia would be a major producer of half dollars. Perhaps the demand for the denomination was lower in the East or perhaps there was some other reason, but Philadelphia had a 1910 half dollar mintage of just 418,551. That total was followed by better than 1 million totals in 1911 and 1912, but then the total really took a nosedive with the 1913 Philadelphia half dollar having a mintage of just 188,627 and the 1914 was just 124,610, with the 1915 total being 138,450.

Compared to the other facilities, that 1913 total was well below either Denver or San Francisco while the 1914 was below San Francisco with Denver having had no mintage and then the 1915 was more than 1 million pieces below either Denver or San Francisco.

Certainly there was a pattern there of low mintages from Philadelphia, making the 1916 seem not as low as it originally appears especially when compared to the other facilities as it was higher than San Francisco and at the time that was actually not always the case.

The 1916 Walking Liberty half dollar was an interesting coin. The assumption would be that being a new design and coming from Philadelphia the 1916 would be heavily saved if for no other reason than as a novelty, which produces a lot of saving when new coins are issued. There was almost certainly some of that, but perhaps not as much as we might expect. There were, after all, three new designs that year and a half dollar was a lot of money to many at the time.

Also, it was not just the collectors of the period who reacted this way. In his research, Q. David Bowers discovered that the dealers of the day also did very little saving of new issues as he could find only a couple with what he calls “working inventories” of the 1916 quarter. As a lower denomination with a mintage of just 52,000, the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter seems like a far better candidate for saving than the 1916 Walking Liberty half dollar. If the quarter was not being saved, there is little reason to expect that the half dollar was saved in any numbers.

Thanks to its low mintage, the 1916 Walking Liberty half dollar is actually a better date although it is not one of the few dates topping $100 in G-4. It is, however, at $47 inG-4 and that is a premium price as available dates are still at basically silver related prices of $7.40.

In the case of a Mint State example, the 1916 by a narrow margin is the most available of the 1916 Walking Liberty half dollars with a price of $345 in MS-60, which is just less than the 1916-D while an MS-65 is $1,950, which is also lower than the 1916-D.

There may be a couple of factors at work in the prices as there were still more collectors in the Philadelphia area, so despite a low mintage there was likely to be greater saving of the Philadelphia 1916. In addition, the Denver and San Francisco 1916 half dollars had the obverse mintmarks, which are popular and which lasted for just 1916 and part of 1917, and that could mean some additional demand for nice examples featuring the obverse mintmarks.

The supplies reported today of the 1916 do suggest at least some saving as the Professional Coin Grading Service has seen just over 1,000 examples of the 1916 and about 80 percent qualify as Mint State. While there are more Mint State coins than is usually seen for the period,  the supply in MS-65 or better is still modest ,with 141 coins being graded MS-65, 59 graded MS-66 and just four were called MS-67.

The pattern of lower half dollar mintages from Philadelphia seemed to change in 1917 and 1918 as the 1917 mintage was a record 12,292,000 pieces and the 1918 was large as well at 6,634,000. Those totals make the two readily available especially in circulated grades where both are at basically common date prices.

The modest saving of new examples was to have an impact and we see that in the prices with the 1917 at $130 in MS-60 and $1,050 in MS-65. The 1918 is much tougher at $565 in MS-60 and $3,800 in MS-65.

We see the difficulty in finding a 1918 in the grading service totals as well for PCGS has only seen the 1918 72 times in MS-65 and just 7 times in MS-66. Those totals are not the lowest for a Walking Liberty half dollar, but they are low enough to suggest that with any additional increase in demand the 1918 might prove to be a real problem and that is even true in lower Mint State grades as in all Mint State grades PCGS has only seen the 1918 a total of roughly 425 times.

After a couple years of higher mintages, the Philadelphia 1919 total dropped to just 962,000 pieces, which once again was the lowest total for the three facilities. That makes the 1919 a better date at $26 in G-4. In Mint State all 1919 Walking Liberty half dollars are in short supply. It is hard to know why the year seems to be such a problem, but the Philadelphia 1919 is the most available although hardly readily available with an MS-60 price of $1,325 and an MS-65 listing of $7,750 with the grading service totals again showing very low numbers as the 1919 has been seen just 42 times in MS-65 by PCGS alone with 16 appearances in MS-66 and five more in MS-67.

In 1920 the mintage in Philadelphia returned to higher levels with a production of 6,372,000, making the 1920 a more available date at just $9.7 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $330 and an MS-65 at $5,250. That MS-65 price is high, suggesting a lack of supply and that is confirmed by PCGS as the 1920 has been seen 61 times in MS-65 and 10 more times in MS-66.
The years that followed would see Walking Liberty half dollar mintages influenced by the sharp recession and then the return to Roaring Twenties prosperity.

The need for silver dollars helped take up the slack. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon had the task of reforming U.S. finances following the high deficits of World War I.
It was not a case where the United States had no silver dollars as there were still hundreds of millions sitting in the vaults, but the Pittman Act of 1918 had resulted in the melting of just over 270 million and that caused a problem as those dollars were needed to back Silver Certificates. Other notes with a different backing had to be issued and those notes were backed by short term notes that paid 2 percent interest. In the mind of the secretary of the Treasury Silver Certificates backed by silver dollars were much better than paying 2 percent interest so he ordered production to replace the melted dollars, which finished in 1928.

The problem was that silver dollars take time to produce and even though shifts at the facilities were changed from 8 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, producing 200 million silver dollars was a slow process.

Wartime inflation caused the price of silver to spike and for a time in 1919 and 1920, the silver in a silver dollar was worth $1.06. Even the slightly lighter dimes, quarters and halves were threatening to see the metal value exceed face value, but when the recession hit, the silver priced dropped by more than half.

The result of the slack economy was that all Walking Liberty half dollar mintages in 1921 were very low. The 1921-S proved to be the top mintage date of the year at 548,000, which in a normal year would have been low. The 1921-D was the lowest mintage date of the three at 208,000 while the Philadelphia 1921 half dollar was not much higher at 246,000. Those totals made the 1921 and 1921-D the key circulated Walking Liberty half dollars with the Philadelphia 1921 ranking as the second most expensive Walking Liberty half dollar in G-4 at $165 while the 1921-D is $310 in the same grade.

In Mint State the 1921 is also a very difficult date with an MS-60 price of $4,500 and an MS-65 at $19,500. While those prices are not as tough as the mintages might suggest, it must be remembered in Mint State what matters is the number saved at the time and not how many were produced. The PCGS totals show that while low mintage the 1921 did have a small amount of saving with 59 examples graded MS-65 and three more in MS-66.

What followed the 1921 low mintages were even lower mintages as Philadelphia would basically go out of the half dollar production business for years. It is possible there was a backlog, but it is worth remembering that stretching all the way back to Barber half dollars the Philadelphia mintages suggested that the need for half dollars at least in the area served by Philadelphia was apparently not that high while San Francisco tended to always need half dollars. The only other half dollar mintages for the rest of the 1920s would be from Denver and San Francisco and the Denver total was also extremely low as it produced just over 1 million pieces in 1929 but no others.

The San Francisco mintages while more frequent were also not regular and not very large as none would reach more than 2.5 million coins. By the later part of the decade the silver dollar production was over so that reason for low mintages was eliminated, but it did not take long for the nation to drift into the Great Depression. Tough economic times usually result in lower mintages.

Certainly tough economic times result in lesser demand for higher denominations, but Philadelphia was once again unusual in that it continued its string of no half dollar mintages until 1934. From that point on Philadelphia would have regular half dollar mintages, but for the period of more than a decade from 1922 through 1933 it would be awfully hard to make the case that Philadelphia was a leading half dollar producer.

Even when half dollar production returned to Philadelphia in 1934 it was not a case where the facility seemed to making up for lost time. The mintages in the 1930s would range from about 12 million in 1936 to 4 million in 1938, so none can be called unusually large. The higher mintages result in lower prices. An MS-65 1934 is $565, a 1935 is $365, the top mintage 1936 is $265, the 1937 is $285, the 1938, the lowest mintage date of the group, is $460 and the 1939 and 1940 would be $210 and $185, respectively. The grading service totals support such prices as it appears that collecting interest or perhaps dealer saving or both had increased so we see significantly higher numbers available for all these dates.

From the period of no production Philadelphia would go to the opposite extreme with the start of World War II. The war years would see extremely large half dollar mintages with the peak coming in 1943 when 53,190,000 were produced. That extremely high total at the time was really only a little higher than the 1942. With such totals it is natural that the dates are available.
Even with the heavy mintages, examples in MS-65 are not always as available as might be expected as when mintages rise quality sometimes suffers. That said ,almost any Philadelphia Walking Liberty half dollar date from the 1940s can be found for roughly $150 to $200,  making them the least costly MS-65 Walking Liberty half dollars and perfect candidates for type collections.

With the end of World War II, the production levels dropped off significantly to 12,118,000 in 1946 and a mere 4,094,000 in 1947. Such totals might result in higher prices, but at least in part, the low totals were overcome by increased saving as the interest in coin collecting would increase quickly with the end of the war.

Moreover, with the change in design to the Franklin half dollar in 1948, some saved the last years of the Walking Liberty half dollar although the coins saved in many cases while nice looking tend to be AU or lower Mint State in grades.

That makes it easy to acquire an MS-60 from the 1941-1947 period as all are safely under $50, but MS-65 examples are not as available as many think. We see that in prices of $200 for the 1946 and $275 for the 1947 in MS-65. Over time we may see other changes as these lower priced dates in MS-65 have not always been sent into the grading services in large numbers, so the numbers reported by the services may well not be a perfectly accurate reflection of which dates are less available and which dates are more numerous.

With the 1947 mintage the Philadelphia Walking Liberty half dollar production would come to an end. As you study the Philadelphia Walking Liberty half dollars it is hard to escape the fact that these coins have an extremely interesting story. In addition, their history of production is not what most would expect from Philadelphia as very clearly the nation’s main mint was not as active in terms of half dollar production as most would assume. As a result, the Philadelphia Walking Liberty half dollars are tougher than most would expect but that makes them a great group to acquire as realistically they are excellent values on very interesting coins.

2011 U.S. Coin Digest: Half Dollars
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