Barber Coins: Were They Really ‘Beneath Contempt’?

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

When an 1891 contest to determine new designs for the dime, quarter and half-dollar went bust, it played right into Charles Barber’s hands. The Chief Engraver for the U.S. Mint had wanted to design the coins himself, and when the contest failed to yield any worthy designs, he got his wish.

Unfortunately for Barber, his victory would prove to be Pyrrhic. Be careful what you wish for.

From 1836 to 1891, the Mint utilized Christian Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty design for its silver coins. To say these coins were much maligned by collectors and critics would be a massive understatement.

Why is it we have the ugliest money of all civilized nations? The design is poor, commonplace, tasteless, characterless, and the execution is like thereunto. They have rather the appearance of tokens or mean medals. One reason for this is that the design is so inartistic, and so insignificant. That young woman sitting on nothing in particular, wearing nothing to speak of, looking over her shoulder at nothing imaginable, and bearing in her left hand something that looks like a broomstick with a woolen nightcap on it—what is she doing there?

American Journal of Numismatics, Vol. X, July 1875-July 1876

By the 1880s, the Mint had decided to redesign its non-gold coinage. In 1883, the Mint released the Barber-designed Liberty Head Nickel to replace the aesthetically displeasing Shield Nickel. When the Mint tried to replace other designs, however, there was a question about whether they had the statutory authority to do so. Those concerns were addressed by the Act of September 26, 1890, which established that the Mint is allowed to change a coin’s design without Congressional approval 25 years after it is first issued.

1911-S Barber Half (image via me)

To mark the occasion, Mint director Edward Leech, announced a contest in 1891 to redesign the dime, quarter and half dollar (the Morgan Dollar had been issued in 1878, so it wasn’t due for a redesign, despite its unpopularity). Barber, the chief engraver for the Mint from 1879 to 1917, ran the contest, which was open to the public. Unlike the orderly and successful contest nearly a century later to re-design the quarter, half-dollar and dollar in preparation for the country’s bicentennial, the 1891 iteration was somewhere between a comedy of errors and a series of unfortunate circumstances.

For instance, anyone could enter — but the Mint more or less tipped its hand by specifically inviting 10 of the top artists in the country, including famed coin designer Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It’s kind of like being a novice filmmaker and entering a festival where the judges have specifically requested entries from Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan.

But thanks to a stupid mistake, those famous artists were never going to enter the contest. Under the announced terms, entrants would receive $500 per accepted design with a maximum of five per artist. However, according to Coinworld, the actual figure was supposed to be $5,000, but someone made a typo. Even though $500 was a lot of money back then, it was considered pocket change for the top artists of the day. They ended up passing on the contest entirely, seeing it as beneath them. As such, the Mint received nearly 300 entries from artists of various quality, but a dearth of high quality designs.

Of these 300, only two were thought worth even an honorable mention; Barber made certain that no prize would be awarded. The new Mint Director, Edward O. Leech, called the contest ‘too wretched a failure’ ever to be tried again, and ordered Barber to prepare the designs himself — which is exactly what Barber had wanted all along.

Heritage Auctions, quoting Walter Breen.

Leech wanted coins that resembled the then-current French franc. Barber, however, wasn’t feeling it and came up with an intricate design featuring a standing figure of Columbia on the obverse holding a pileus attached to the top of a liberty pole with an eagle spreading its wings behind her. The reverse bore the Great Seal of the United States surrounded by a lush oak wreath.

Unfortunately for Barber, Leech still had final say, and according to Numismatist News and Coin Week, the director didn’t appreciate his employee’s show of independence. Coin Week reports that the relationship between Leech and Barber broke down following several disagreements, in one instance, Leech thought Columbia’s lips were too “voluptuous.”

Barber then decided to follow instructions and designed an obverse featuring a Liberty Head wearing an olive leaf crown that was similar to the French franc. His proposed reverse on the half dollar and quarter was the Great Seal minus the proposed oak wreath that Leech had also disliked. Under statutory law, the image of an eagle had to be omitted from the dime, so Barber more or less kept the reverse design from the Seated Liberty dime.

1913-D Barber Quarter (image via me)

Leech liked what he saw and approved the designs for use beginning in 1892. While some would offer qualified praise of the new coins (The American Journal of Numismatics said of the coins that “the general effect is pleasing” and “these coins are an advance on what has hitherto been accomplished, but there is yet a long distance between them and the ideal National coin”), the overall consensus was that the Barber coins were ugly and unworthy of being national currency. “It is beneath criticism,” artist Kenyon Cox told Harper’s Weekly. “I think it disgraceful that this great country should have such a coin as this.” Harper’s Weekly added that Cox “was disinclined to say more, for he evidently felt very strongly on the subject and was too full of disgust at the artistic inferiority of the new design to express himself freely and still preserve his amiable politeness.” Saint-Gaudens was no less critical, saying in the same article:

[T]here are a hundred men who could have done very much better than this. This is inept; this looks it had been designed by a young lady of sixteen, a miss who had taken only a few lessons in modeling. It is beneath criticism, beneath contempt… Indeed, I cannot see that it is any improvement in any regard upon the old coins.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens to Harper’s Weekly, November 21, 1891.

It seems unfair to put that all on Barber. After all, his initial design was quite nice and would have made for a fine coin. Plus, he was simply doing what his boss told him to do. If anything, one could argue that these coins should be remembered as “Leech Coins.”

1911 Barber Dime (image via me)

But, since Barber was the guy who actually designed them, he’s the one history remembers. The Barber coins have received some retroactive praise, however these words of belated acclaim have largely focused on the coin’s utilitarian features and less on their design. “Of all American coins long in circulation, no series has stood the wearing demands of modern coinage as well as the half-dollar, quarter, and dime developed by the Chief Engraver at Philadelphia,” Cornelius Vermeule said as quoted in Coin Week. “The wealth of irregular surfaces and sharp angles is an almost electrifying aesthetic experience.”

Indeed, there’s an entire society that was founded in 1989 dedicated to Barber Coins. “Barber coins proved to be workhorses in the economy,” the website states. “The nuances in both the design and engraving allowed them to be used for many years, still being easily identifiable even with extensive wear, unlike some other designs, both prior and afterward. He was a student in coin manufacturing, and understood the entire process of making coins, and sought continuous improvement.”

Because they were so plentiful and have held up well, Barber coins are relatively affordable and easy to find in good condition. The ones I have were all bought at flea markets and on a budget, so it’s definitely possible to amass a decent collection of Barbers without breaking the bank. There are a few rarities, of course. The famous 1894-S dime is worth a fortune as only 24 coins were minted and only 9 are known to have survived. Other key dates include the 1895-O dime (the lowest mintage for the dime, not counting the 1894-S), the 1901-S Quarter and the 1892-O “Micro O” half dollar (an error coin of sorts since the New Orleans mint accidentally struck the coins with the mint mark is used for quarters instead of half dollars).

Despite that, the Barbers made for a convenient target for numismatists and politicians. When Theodore Roosevelt wrote about wanting more beautiful coinage, he did so because he wanted to replace the Barber coins. He finally got his wish when the famed Class of 1916 coins (the Walking Liberty Half Dollar, Standing Liberty Quarter and Mercury Dime) were released to the public. But, as people soon found out, just because they looked great, didn’t mean they were practical or durable.

Maybe that’s the appropriate epitaph for the Barber coins: boring, but practical.