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Barber Coinage

By R.W. Julian


Those who began collecting before 1952 remember the old silver coins called Barber money; well worn, we collected them because they were old and cost only face value. Little did we realize the interesting story behind their creation.

The Liberty Seated coinage commenced in 1836 and was to remain in place for decades. There was occasional agitation to change this design, the first such attempt being made by Mint Director James Ross Snowden in the late 1850s. He had interpreted an 1853 law to mean that he could issue virtually unlimited amounts of silver coin but the public had grown weary of all those coins. In an effort to make them more popular, he proposed new designs. The arrival of the Civil War and the hoarding of gold and silver put a stop to this. (Large quantities of silver coin were also exported, especially to Canada and Central America.)

Just before the war (in 1860), however, he was able to redesign the dime and half dime in a small way by switching the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA from reverse to obverse. No one, however, had taken the time to read the 1837 law which required that these words appear on the reverse. By an odd quirk, when the Barber coinage began in 1892, the old dime reverse was illegally kept from 1860 since the law of 1873 repeated the requirements of 1837.

Beginning in 1873 the Treasury was able to put subsidiary silver coins (dimes, quarters, and half dollars) into circulation for the first time since 1862. The government congratulated itself on reintroducing silver coinage, but during the winter of 1877-1878 the silver that had flowed abroad in 1862 suddenly returned in massive amounts. In fact there was now so much silver coin pouring into the marketplace that the avenues of trade were as badly clogged as they had been in the 1850s. The public complained about the silver coinage and official reaction was to consider once more a change of design and several innovative patterns by George Morgan were struck in 1877. The inflow was so strong, however, that the Treasury was forced to suspend minor silver coinage in early 1878, ending any discussion for the time being about new designs.

The next attempt towards new artwork came early in 1887 when Mint Director James P. Kimball invited artists to submit ideas for the subsidiary silver coinage. He issued a circular on April 9 but withdrew it only six days later for reasons not yet clear. A few inquiries were received from artists while the circular was in effect, but in the end nothing came of this abortive attempt. The Mint engraving staff refused to participate, indicating that he had not consulted with them first.

There was a curious incident in connection with the circular. Kimball asked the superintendent at Philadelphia for a complete set of U.S. coins in copper as an aid in selecting new designs. Just how this would have helped is not clear but he did not get them because Superintendent Daniel Fox refused to furnish the pieces under an 1873 law which forbid such work being executed; it was the first time the provision had been enforced against a mint director! Kimball retaliated by issuing instructions making certain that no one else would get patterns or off-metal strikes.

In his report to the Treasury for 1887, Kimball again suggested that the silver coinage be redesigned but nothing came of this before leaving office in 1889. He had, however, set the wheels into motion and it was to be but a matter of time before the silver coins did receive a new look.

It was not until 1890 that a new drive arose to redesign the silver coinage. Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber wrote Mint Director Edward O. Leech in mid-September suggesting new artwork for the subsidiary silver only. Leech replied on September 25 that a press of other matters would delay action until the spring of 1891.

Without really consulting anyone at the Mint, Leech then issued a circular on April 4, 1891, inviting artists and sculptors to submit artwork for all silver coins, including the dollar. It was almost four years to the day after Kimball had issued his ill-fated circular and the fate of Leech's was to be remarkably similar. The Mint engraving staff again refused to participate.

Leech had the right idea but his rules for participation were faulty since all entries had to be in by June 1 in the form of finished plaster models. In addition the artist had to submit four separate obverses, one for each denomination, plus one common reverse model. The short time available made this almost impossible in terms of quality. Some preliminary designs were received, but the advisory committee rejected all entries at a meeting held on June 3. The committee suggested that the Treasury hire artists for such work and not hold any more contests. Leech agreed since his ideas about public input had clearly gone nowhere.

The Mint Director responded by asking (i.e. ordering) the Mint engraving staff to submit subsidiary silver designs for his inspection; there was no longer any interest in changing the dollar. He specified that the designs had to be based on certain general principles. The first was that the obverse head of Liberty should be similar to the one then being used on French silver and bronze coins. The reverse had to use the national coat of arms as seen, for example, on the Great Seal of the United States. Leech did specify that the reverse for the dime, in use since 1860, was not to be changed.

Due to some confusion over Leech's request, in a letter of June 13 Superintendent Oliver C. Bosbyshell invited the director to Philadelphia for a meeting. In the meantime, the engravers (George Morgan, Charles Barber, and William Key) prepared sketches and these were examined by Leech when he visited the Mint in late June.

On July 23, after carefully considering the drawings submitted in June, Leech again visited Philadelphia for a conference. Chief Engraver Barber was now given the nod to begin work on revising the subsidiary silver coinage designs. Since June Barber had been working on plaster models to illustrate his ideas. As early as August 8 Leech notified one correspondent that some plaster models had been finished by the chief engraver.

These first plaster models were probably to become Judd #1766; the obverse did not follow the original dictum about the French head of Liberty at all but seems to have been based on the famous Una and the Lion five pound gold coin of 1839 issued for Queen Victoria. (There is sometimes difficulty in determining which Judd numbers are meant since the pattern descriptions are usually somewhat vague in the letters that have been preserved.) Barber had been born in England and may have been expressing his view of French coinage designs. The reverse, although based as directed on the Great Seal, was very cluttered and poorly done, with its wreath and clouds spoiling the design.

By early August Barber was at work on new obverse and reverse designs and additional plasters were submitted to the director on September 12. Leech approved the Liberty head (perhaps it was close enough to the French model to suit him) but took strong exception to the reverse. On October 1 he wrote Barber with criticism of the eagle side.

Leech noted that, in his view, the proposed reverse was not at all like the Great Seal. Furthermore, the director did not like the ribbon (with the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM) passing over the eagle's neck but wished it to go behind. Leech also thought that nine leaves, in groups of three, were better than the thirteen leaves Barber had used. He raised the question of whether six-pointed stars might not be used on the obverse instead of five-pointed ones favored by Barber.

Barber answered the letter on October 2 by noting that "I am quite willing to make any change in design, provided the suggestion in my mind is a good one, but I must ask that criticism come to an end before I am too far advanced with the die..." The Chief Engraver also indicated that he had used the original Great Seal design of 1782 and not the current one. In a postscript, Superintendent Bosbyshell unwisely seconded Barber's answer. An angry director replied to Barber's letter on October 5: "I beg to say that the only limit which will be placed on such criticism will be the final adoption of the design. My purpose in the suggestions and criticisms which I have offered is to get as perfect a work as possible and if any number of dies have been prepared or are in process of preparation, any change, however slight, that would in my judgement improve the design, I should have it made. I do not like this spirit which resents criticism and suggestions in regard to the work of the Mints. All criticism and suggestions which are actuated by a kindly spirit and which may have the tendency to beautify our coins, instead of being resented, or any time limit placed upon them, should be most cheerfully received and due consideration given to their merits."

On October 10 a subdued Barber replied to Leech by promising to adhere in future to orders from superiors. He promised to produce a model with nine leaves in the eagle's talon as well as the scroll passing behind the neck of the bird. On October 15 two additional plasters were submitted to Leech: one had the scroll over the neck and thirteen leaves while the second had nine leaves and the scroll passing behind the neck. Neither had a wreath around the eagle.

For the next several days Leech examined the new models very closely. He liked the ribbon going behind the neck but was still uncertain about the number of leaves (and arrows) to be in the talons. Leech visited the National Botanical Gardens and obtained an olive branch, which was sent to Barber for close study. Leech noted that the leaves came in pairs and this was to be considered in the final product.

October 17 saw Barber informing Bosbyshell that dies were then underway with the first half dollar patterns being struck on October 23. The first had the Liberty head with no reverse wreath and five-pointed stars on the obverse; the ribbon went behind the neck of the eagle. It appears that these descriptions refer to the obverse of Judd #1765 and reverse of #1762.

The second pattern struck at this time was similar except that the obverse used six-pointed stars; this is probably Judd #1762 or 1764. The third pattern half dollar was poorly described in the letter of October 23 except that the reverse was said to be the same as the Great Seal, perhaps meaning Judd #1766. However, Barber's covering letter said the rays had been left off the reverse, which would instead mean Judd #1765.

Leech received the patterns on October 24, the day after they were mailed and noted that the six-pointed star obverse design was now approved since it appeared to be the "richer" of the two. Master obverse dies and hubs were ordered made for an 1892 coinage; the precise form of the reverse had yet to be decided.

Barber, in a letter dated October 28, requested special overtime pay for all the extra engraving work required to prepare the new obverse coinage dies. One wonders if this were actually a subtle hint by Barber that Leech had caused all this extra work by his continual criticisms.

Superintendent Bosbyshell sent four additional half dollar patterns to Washington on November 4; there were only two different pieces, there being a duplicate of each design. Both had the same obverse, with six-pointed stars, while the first reverse had clouds above the stars (Judd #1762 or 1764). The second reverse did not have clouds above the stars and was presumably Judd #1763.

These new patterns were forwarded to President Benjamin Harrison and his Cabinet on November 5. They examined them carefully and chose the first pattern, without the clouds (Judd #1763), as the approved design. Leech, in notifying Barber and Bosbyshell, indicated that the clouds on the second piece looked like many things, but not clouds, and was rejected for this reason.

In addition, the President requested that there be a bolder E PLURIBUS UNUM on the reverse and LIBERTY on the obverse. Both were felt to be weak and liable to wear in circulation. How right he was!

Director Leech released the designs to the press about November 10 and a number of articles appeared on the change in the subsidiary silver designs. Most were favorable but one published report made Barber so angry that he complained to Director Leech. The latter replied that he was amused by attacks on himself and that Barber ought not to worry.

There are no Archival data on the pattern dime and quarter dollar, but they were probably struck in mid-November. On December 11 Bosbyshell requested a delay in coinage (to the middle of January) until the dies had been thoroughly tested. Leech refused.

The first coinage came on January 2, 1892, at 9 A.M. and went off perfectly, all three silver denominations being struck by the end of the day. However, there were soon complaints about the quarter dollar not stacking properly and Barber revised the obverse and reverse designs, giving collectors a variety for 1892.

The design was last struck in 1916 and Charles Barber barely outlived that event, dying the following year. The Barber coinage reflected the Victorian era, but the onset of WWI produced new attitudes towards art and Barber's work, as the Liberty Seated design before that, became a victim of changing tastes.

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