The Influence of Charles Barber on American Coinage
Beginning in 1892, America’s silver dimes, quarter dollars and half dollars were designed by US Mint engraver Charles Barber. This motif was continued until 1915 for the half dollar and 1916 for the quarter and dime; it was considered a “safe” design but not terribly inspiring. Ironically it was introduced to replace a design that became “long in the tooth,” but eventually the Barber motifs developed the same reputation.
First unveiled in 1838, Christian Gobrecht’s seated liberty design was used continuously on silver coinage until 1891. It was an attractive, easy to produce and popular design—but after over half a century it was time for a change. Mint Director Frank Leech, having been authorized by Congress to redesign coinage series, decided to revamp the silver denominations.
Leech held an open competition for the dime, quarter and half dollar—but he was quite disappointed with the entries. He was quoted as saying that perhaps two out of three hundred entries were even remotely acceptable. Apparently the terms of the competition were not accepted (or enticing enough) to most artists, and thus very few qualified sculptors submitted entries.
With few (if any) satisfactory competition entries, Leech turned to his in-house staff. Chief US Mint Engraver Charles Barber was tasked with redesigning the silver denominations. While Barber was a competent artist, his designs were not regarded as particularly inventive or creative. Barber’s proposed motif featured an uncontroversial female figure of Liberty on the obverse and an outstretched eagle on the reverse. The design was pleasant but safe. Furthermore, it was not a technically challenging design to execute; it was easy to strike and mass-produce.
After 20+ years in service, the general public decided the fractional silver denominations were in need of a refresh. Another competition was held for the redesigns, but this time a sufficient incentive was provided for outside artists to enter. This competition of 1915 led to the famous Mercury dime, Walking Liberty half dollar and Standing Liberty quarter—and the end of the Barber designs in 1916.
Despite the somewhat bland design, Barber coinage is extremely popular among collectors. All three series (dime, quarter and half dollar) are easy to collect by date with none of the dates being prohibitively expensive. In Uncirculated form, Barber coins tend to have excellent eye appeal with strong luster and sharp strikes. Dimes and quarters, in particular, are known to have outstanding flash. Barber coinage is also quite available in proof format, with well-preserved examples having survived in relatively large quantities.