Charles Barber was an influential person in American numismatics as an engraver, the sixth Chief Engraver at the U.S. Mint, as well as a second-generation Chief Engraver. The Barber dime, quarter, and half dollar were minted during his tenure and continue to hold historical and numismatic significance.
Charles Barber’s Early Life
Charles E. Barber was born in 1840 in London. His father moved the family to the United States in 1852.
In 1865, U.S. Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre hired his father, William Barber as an assistant engraver in Philadelphia at the Mint.
Charles learned engraving from his father and became an assistant engraver for the U.S. Mint in 1869.
Charles Barber’s career with the U.S. Mint Barber followed in his father’s footsteps as an engraver and a Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint. William Barber served as Chief Engraver of the United States Mint from 1869 until his death in 1879.
Charles E. Barber began his position as Chief Engraver in 1880 and held that office until his own death in 1979 when George T. Morgan succeeded him.
Barbers’ coins include a dime, quarter, and half dollar designed by Charles E. Barber and issued between the years 1892 and 1916. Like many popular releases, the coins were (unofficially) named after the designer.
Charles Barber’s First Coin
One of the first designs by Charles Barber was the $4 Gold Stella. These were minted in 1879 and only produced for about a year. The design was produced by Barber and George T. Morgan.
The Beginning of Barber Coins
In 1883, Barber was instructed to design a new copper-nickel one cent and three cent pieces, as well as to redesign the nickel following problems producing the Shield nickel. His design for the V or Liberty nickel was the only one approved.
In 1891, Barber’s first silver half dollar design using plaster was submitted and it was not what the Mint had asked for. The instructions had been to base the coin on the Una and Lion 5 pound British coin from 1839.
This silver half dollar depicted a standing liberty with the name Columbia. Columbia held a sword in her right hand and a pole with a liberty cap in her left hand. The reverse depicted a wreath enclosing a heraldic eagle and shield. The eagle grasped three arrows and an olive branch.
The whole design of the 1891 Pattern of the Columbia silver half dollar was elaborate and was also rejected by Edward O. Leech, Director of the Mint.
While adapting this design to suit the needs of the project, the liberty design on the obverse was approved, but Leech and President Benjamin Harrison disliked the reverse. Eventually, they settled on a reverse close to Barber’s first 1891 reverse.
Barber’s head of Liberty was used for the dime, quarter, and half dollar and the Barber coins began circulating in 1892. The Barber half dollar was produced until 1915, and the Barber quarter and Barber dime were produced one year longer, until 1916.
Charles Barber managed the development of the Denver Coin Mint. The Denver Mint began as an assay office and became an official branch of the U.S. Mint in 1906.
Barber designed countless pattern coins and collected more than 200 patterns in his 48 years working for the U.S. Mint.
Charles E. Barber died on February 18, 1917. The flags of the Philadelphia Mint were lowered to half-mast on the day of his funeral, an honor that has not been bestowed on any Mint officials since.
Barber’s International Coins
Charles E. Barber also designed coins for the Kingdom of Hawaii (1883), the Szechuan province of China (1897), and Cuba (1915) through a contract with the U.S. Mint.
How did the Public Receive Barber Coins?
The public review of Barber’s coins was mixed.
Some enjoyed the new face of liberty, calling it one of the most beautiful designs in U.S. history and the reverse as being like the first United States coins. Others criticized the new design, calling the liberty head ‘Emperor Vitellius having a goiter’ and said the eagle was malnourished.
President Theodore Roosevelt was the most famous critic of Barber’s designs. He called the Barber coins insipid and felt they were vastly inferior compared to European coins and many numismatists agreed with Roosevelt.
Roosevelt was involved in a private war with the Mint from 1905 until 1907 and described Barber as an enemy within the Mint.
Although public and artistic opinion of Barbers coins was mixed, Barber coins remain an integral part of American numismatic history.
What is the Significance of Barber Coins Today?
Beyond their aesthetic value, Barber coins represent an era of change in American coinage. The shift from the 19th-century Seated Liberty designs to the Barber coinage marked a transition in the nation’s visual representation on currency.
The Barber coins encapsulate the artistic preferences and technical capabilities of their time and remain in demand among collectors and numismatists alike today.