by DAN DUNCAN, Guest Contributor
Charles Edward Barber was the sixth Chief Engraver of the United States Mint from 1879 until his death in 1917. The works of his career weren’t fully appreciated until after his death. During his lifetime his coinage was considered pedestrian in contemporary artistic circles, but in fairness, most of his work was predesignated to specific mandates out of his control. Today, we see that Barber’s use of classic Greco-Roman motifs has proven timeless and, when given an educated review, students of his work see that Barber best illustrated his artistic abilities through the classic commemorative series, whose humble beginnings started with the Engraver himself.
Born in London on November 16, 1840, Charles moved to the United States in 1852. His father, William Barber, worked at the Royal Mint prior to their move and began working for the U.S. Mint in 1865. By 1869 he secured the position of Chief Engraver. Early in his tenure he brought on young Charles as an assistant despite his lack of qualifications. Mint Director Henry R. Linderman did not think highly of the elder Barber and brought in his own protégé George T. Morgan to work as a “special” engraver. In 1878, under the direction of then Superintendent Linderman, Morgan was tasked with the redesign of the silver dollar, passing over Charles Barber; an indiscretion that Barber wouldn’t allow again until Theodore Roosevelt launched his pet crime after the turn of the century.
Linderman died in January of 1879 and was succeeded by Horatio Burchard. In August of the same year William Barber also passed away and Burchard named the younger Barber Chief Engraver and Morgan as Assistant Engraver. Charles Barber was soon instructed to redesign the minor coinages but only his 5-cent design was accepted. To achieve some uniformity, Barber based his rendition of Lady Liberty on the design by James Longacre. The so-called Liberty Nickel would become one of the United States’ most widely circulating coins of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Around this time, the nation began to tire of the Seated motifs of its silver coinages, and Congress passed a bill in 1890 authorizing the Treasury to make design changes to the dime, quarter and half dollar. A contest was held which Barber judged with famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and commercial engraver Henry Mitchell. The trio failed to choose any of the applicants, and the choice fell to Mint Director Edward O. Leech, who then asked Barber to prepare designs – a choice which displeased Saint-Gaudens.
Barber looked to Greek influence and produced the three designs that now popularly bear his name. He was criticized at the time for his lack of artistry and imagination, but he was restricted by Leech who desired something similar to the then-circulating European coinage. Barber achieved this goal, and in a relief crucial for quality mass production. The new designs begin circulating in 1892 and remained unchanged (by force of law) for 25 years.
Soon after, Barber and Morgan began work on souvenir coins for the coming World’s Fair. As attention to the fair grew, the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival was authorized on August 5, 1892, as the subject of the nation’s first commemorative coinage. The obverse bust and reverse globes were prepared in plaster by Olin Levi Warner and engraved by Barber and Morgan. The bust design was based on Warner’s work on the Brooklyn Historical Society Building (1881). The final image is loosely based on a portrait done in 1838 by Charles Legrand, produced as a medal by Spain in 1892. (While Barber often gets credit for the design for both the half and the quarter his work was actually based on the smaller design was taken from drawings done by Kenyon Cox.) Interestingly, the use of Queen Isabella also met with some discord and neither of the coins sold well during the event. Commemorative coins would not issued again for eight years.
Another World’s Fair – the Exposition Universelle in Paris, France – aroused interest for a second commemorative issue. The denomination was increased to a dollar and it was determined that the coin would feature French General, Lafayette, to commemorate his involvement in the American revolutionary war effort. The busts of Lafayette and Washington would appear on the obverse, with Lafayette’s statue on the reverse. Barber took this project on and based his portraits from existing, independent medals of Washington and Lafayette. The final coin holds an uncanny resemblance to the 1881 Centennial Medal for the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia. (It is commonly accepted today that Barber must have exclusively referenced this single medal.) The reverse design is a depiction of the statue of Lafayette given to France at the fair.
In a break from the norm, the Mint produced the “Lafayette Dollar” coins in a single day in 1899 – despite the engraved date of 1900 – completed in no less than two presses. Sales at the fair were disappointing and many of the coins were thus returned to the U.S. and subsequently melted much later in 1945.
The first coin struck was given to then President McKinley, who had it encased and presented to then French President Loubet. Ironically, McKinley would find himself, literally, in the center of the next issue in the series. He was assassinated in 1901 and commemorated on the $1 gold coin in 1903.
By this time commemorative coins were beginning to take hold with the American public and the St. Louis World’s Fair afforded Barber yet another opportunity to display his craft. The Fair commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. The idea behind a commemorative coin was promoted by numismatic insider and prominent businessman Farran Zerbe. Congress approved two gold dollar commemoratives for the 1903 Exposition: one to bear the likeness of Thomas Jefferson and McKinley, whose death was still fresh on the public’s conscious. Barber again borrowed on older medals to create the two designs. The bust of Jefferson was taken from the medal by John Reich (1802). McKinley’s bust is a copy of Barber’s own inaugural medal created in 1901. His portraits are excellent renditions for a tiny planchet and the concept of commemorative coinage was now really beginning to heat up in the numismatic community.
The following year another commemorative was approved by Congress in conjunction with the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition to be held in Portland, Oregon. Morgan completed the reverses for all the commems except the Isabella, but this time his work wasn’t needed. Barber fashioned a two headed example with Lewis on one side and Clark on the other based on designs taken from portraits of the great explorers by Charles Wilson Peale.
By now, the American rare coin renaissance was beginning. President Roosevelt insisted on changing all the coinages and did so without the usual Congressional approval and all of Barber’s suggested designs were summarily rejected. Over the next decade Barber found himself forced to work with artists to replace what surely he considered his life’s work. He butted heads with some of the nation’s top sculptors, including Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Victor David Brenner. Ultimately was able to influence their final designs.
In the process of creating new coinage, artists want a creative representation and the engraver needs a working die. Saint-Gaudens’ designs were eventually changed from a wonderful “high relief” design in 1907, lowered to a more practical low-relief design. Brenner, brought in to design a new penny, also challenged Barber. The two rehashed many of the obstacles Barber and Saint-Gaudens had debated for decades. With some alterations, the 1909 Lincoln Cent was introduced. Barber would soften his stance a bit and eventually oversaw Frazier’s Buffalo nickel (1913), Herman MacNeil’s Standing Liberty quarter (1916), and Henry Weinman’s Winged-Liberty dime and Walking Liberty half dollar (1916). All of these coins feature higher relief central images, and all suffer from striking issues.
Barber’s final opportunity at a half dollar design was the commemorative coinage created for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Barber submitted designs for all four approved coins but his designs were rejected by the Commission for the Fine Arts and suggestions for other potential artists were made. Amid some complaints and wrangling, Barber’s designs were eventually chosen for the half and events departed slightly from his usual Greco-Roman style. For this design he again drew on previous work for inspiration, this time from his own (with Morgan) Atlantic Fleet Medal (1907). It is this coin that proves to be Barber’s best work. His Panama Pacific half is one of American numismatic’s most beautiful coins and, arguably, his crowning achievement. In this single issue, he was able to rectify so much that he struggled with between sculptors designing coins and his job as engraver. He used time tested motifs, and nods to his Greco-Roman tendencies with the use of Columbia (an Athena for the Americas). The small child juxtaposed in the background represents the future (homage to Aphrodite and Eros) while the use of the allegorical figure for Liberty was a common theme, with the French using a similar Marianne sowing seeds on their contemporary coinage. His central figures are of higher relief than his usual engravings and placed off center to alleviate metal flow shortages. The resulting work has been praised by collectors for its beauty, both then and now. His other work for the Fair was the $2.50 quarter eagle, which was also an artistic departure for him. Working on a small planchet he again cleverly alluded to Greek coinage by placing Columbia on the back of a Hippocampus. This design is lost on the smaller canvas, but when examined carefully proves another blend of workable dies and artistic beauty.
Barber’s work continued at the Mint until his passing. The fiasco created during the design of the Pan-Pac coinage swung the balance of power away from the Commission of Fine Arts and back to the Mint. With the authorization of a McKinley Memorial gold dollar (originally silver) to be sold with funds going to defray costs of building a memorial site, Barber was called upon to design one last coin for this purpose. Barber’s designs were similar to his early McKinley dollar but he worked to make the portrait different from the earlier piece. Morgan again created the reverse. These designs were submitted to the Commission, but the coins were produced and sold without following their suggested revisions. Only a fraction of the original approved 100,000 were minted, and only a fraction of those were actually sold, with the remaining coins summarily melted.
Charles Barber died in 1917, bringing to an end an illustrious and prolific career. His tenure with the Mint was marked with both criticisms and successes, yet remains one of the most colorful in the Mint’s history. While Barber’s work is often defined by his circulating coinages, the balance of his work proves him a more competent engraver. His body of work also includes numerous patterns, classic commemoratives, a wide range of medals, and coins for foreign nations. When finally given the opportunity, free from specific constraints, Barber truly created one of numismatics’ most beautiful half dollars, a coin that remains one of the most sought after, and a key to the classic commemorative series.