Monday, July 12, 2010

Coin Monday: A Shield Her Only Armor

July 12, 2010

Written by John Dale

The Boston ANA U.S. Coin Auction is complete, at least on the cataloging end.

The work was a bit rough — worked three consecutive weekends, and the catalogs themselves are going to be workout-gear heavy — but we pulled through. Cataloging isn’t all I’ll be doing for the auction, though. There will be proofreading and a trip out to the printer before the auction is truly over for me. I’d like to give myself a pat on the back, but I don’t want to get overconfident.

About the time I get up and shout “I am invincible!” like Boris Grishenko is about the time the vats of liquid nitrogen rupture and freeze me in my victory pose. I’ve had that happen to me plenty of times... part of growing up, I guess, like the moment when I saw a picture of the latest teen starlet and, instead of thinking “She’s cute,” it was “Honey, who DRESSED you? Put some clothes on!”

Plenty of collectors have had similar thoughts about one of my favorite U.S. coinage designs, the “Type One” Standing Liberty quarter, struck in 1916 and earlier in 1917. (A gorgeous 1917-D Type One is part of the Boston auction’s Platinum Night.) Hermon MacNeil might not win any praise from abstract art fanatics, but as an academic and public-art sculptor he was more than capable.

MacNeil’s semi-nude concept of Liberty standing with an invincible shield of the Republic was one of the winners of a closed competition. (More on this point later.) A majority of 1917 Standing Liberty quarters are not the Type One, however, but Type Two.

The most immediately visible modification on the Type Two coins is a chainmail cover-up on Liberty. Personally, I think it looks rather ridiculous compared to the Type One. Whenever I think of chainmail gowns, I think of Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and the train of thought gets more ridiculous from there, usually ending with a spotlight on Miss Liberty as she trades her shield for a microphone and delivers a stirring rendition of “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”

Why the change? The classic story, told and retold, is that certain segments of society were scandalized by Miss Liberty’s partial nudity. It was easy to believe in the 1960s, perhaps even more so in this post-Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction era. It might be a good story, but as Roger W. Burdette lays out in his Renaissance of American Coinage 1916 - 1921 (unsolicited book recommendation alert!), the “scandal” was a work of fiction. There was no widespread outrage in newspapers or letters sent to the Treasury Department; instead, it was MacNeil himself who wanted the change.

It was a question of art, not prurience. Mr. Burdette has plenty of documentary evidence to back up his position. The common-sense short version: semi-nudes had appeared on American currency before (see the 1896 $5 Educational note with Electricity vignette), and several months’ worth of oversight and artistic back-and-forth went on before the design was released.

If a semi-nude Liberty was going to be a problem, why didn’t any of a number of strongly opinionated people (Chief Engraver Charles Barber, Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo) speak up about it? In the end, there was no real public scandal, no broad outcry for the change.

So how did the story about “covering up” Liberty take root? Maybe it was the most convenient explanation in the absence of research, and thus easy to believe; maybe we wanted to believe it.
Liberty, however, is not some starlet who needs better advice on how to dress; she is the personification of one of our noblest ideals, and she has rarely been so beautiful as when she stood before the world on the eve of the Great War, a shield her only armor.

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-John Dale Beety

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