(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part presentation on the history of Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars that were introduced to circulation in 1892.)
Those collectors active in the 1940s and 1950s can easily remember seeing the well-worn silver coins called “Barber” money. Beginning collectors did not know what this meant, but since the coins were old and could occasionally be taken from ordinary change, they were saved.
The Barber silver coins – dimes, quarters and half dollars – were struck only from 1892 to 1916, but the story of their origin goes back well before that. The beginning may perhaps be set in the middle of the 1830s, when Mint engraver Christian Gobrecht created an exquisite set of dollars with a Seated Liberty figure.
The Seated Liberty design was adopted for all silver coins by 1840 and was to last until 1891. Until the late 1850s the Seated Liberty motif continued on its serene way, with little in the way of challenges. There was a jarring note in 1851 when the newly adopted three–cent silver coin (trime) used a totally different design. These small coins passed out of active circulation after the summer of 1862, however.
From 1853 to 1858 the United States Mints struck an enormous amount of silver coinage, much of it illegally, since the mint law of 1853 had required silver coins to be paid out only in exchange for gold coinage. It was the intention of the Congress that only enough silver coinage go into circulation to serve the needs of commerce. Mint Director James Ross Snowden had thwarted both the intent and the letter of the law by buying silver bullion with silver coin at an arbitrarily high rate on his own authority.
It should be mentioned that, essentially, we are talking about only half dimes, dimes, quarters and half dollars, because the silver dollar, although it too bore the Seated Liberty design, did not circulate in the marketplaces of this country between 1850 and 1878.
The massive amounts of silver coinage in circulation prior to the Civil War provoked irritated responses from merchants whose tills were clogged by the coins. Although the Secretary of the Treasury eventually discovered the fact that Director Snowden had ignored the law, he did little except to order that the law be obeyed.
In order to counteract public criticism of the great amounts of silver coinage in daily use, Director Snowden decided in 1858 to redesign the coinage to make it more acceptable.
Little in the way of new designs was at first prepared, but in 1859 Chief Engraver James B. Longacre and his assistant, Anthony C. Paquet, created a number of well thought out designs on several pattern coins. Despite all of these designs, however, only those for the dime and half dime were actually adopted for the 1860 coinage.
Although the final changes for these two smaller denominations involved only some rearranging of the obverse and reverse designs, Director Snowden did not realize that neither he nor Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb had the right to make these changes.
The 1837 mint law required that the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA appear on the reverse. Anyone examining a dime or half dime struck after 1859 may easily verify whether or not the provisions of the law were carried out. Interestingly enough, the illegal reverse for the dime that was adopted in 1860 was continued in use after 1892 when the Barber design was first struck.
In 1873 two of the Seated Liberty designs were dropped because the denominations themselves were abolished. The half dime was not to be struck after 1873, but the silver dollar was only momentarily halted in 1873 and resumed in 1878. The dollars of 1878 bore a new design by George T. Morgan, however.
There was little public agitation for a change in the Seated Liberty design from 1861 through the mid-1870s. The reason for this is quite simple: dimes, quarters and half dollars did not circulate, except on the West Coast.
Not until after 1872 did the general public (outside of the California region) begin to see silver coins for the first time in many years. The United States government had stopped paying out silver or gold for paper money early in the Civil War, and it was not until the 1870s that paper money reached par with silver coinage so the two could be used side by side.
Beginning in late 1877, American silver coins began to flow back from Central America and Canada, where they had gone during the 1860s. This soon became a flood, and the nation found itself in the same position as it had been in during the late 1850s; there was too much silver coinage in daily use. The result is easy enough to see: very few dimes were struck until 1882, quarters until 1888 and half dollars in 1891.
In late 1876, under the leadership of Mint Director Henry R. Linderman, Mint engravers began once more to prepare patterns for the dime, quarter and half dollar. However, with the emphasis on the Morgan silver dollar in the latter part of 1877, little was then done until 1879.
Both George Morgan and Charles E. Barber (the latter being chief engraver after 1879) produced pattern coins. The former chief engraver, William Barber, had also produced several prior to his death in 1879. Most of the subsidiary silver patterns from 1877 through 1880 were of uninspired designs, probably the reason for their rejection.
The Morgan designs of 1882 (quarter, half and silver dollar) are in a class by themselves, being of exceptional beauty. The reverse eagle of these pieces in particular gives an aura of defiance and independence.
All of the above hesitant attempts to alter the Seated Liberty design were to set the stage for the successful change in 1891. In the spring of 1887 Mint Director James P. Kimball was to set in motion the slow process towards new designs.
On April 9, 1887, Director Kimball issued a circular letter to American artists, inviting them to submit designs for the United States subsidiary silver coinage. Kimball had not consulted the officers of the Philadelphia Mint prior to issuing his circular and the Mint engraving staff in response refused to submit designs for the contest.
Kimball had failed to do his homework. In addition to not consulting the engraving staff, he had not even bothered to read the law with the necessary care. On April 15, 1887, Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Daniel Fox was notified that the circular was a dead letter.
There was an interesting incident in connection with the circular. Just before the circular was issued Director Kimball wrote Superintendent Fox asking that a set of United States coins in copper be struck for his use. The director stated that it was his intention to use these copper specimens as an aid in selecting new designs for the coinage.
Fox squelched this request by pointing out that to do so was illegal under the 1873 Coinage Act. Fox was, of course, correct in this view and was the first Mint official since the law was passed to enforce this particular section. Prior to 1887 the provision had been virtually ignored.
After Kimball had been thwarted both in his design circular and the set of coins in copper, he set out to make certain that no one else obtained any off-metal strikes either. In the Mint Report for 1887 there is a strong statement concerning the past abuses at the Philadelphia Mint, mostly based on dubious second-hand information. He did not, however, mention his own failed attempt to get a set of such pieces.
Later in the same year, Kimball issued very stringent rules concerning patterns. That these new regulations were effective is seen by consulting the Judd pattern books for the special pieces issued before and after that date.
At the same time (in his annual report for 1887) that his strong directive concerning abuses was issued, Director Kimball addressed a lengthy report to Treasury Secretary Charles S. Fairchild concerning the devices and designs on the current coinage. This time Kimball had done his homework properly.
According to Kimball, the director of the Mint, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, did have the power to make alterations in the design of the coinage. Congress could, of course, override this power and design the coinage. (The same method of selection is in effect today except that, by a law passed in 1890, the designs cannot be changed oftener than 25 years unless so directed by Congress.)
In his report to the Treasury, Kimball went on to state that “my official attention has been called by numerous citizens to the inartistic quality of the designs upon several of our current coins.” He requested that steps be taken to correct the situation. Despite Kimball’s arguments, Secretary Fairchild was not interested. Kimball left office in October 1889 and it fell to his successor to carry on the struggle.
Part of this drive for a change came from within the Mint itself. From 1869 to 1879, the chief engraver of the Mint had been William Barber; he was to be succeeded by his son Charles. There was only one coin in current use in 1887 that had been designed by either of them, and that was the Liberty Head nickel of 1883.
Charles E. Barber had suffered the embarrassment of having to redesign the reverse of his nickel in 1883 when there had been a hue and cry over a few “sharpers” gold-plating the coins and passing them to the unsuspecting for $5 gold coins. (The word CENTS did not appear on the first version.) There had actually been very little of this wrongdoing, but public outcry had caused the change.
On the other hand, George T. Morgan had designed the well-known silver dollar of 1878. He had arrived at Philadelphia in 1876, fresh from England, and was greatly resented by Charles and William Barber. His victory in the design competition for the 1878 silver dollar did not endear him to the losers.
Although Director Kimball had failed in his efforts to achieve design changes for the silver coinage, the lesson was not lost on Charles Barber, who became chief engraver in 1880 following the death of his father William in late 1879. In mid–September 1890 Barber wrote the Mint director, Edward O. Leech, suggesting new designs for United States coins.
Director Leech replied on Sept. 25 that nothing could be done until the spring of 1891. This delay was due to certain important reports he had to finish. On April 4, 1891, Leech duly issued a circular to the artists of the United States, inviting them to submit designs for changes on the dime, quarter, half dollar and silver dollar.
The Mint engraving staff again refused to submit designs for the competition set up by the circular. In fact, it was a miracle that anybody participated because of errors made by Leech in the competition rules.
In the first place, Leech had set a time limit of June 1, 1891, less than two months after the date of the circular. In addition, each artist had to submit a design in plaster for each side of the silver dollar. Separate designs were then required for each obverse of the dime, quarter and half dollar. Apparently he intended a different obverse for each silver coin, but a reverse common to all of them. The circular promised a $500 award to each design that was accepted.
There were in fact several entries but all were rejected in early June 1891 by a committee composed of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Henry Mitchell and Charles E. Barber. Even Mint Director Leech and Treasury Secretary Charles Foster agreed that the submissions were no improvement over the current designs.
The committee did suggest that “the services of one or more artists distinguished for their design work in designing for relief be engaged at a suitable compensation to prepare for the consideration of the Department new designs for the coins of the United States.” Leech agreed.
On June 11, 1891, Director Leech wrote Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Oliver C. Bosbyshell to suggest that the Mint engraving staff prepare designs for the subsidiary silver coinage but not the dollar.
Leech not only gave instructions for sketches to be prepared by the engravers, but he also spelled out precisely what he wanted in the way of designs. In particular, he ordered a Liberty head based directly on the one appearing on the then current French silver coins.
The director also ordered that the reverse of the quarter and half dollar bear the Great Seal of the United States. He felt that the reverse of the present dime was admirable and ought to be retained, thus perpetuating the illegal reverse first used in 1860.
Superintendent Bosbyshell, after consultation with the engraving staff (Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber and his assistants, George T. Morgan and William H. Key) wrote Leech on June 13, 1891, that the director should visit Philadelphia for a personal consultation.
Bosbyshell also suggested that the whole affair be kept secret, as the New York artists had already had their chance in the recent public competition. The superintendent did think it a reasonable idea, however, to suggest quietly to certain artists in New York (Augustus Saint-Gaudens, for example) that they might also, under a seal of secrecy, submit designs. Leech did not accept the latter idea, however, and the general secrecy did not last all that long.
Director Leech soon visited the Mint and examined designs prepared by Barber, Morgan and Key. About a month later, shortly after July 23, Leech again visited the Mint and examined the latest sketches.
The exact sequence of events for the summer of 1891 is sometimes in doubt, but it is probable that Leech, in his conference at the Mint of about July 25, 1891, gave Charles Barber the go-ahead to design the new silver subsidiary coinage for 1892. On July 31 Leech wrote a correspondent that Barber had been chosen to prepare the designs.
Leech wrote the art critic for Century Magazine, R.W. Gilder, on Aug. 8 and indicated that Barber had already prepared a plaster model (or models) of his sketches. It may well be that the standing figure of Liberty and the eagle (the obverse of Judd 1766) was one of these models. If so, Barber was not observing the instructions of June 11, because Leech had specifically ordered a profile head of Liberty based on the French model.
The sketch (and model) of Liberty and the eagle varied from Leech’s instructions in another way. It is not only not based on the French Liberty head, but seems to have been inspired by the famous 1839 Una and the Lion £5 gold pattern for Queen Victoria. Barber was perhaps showing his preference for the English designs over the French.
The reverse of Judd 1766 was probably prepared by Barber in June and July of 1891. It is the only one of his 1891 reverses to have rays in the design. That this pattern was struck at all was probably due more to Barber than anyone else.