[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, Gloria Peters & Cynthia Mohon. This information was originally published in 1995 in The Complete Guide to Shield and Liberty Head Nickels
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Charles Edward Barber
Charles Barber was 12 when his family emigrated from England in 1852, settling in Boston, then Providence, R.I. after his father, William, was hired as a die engraver for Gorham Silverware Co. In the early 1860’s William Barber met James B. Longacre, who was serving as chief engraver at the U.S. Mint. David T. Alexander reports in his article “The Chief Engravers” that the Mint had need of some specialized talent:
“Surviving correspondence reveals the Mint’s anxiety that the person it engaged should above all know how “to bronze a medal”—that is, to prepare the chemical and heat treatments needed to create the attractive mahogany patina on pure copper medals of the era.” (COINage, 10/90)
William Barber was knowledgeable about the bronzing process. In 1865 he became an assistant engraver and, four years later, was appointed chief engraver. Charles also was employed at the Mint and was promoted to chief engraver upon his father’s death in 1880.
Charles Barber’s first major challenge was an assignment from Col. A.L. Snowden in 1881 to design the patterns for a uniform set of minor coins for use with the copper-nickel alloy. He was to produce coins with Liberty on the obverse and Roman numerals denoting value on the reverse. The 5-cent piece was the only one chosen for circulating coinage and provided the coin design for the change from the Shield nickel to the Liberty head design in 1883.
Charles Barber had a reputation for arrogance. He firmly believed that he was the only designer and engraver capable of meeting the artistic standards and dignity of the U.S. coinage. Unfortunately, others holding positions of authority — such as Mint Directors James P. Kimball and Edward O. Leech as well as President Theodore Roosevelt — disagreed. Barber, like Longacre, had an uneasy tenure at the mint, although his talent as a die-sinker was never called into question. Rather, as a creative person working for people with no artistic ability, he had many battles related to his designs. He was not shy about defending his artistry; however, his lesser rank in the decision-making process resulted in designs by committee rather than of wholly his own concept.
Barber and the famous sculptor Augustus Saint- Gaudens battled several times during Barber’s tenure as chief engraver. When Kimball obtained congressional approval to change the designs on silver subsidiary coinage, he proposed a design competition among 10 major U.S. artists. They wanted more time and money for the task than was being offered, so a public competition was scheduled instead. Judges were Barber, Saint-Gaudens and Henry Mitchell. Not surprisingly, the panel found none of the designs suitable. After all, Saint-Gaudens believed he was the only artist in the U.S. capable of doing the designs; and Barber harbored a similar belief about himself. David T. Alexander describes Barber’s alleged revenge:
“Barber skillfully derailed the 1892 competition for the new silver coin designs, much to the disgust of the great medalist and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He artfully “leaked” Saint-Gaudens’ powerful design for the World’s Columbian Exposition award medal, conniving in making the nude youth which forms part of the medal’s reverse the subject of a pornographic parody by an industrial firm friendly to him.” (COINage, 10/90)
Eventually, Kimball’s successor as Mint director, Edward Leech, instructed Barber to design the subsidiary silver coinage. The “Barber” dime, quarter and half dollar were a result of Leech’s admiration of the Gallic style. As stated in David Lawrence’s “The Complete Guide to Barber Halves”:
“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… 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.”
Barber and Saint-Gaudens were competitors again in the design of the new $20 and $10 coins. This time, however, political elements in the form of Saint-Gaudens’ sponsor, President Roosevelt, defeated Barber’s opposition to the outsider’s $10 eagle (Indian head design) and the $20 double eagle (“Saint-Gaudens”).
Charles Barber’s legacy includes some of America’s best-loved coins, regardless of their stormy beginnings, as well as a host of medals and the Hawaiian silver coinage of 1883. During his tenure his designs were used on the nickel (1883-1912), dime (1892-1916), quarter (1892-1916) and half dollar (1892-1915). He also designed several commemorative coins: Columbian Exposition obverse, Isabella quarter, Lafayette dollar, Louisiana Purchase Exposition gold dollar, Lewis and Clark Exposition gold dollar, Panama-Pacific Exposition quarter eagle and the McKinley Memorial gold dollar. All of his regular coinage utilized either a bust of Liberty or Liberty seated on the obverse.