(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part presentation on the history of Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars that were introduced to circulation in 1892. Read the first part here.)
From Aug. 8 to Sept. 12, 1891, there is no record of events for the new designs. On that latter date, Superintendent Oliver C. Bosbyshell sent Edward O. Leech the plaster models that had just been finished by Barber from designs approved about a month before. Bosbyshell stated that he agreed with Barber’s cover letter in which the engraver thought that he had made the reverse wreath too large, and that it ought to be reduced in size. The superintendent felt that these models ought to be put on the reducing machine and half dollar dies prepared from them.
Just which Judd pattern (or patterns) was discussed in the Sept. 12 letter is not quite clear, but it may be that the reverse submitted at that time is the one used for Judd 1766. There is no discussion of the obverse, but it is certain that by this time Barber’s Liberty head, resembling the French model, had been prepared.
(The references to Judd numbers are to the standard reference by Dr. J. Hewitt Judd, United States Pattern, Experimental, and Trial Pieces.)
The next we hear of the affair comes on Oct. 1 when Leech was replying to the letter of Sept. 12 and the models sent at that time. He had several criticisms of the reverse design and noted that the figure of the eagle did not correspond with the Great Seal die then used by the State Department. In particular, he did not approve of the scroll, which contained the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM, passing over the eagle’s neck.
Leech also criticized the arrangement of the olive branch, writing that he did not believe that it ought to contain 13 leaves, but rather only nine in clumps of three leaves each. Leech then ordered Superintendent Bosbyshell to confer with Barber on a complete revision of the reverse design.
On Oct. 2 Barber answered Leech’s criticisms by noting that “I am quite ready and 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 engraver went on to explain his use of the Great Seal design. He indicated that he had used the original 1782 arrangement, not the modern version. Moreover, the 13 leaves had been used to correspond with the 13 arrows in the other talon.
In a covering letter Superintendent Bosbyshell unwisely seconded Barber’s complaints. He noted that “I join with Mr. Barber in urging that a limit be reached in criticism.” Leech had also raised the question of whether a five- or six-pointed star was the best for the obverse; Bosbyshell had no preference for either though it is known that Barber preferred the former.
When the letters from Bosbyshell and Barber were received in Washington, there was a sharp response from the director. In a letter of Oct. 5, Leech laid it on the line for his subordinate officials:
“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 judgment 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.”
Leech went on to state that no suggestions that he made would ever be lightly laid aside by someone at the Philadelphia Mint. The director had made his point rather well and further instructions were carried out to the letter.
In his reply of Oct. 6, however, Barber did make some specific points in his defense with respect to certain of the design elements. There were no more suggestions about the criticisms coming to an end, however. He noted that the ribbon for the motto had passed over the neck of the eagle on the dollars of 1798 through 1803, and Barber felt that this was a good precedent. He also defended the use of a five-pointed star on the grounds that it would look better when reduced to coin size.
On Oct. 10, Barber wrote the director that he would rearrange the reverse to omit the wreath and would put nine leaves on the olive branch instead of 13. He also promised to prepare a model showing the ribbon passing behind the neck of the eagle.
Barber finished his two promised models on Oct. 15 and they were duly submitted. The first had a scroll which passed over the eagle’s neck and had 13 leaves in the olive branch and 13 arrows in the other talon. The second plaster model had the scroll passing behind the neck, but only nine leaves and nine arrows. Neither model had a wreath around the eagle.
The models were received in Washington on Oct. 16 and were carefully studied by Mint Director Leech and Treasury Secretary Charles Foster. Leech wrote that he and the secretary were in agreement about the ribbon being best behind the neck, but could not agree about the number of arrows and leaves.
To help out, Director Leech visited the National Botanical Gardens in Washington and obtained an olive branch. After examining it closely, and finding that the leaves normally came in pairs, he sent it on to Barber.
On October 17 Barber wrote Bosbyshell that the appropriate half dollar pattern dies were then being prepared and specimens would soon be struck and forwarded to Leech. The work was done by Oct. 23 and on that date the first 1891 pattern half dollars were struck. Three patterns, all different, were then sent to Washington.
The patterns were partially described in a covering letter. The first had the Liberty head on the obverse and no wreath on the reverse. On the obverse were the five-pointed stars, while the reverse ribbon passed behind the eagle’s neck. This pattern is not listed in Judd, although the obverse seems to be the same as Judd 1765, while the reverse appears to be Judd 1762.
Described as being similar to the first, the second pattern obverse has six-pointed stars instead of five. This may be Judd 1762.
The only description available for the third pattern is that the reverse is the same as the Great Seal. This may mean Judd 1766, at least for the reverse, since the Great Seal has rays extending into the clouds. However, Barber’s covering letter of Oct. 23 indicated that the rays had been left off the patterns, which would seem to mean Judd 1765. The descriptions are not detailed enough to be certain which pattern is which.
Leech received the three half dollars on Oct. 24. He notified Bosbyshell that the obverse with the six-pointed star had been officially chosen because he considered it the “richer” of the two. He further ordered that the necessary hub be made and the working dies produced for the coinage to commence at the beginning of January 1892. There was still no official decision about the final form of the reverse, however.
Barber managed to complicate matters by requesting on Oct. 28 that funds be made available for paying overtime to the engravers in his department. This overtime, according to Barber, was necessary because the staff would have to work extra hours to prepare the working dies for the coming year. It was all due to the difficulty over the new designs. In a subtle way, Barber was getting back at Leech for the criticisms.
On Nov. 4 Bosbyshell forwarded four more pattern half dollars to Director Leech. Two of these were duplicated, there being only two different kinds. They did have a common obverse with the six-pointed stars, however.
The first of these patterns had clouds on the reverse, according to a covering letter. This is almost certainly Judd 1762, in which the ribbon goes behind the neck of the eagle. The other pattern is described as having no clouds above the stars; this appears to be Judd 1763.
Both of the additional patterns were submitted, along with the others on hand, to President Benjamin Harrison for discussion at a Cabinet meeting. Those present chose the pattern without the clouds on the reverse (Judd 1763). Leech noted that, while the clouds on the newest pattern were an improvement over previous efforts, the clouds still resembled “fifty other things” as much as they did clouds. The decision to choose Judd 1763 as the final choice was made on Nov. 5.
In sending Barber the decision of the President and his Cabinet, Leech noted that slight changes were desired. In particular, the engraver was asked, if there was sufficient time, to improve the boldness of the legends E PLURIBUS UNUM on the scroll and LIBERTY on the headband.
Once these instructions were received at Philadelphia, the engraving staff began preparing the working dies for the branch mints of San Francisco and New Orleans as well as for the parent mint. None was prepared for Carson City, which was to close its doors in 1893.
Shortly after the Nov. 5 decision, the information had been released by Leech to certain reporters so that the public could become acquainted with the new designs. There was apparently some unpleasantness connected with an article that appeared in Harper’s, because Leech wrote Barber on Nov. 25 that he regretted Barber’s irritation. Leech considered the matter as a joke in poor taste.
In his letter, Leech went on to say that he personally enjoyed reading “mean things” about himself. The director did note, in response to this kind of criticism, that Barber ought to soften the lines around the mouth of Liberty and also to introduce some softening of the neck by increasing the curve. As with the previous suggestions, these corrections were to be made only if easily done. Leech also noted that the New York Times had just published favorable comments on the new designs.
On Dec. 11 Superintendent Bosbyshell requested Leech to delay the introduction of the new Barber designs until the dies had been tested. Bosbyshell stated that this was necessary because only a practical test would tell if the dies had been properly prepared. On Dec. 14 this request was denied by Leech, who ordered the dies prepared forthwith.
Judd 1760-1761 are a dime and quarter dollar of an 1891 Barber design. The quarter dollar’s reverse is of such an early stage of the design that it is likely to have been struck well prior to the first of November.
Bosbyshell reported to Director Leech on Dec. 18 that all pattern dies and extra pattern coins had been destroyed. Due to the past abuses, it was difficult for Bosbyshell to even obtain permission for the Mint cabinet to receive specimens.
The striking of the Barber coinage began at the Philadelphia Mint at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 2, 1892. According to the superintendent the dies for the three denominations had been in use all day and there had been no problems. In 1877 it had been several months before the troubles with the new double eagle dies had been ironed out. The difficulties with the Morgan silver dollar in 1878 are also well known.
The sense of euphoria did not last very long. Complaints were in fact received in the first few weeks after coinage commenced. It seemed that the new quarter dollars would not stack evenly because the head extended above the protecting border rim. The same complaint was also made against the new half dollar.
Charles Barber carefully examined the quarter dollar dies and decided, for once, that the criticism was valid and ought to be corrected. The chief engraver increased the width of the border, which protects the surface of a coin, and slightly decreased the radius circle which contained the words IN GOD WE TRUST. The stars were also moved closer to the center of the coin. Barber later stated that no precise record of new and old dies had been kept in 1892.
(The reverse hub also was altered at the same time, although Barber did not mention this fact. These new reverse dies may be easily distinguished by noting that, on the first type, the eagle’s wing covers only about half of the letter E in UNITED. On the revised variety, most of E is covered.)
One of the more famous Barber coins is the dime struck at San Francisco in 1894. According to official records, only 24 pieces were made, a fact confirmed by documents in the National Archives. The San Francisco coiner prepared, as was normal procedure at that time, a document showing the number of pieces obtained from each working die used in the Mint during the calendar year 1894. The dies not used were also indicated. This was easily done, since all dies were numbered on the edge.
Each year the branch mints returned all dies to the engraving department of the Philadelphia Mint. Each die was then examined for future use. Dated dies were usually defaced at the branch mint and only the reverses were considered for re-use. If serviceable the die was given a new number and shipped out.
In 1894 the coiner at San Francisco certified that one obverse and one reverse had been used to strike the 24 dimes. The obverses were all defaced, and nine of the reverses were laid aside at Philadelphia for re-use at San Francisco.
Due to difficulties in bringing up the design on the quarter dollars struck from 1892 to 1900, Chief Engraver Barber prepared a third obverse hub for this denomination in 1900. In this case the San Francisco coiner complained about the new dies. It seemed that a much thinner coin was produced, and in piling the coins, it was discovered that 21 of the new coins equaled a stack of 20 from the old dies. The California authorities requested permission to use the old dies, but Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Henry Boyer quashed this by pointing out that all mints ought to use the same dies.
Charles E. Barber died in 1917 and was replaced as chief engraver by George T. Morgan. Before Barber’s death, however, all of his motifs had been replaced. The dimes, quarters and half dollars of the 1892 artwork were last struck in 1916, leaving only the numismatic world to appreciate what once was the standard design for subsidiary silver coins.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.