The Barber coin designs of 1892 represented a new era for United States coinage, which had featured the iconic Liberty Seated motif of Christian Gobrecht since as early as 1836. Unlike circulating coin designs today, each dedicated to its own denomination, the Liberty Seated visage was seen on most circulating silver coinage of the period, including the half dime, dime, quarter, half dollar, and dollar; the short-lived Twenty Cent Piece of 1875-1878 bears a Liberty Seated design as rendered by William Barber.
While the Liberty Seated design was a mainstay on United States coinage for generations, calls for new designs emerged by the late 1880s. Further thrusting the move toward design changes was the recently authorized Mint Act of September 26, 1890, mandating that coin designs could be changed after being in use for 25 years. This meant that the dime, quarter, and half dollar were eligible for new designs. So, by late 1890, United States Mint officials decided to launch a design competition among 10 of the best-known artists of the time to submit designs for United States coinage.
The 10 designers invited to participate included Herbert Adams, Kenyon Cox, Daniel French, Olin Warner Herbert, Will S. Low, Miller MacMonies, H.S. Mowbray, Charles S. Niehaus, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and J.Q.A. Ward – all of whom were well respected in their artistic and engraving disciplines. Faced with a set of rules and regulations that they felt stifled creativity and promised too little reward for too much effort, the 10 artists uniformly agreed that terms of the competition were unfair.
Among their concerns, they felt the compensation for the winning designs was too little (though the exact amount offered is unclear), the legal terms concerning the coinage were too strict, the time to submit the designs too short, and the fact that the nine non-winning entrants would receive no compensation for their entries required too much work for essentially no tangible benefit. Neither the Treasury Department nor the U.S. Mint acceded to the requests of the artists.
Therefore, United States Mint officials opened the competition to the public. Some 300 submissions were received. However, the panel of three judges consisting of famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Boston artist and engraver Henry Mitchell, and United Stated Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber deemed only two submissions were worth “even an honorable mention.” Mint Director Edward O. Leech determined the contest was “too wretched a failure.”
Leech, who directed Barber to create the new designs himself, told a reporter from the Boston Transcript that, “I do not see any prospect of getting designs elsewhere in this country. We might get them in France. The French coin work is of the most artistic description. But the people of the United States would never forgive us if we went outside this country for our designs.”
Barber’s Miss Liberty figure for the obverse design borrowed many cues from the then-contemporary Morgan Dollar, with the new Liberty Head design on the dime, quarter, and half dollar a reversed, right-facing portrait with the appearance of shorter hair. Upon Liberty’s head is a European-inspired Phrygian cap, signifying freedom. The obverse design overall exudes a classical European feel, and Barber specifically drew heavy inspiration from the artistry of various French Franc coins of the era.
While the dime, quarter, and half dollar all share a common obverse figure of Miss Liberty, there are several notable differences between the dime and the larger coinage. The smallest of these, the dime, carries the inscription “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” around the obverse portrait and the coin’s date is seen below the bust, whereas on the quarter and half dollar 13 stars encircle the head, with the national motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” above and the date below.
The reverse designs of the three silver denominations are also different, with the dime featuring a wreath bearing many similarities to the one last seen on the Liberty Seated Dime. The quarter and half dollar carry a heraldic eagle clutching in its beak a ribbon with the inscription “E PLURIBUS UNUM”; arrows are grasped in the eagle’s left claw while in its right is an olive branch, with 13 stars floating above the patriotic bird.
Officially named “Liberty Head” coins, the dime, quarter, and half dollar types debuting in 1892 have all been dubbed “Barber” coins for their titular designer. History shows this did not necessarily bring much adulation for the eponymous engraver, whose designs for the “Barber” coins were released to the public on November 10, 1891 and received largely lukewarm reception from the public.
The Numismatist Editor George Heath said “the mechanical work is all that could be desired, and it is probable that owing to the conventional rut in which our mint authorities seem obliged to keep, this is the best that could be done.” Other reviews were far more scathing, including trenchant comments by Saint-Gaudens, who asserted “there are hundreds of artists in this country, any of whom, with the aid of a designer, could have made a very respectable coin, which this is not.”
Ultimately, the Barber designs would survive barely as long as the requisite quarter-century as mandated by the Mint Act of September 26, 1890. In 1916, new designs of critical acclaim would replace the Barber Dime, Barber Quarter, and Barber Half Dollar. Over their 25 years of production, Barber’s Liberty Head silver coinage offered collectors relatively little in the way of true rarities.
The rarest circulation-strike Barber Dime is the 1895-O, a $1,150 coin in F12 that is joined by a small chorus of semi-key dates that run in the $100 to $200 range in similar grades. The rarest Barber Dime is the 1894-S Proof, a true trophy coin that trades hands for more than $1 million when it makes its heralded appearances on the auction circuit.
The Barber Quarter offers three significant rarities, including the 1896-S, 1901-S, and 1913-S. These three coins fetch four- and five-figure prices in the grade of F12, with the 1896-S trading for $2,150, the 1901-S commanding $14,000, and the 1913-S taking $5,250.
The Barber Half Dollar series yields the rare 1892-O Micro O, a variety that proves extraordinarily rare. Just two have been graded by PCGS in F12, and even in that well-circulated grade fewer than two dozen have been certified in finer grades; in F12 the 1892-O Micro O Barber Half Dollar has a value of $10,500, according to PCGS CoinFacts.
Collectors assembling PCGS Registry Sets of Barber coinage will find many challenges along their paths, even far beyond the journey of acquiring the scarce key- and semi-key dates. All Barber coinage saw heavy usage in circulation, and subsequently all dates are conditionally scarce in uncirculated grades, particularly the case with the Barber Quarters and especially the Barber Half Dollars. In fact, many collectors will be hard pressed to assemble a complete set of Barber Half Dollars in a grade of G6 with complete rims. Proofs of all three Barber types are uniformly scarce, yet they are available for a price.
- Breen, Walter. Complete Encyclopedia of US and Colonial Coins. Doubleday, 1988.
- Lange, David W. History of the United States Mint and its Coinage. Whitman Publishing, 2006.
- Moran, Michael F. Striking Change: The Great Artistic Collaboration of Theodore Roosevelt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Whitman Publishing, 2008.
- Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing, 1966.