History of the Barber Series

[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, David & John Feigenbaum. This information was originally published in 1991 in The Complete Guide Certified Barber Coinage]

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THE COINAGE

In the 1880s the U.S. silver coinage of dimes, quarters and half dollars had the British-inspired Liberty Seated design. The obverse of these series had remained basically unchanged since 1837 and there was a general feeling among artists and federal officials alike that our coinage had a second-rate appearance, particularly in comparison with French designs.

In his annual report for 1887, Mint Director James P. Kimball lamented the “inferiority of our coinage” compared to other advanced nations. He wanted “distinguished” artists engaged to redesign the American coins. But, believing he lacked authority, Kimball turned to the legislature. At his request, Sen. Justin S. Morill (R-VT) presented a bill authorizing the Treasury Department to redesign coins in use at least 25 years. This bill, which passed on September 26, 1890, allowed design changes for dimes, quarters and half dollars after 1891.

Charles E. Barber

Chief Mint Engraver

1880-1917

COMPETITION FOR A NEW DESIGN

The Treasury Department initially decided to hold a design competition among 10 of the most distinguished artists in America. However, the artists jointly complained that the preparation time allowed was too short (less than 2 months) and the “compensation altogether insufficient.” They wanted $100 for each sketch or $500 for each completed plaster model, plus a grand prize of $1,000 for each design used — a fortune at that time. Shocked at the demands, the Treasury instead arranged for a public competition to be judged by sculptor August Saint-Gaudens, Boston gem and seal engraver Henry Mitchell and chief mint engraver Charles Barber.

The results were unsatisfactory. They were bound to be because St. Gaudens believed that, outside of France, only he was competent to do such designs and Barber thought he himself was the only one capable (Taxay). On July 3, 1891, the committee wrote to Treasury Secretary Charles Foster: “None of the designs or models submitted are such a decided improvement upon the present designs … as to be worthy of adoption by the Government. We would respectfully recommend that one or more artists distinguished for work in designing and relief, be engaged at suitable compensation…” In fact, Kimball’s successor as Mint director, Edward O. Leech, called the competition a “wretched failure.” Only two of the 300 designs submitted had been accorded an honorable mention.

Leech favored having Barber do the redesign. “Our engraver at Philadelphia is the only competent person to prepare these designs,” Leech was quoted in the Boston Transcript of July 31, 1891. “Of course he receives no additional compensation for this. It is part of his regular work. I do not see any prospect of getting designs elsewhere in this country. We might get them in France… But the people of the United States would never forgive us if we went outside this country for our designs. To be sure, our designer is of an English family, but he is regularly in the employ of the mint” (Taxay p 288). A few days later, Leech defended his choice of Charles Barber to R.W. Gilder, art critic for Century Magazine, saying that Barber “comes from three generations of mint engravers and designers and has done excellent work in coin designing, and is in every way equipped for this important duty.” He added that Barber had prepared some designs that met with his and engraver Henry Mitchell’s approval, though some changes needed to be made.

BARBER’S NEW DESIGN

Barber’s original obverse design was, like the Liberty Seated series, modeled after English coinage. It shows Columbia standing with Liberty pole and sword in front of an eagle — possibly inspired by the Una and the Lion gold pattern created for Queen Victoria in 1839 (Julian). Leech rejected the design and ordered the obverse to have a Liberty head similar to several French bronze and silver coins of the Third Republic. The mint director wanted to retain the reverse of the seated dime, but ordered that the reverse of the quarter and half dollar bear the national standard. On September 12, Mint Superintendent Oliver C. Bosbyshell sent Director Leech plaster models that had been made by Barber from designs approved earlier. Bosbyshell agreed with Barber’s cover letter comment that the reverse wreath was too large and should be reduced. In his response, Leech criticized several aspects of the reverse design, specifically that the figure of the eagle did not correspond with the U.S. Great Seal in use at that time. Leech disliked the ribbon, with Latin motto, passing in front of the eagle’s neck. And he thought the olive branch ought to have 9, not 13, leaves. For the obverse, Leech thought the stars should be 6 pointed, not 5. Irritated by suggestions late in the modeling process, Barber vigorously

defended his designs. “I have used 13 leaves to conform to the 13 stars and 13 arrows believing there should be unity in these numbers, also significance,” he wrote Bosbyshell. “I know of no authority for saying 9 leaves are more used than any other number and very much question the correctness of the statement.” (Later, Leech visited the National Botanic Gardens to examine olive stems.)

SPLITTING HAIRS OVER STARS

In a second letter to Bosbyshell, Barber wrote of the stars: “Six pointed stars are English while 5 points are used by France, Holland and Germany, and also by the United States upon the flag… I prefer 5 points for use on the present occasion for the following reason. The largest of the proposed coins is one seventh the size of the model, and I think when you consider how small that would bring the stars, 5 points are more easily distinguished from a round dot, than 6, but as I remarked to you I see no objection to using 6 if preferred, as either number is equally correct.”

In October, Barber agreed to omit the wreath from the reverse and submitted new models. One had the scroll passing in front of the eagle’s neck, 13 olive leaves and 13 arrows; the other had the scroll passing behind the neck, with only 9 olive leaves and 9 arrows. The models were studied by Leech and Treasury Secretary Foster. Both thought the ribbon looked best behind the neck, but could not agree on the number of leaves and arrows.

PATTERNS ARE PREPARED

Later in the month, Barber submitted three patterns for the half dollar. The first omitted rays from around the eagle (presumably Judd #1765), the second had 6-pointed stars on the obverse, a larger eagle and no wreath (presumably Judd #1764), and the third was similar but had the ribbon passing behind the eagle’s head (either Judd #1762 or a pattern that is currently unknown). Leech selected the obverse with the 6-pointed stars because it was the “richer” of the two, but remained undecided about the reverse design.

In early November two more patterns were forwarded to Leech. These had a common obverse with 6-pointed stars. Of the reverses, one had clouds above the eagle (again, possibly Judd #1762). The other, without clouds, was probably Judd #1763. All patterns were then sent to President Benjamin Harrison. On November 5, 1891 he and his cabinet made their choice: The pattern without clouds. Four years after James Kimball had called for new U.S. coinage, a design had been chosen.

The first Barber coin was struck at the Philadelphia Mint at 9 a.m. on Saturday, January 2, 1892. However, the quarters didn’t stack well and early in the year the reverse hub was modified.

DESIGN & HUB MODIFICATIONS

In 1900 the design was again changed and both the obverse and reverse hubs were slightly modified. Apparently, coins from second hub dies were thinner than the first coins, so that a stack of 21 “Type II” coins equaled the thickness of 20 of the Type I’s. San Francisco Mint officials wanted permission to return to the old dies but Philadelphia Mint Supervisor Henry Boyer rejected this, stating that all Mints should make the same coins. Barber again had to redo the hubs and the third type of Barber quarter was created. Coins from both obverse and reverse dies are easily distinguished from the earlier types.

Barber quarters were minted into 1916 when, after 25 years, they were succeeded by Hermon MacNeil’s Liberty Standing design. The Barber coins saw extensive usage and most were worn down to AG condition. Many of these low-grade survivors were melted in the silver boom in 1979-80. Today, most Barbers exist in “good” condition. Intermediate and high-grade coins are a challenge to find. Though many years saw mintages of more than a million, it is likely that less than a few hundred survive in mint state for most dates.

CHARLES EDWARD BARBER

Born in London on November 16, 1840, Charles E. Barber came from a long line of distinguished British engravers. In 1852 he came to the United States with his father, William, who practiced his profession of engraving and die making first in Boston and then in Providence, R.I.When his father was appointed chief engraver of the Mint in 1869, Charles became an assistant engraver at the Philadelphia facility. In 1879 William Barber died and Charles was appointed to his father’s position by President Rutherford B. Hayes. On January 20, 1880 he became the sixth chief engraver of the United States Mint. In addition to the dime, quarter and half dollar series that bear his name, Charles Barber designed the Liberty (V) nickel, one of the $4 gold Stellas, several U.S. commemorative, foreign coins and many medals. He died suddenly on February 18, 1917 at the age of 77 while still in office.

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