Monthly Supplement: CHARLES BARBER'S INFLUENCE ON THE CLASSIC COMMEMORATIVE SERIES

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.

Monthly Supplement: CHARLES BARBER'S INFLUENCE ON THE CLASSIC COMMEMORATIVE SERIES

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 ei