The 1916 Standing Liberty Quarter is an important key date coin, with its rarity resulting from both the extremely limited mintage and the circumstances of its release. Representing the first year of issue for the new series designed by Hermon A. MacNeil, the entire mintage of just 52,000 pieces was released into circulation with little notice given to the change in design. By the time the rarity of the issue was realized, very few pieces had been saved and the coin was extremely scarce in uncirculated condition. This served to create one of the rarest and most desirable key date coins of the 20th century.
The 25-cent coin, or Quarter Dollar, was one of three silver denominations that received new designs in 1916, replacing the previous designs by Charles Barber in use since 1892. In fact, since no silver dollars had been struck since 1904, and would not be struck until 1921, all silver coinage at the time would future a new design. The designers of the new coins were chosen through a competition, which was relatively unheard of at the time. The quarter denomination would be designed by Hermon MacNeil, while the dime and half dollar would be designed by Adolph Weinman.
It took most of 1916 for MacNeil to complete his work on the new design, and various sketches of his ideas are known along with a very limited number of struck patterns. The obverse design would would feature a woman representing Liberty, stepping forward from an opening in a gate, as per MacNeil’s words “to the gateway of the country.” The reverse would feature an eagle in flight, perhaps inspired by the Gobrecht Dollars of the 1830’s. Other features included an olive branch and a shield on the obverse and a pattern of stars on the reverse.
The obverse also had a feature which would be criticized, perhaps, or at least publicly known in later decades. This was the partly exposed breast of Liberty, unseen on any previous American coinage design, and according to many sources the reason why MacNeil modified both sides of the design in 1917, creating a completely different type of the Standing Liberty Quarter. Modern research in documentation of the period, however, shows that MacNeil was not satisfied with his work in the first place, and wanted to adjust the design to his tastes.
Production of the original design would commence in the final weeks of 1916. By this time, it was too late to ship the 1916-dated dies to the branch mints and too late to strike a reasonable number of quarters at the Philadelphia Mint. Nonetheless, limited production of the new design would take place and perhaps without realizing it, the Mint would create a rarity which would later find much demand from collectors.