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charles barber mint engraver

Revisiting Charles E. Barber

By Q. David Bowers, Co-Founder

Author: Q. David Bowers / Wednesday, January 20, 2021 / Categories: From the Desk of Q. David Bowers

Charles Edward Barber became the sixth engraver at the Philadelphia Mint in 1880, following the death of his father, Chief Engraver William Barber; he remained in the post until his death on February 18, 1917. The Liberty Head silver denominations he designed and which are known as “Barber coins, were made from 1892 to 1916. Today they are very popular, and the Barber Coin Collectors Club gathers together specialists in the various issues. Perhaps the single most famous of his coins is the 1894-S dime, of which only 24 are said to have been struck.

While Charles Barber is best known today for the “Barber” coins mentioned above, he also designed the 1883 Liberty Head nickel and certain commemorative coins and medals. Among patterns, certain dies of 1879 are sometimes ascribed to his hand, but they are not signed, and at present there is no complete delineation of who did what among the various dies of this year and others through 1880, although the Flowing Hair $4 Stella and the various “Washlady” dies are attributed to him. With some exceptions, it is evident that Charles Barber’s work was second in artistic rank to that of his assistant, George T. Morgan.

Charles Barber was born in London in 1840, and in 1852 came to America with his family. His father gained a position with the Philadelphia Mint and in January 1869, following the death on New Year’s day of James B. Longacre, became chief engraver. In the best Mint tradition of nepotism, Chief Engraver Barber signed Charles as an assistant, although it seems likely that the younger Barber’s talents in this area were modest. In March 1875, Charles Barber married Martha E. Jones and they had one child, a daughter Edith. Martha died in 1898, and on December 3, 1902, widower Barber married Caroline Gaston. 

After his father’s death on August 31, 1879, there was an interregnum in which George T. Morgan was considered for the position of chief engraver. However, the position passed from father to son, and in early 1880 Charles E. Barber was named to the post. During his tenure he designed the 1883 Hawaiian silver coinage and certain coins for Cuba and Venezuela. Among commemorative coin dies he created the obverse of the 1892 Columbian half dollar (from models prepared by Olin Levi Warner), both dies for the 1893 Isabella quarter (from sketches by Kenyon Cox, of “Brownies” cartoon fame), the 1900 Lafayette dollar (numismatic historian Arlie Slabaugh has observed that Barber’s work is virtually certainly a plagiarism of the obverse of the Yorktown Centennial medal of 1881, engraved by Peter L. Krider), and others. The complexity of sorting out who did what with certain dies is illustrated by the obverse for the 1903 Louisiana Purchase Exposition commemorative gold dollar; Charles Barber is given as the author of the die, but George T. Morgan assisted, and the portrait was copied from an early nineteenth century die by Chief Engraver John Reich, who in turn modeled it from a bust by Houdon.

Not even a brief biography of Barber—such as this is—would be complete without mentioning his position as the “enemy” in the “private war” President Theodore Roosevelt waged with the Mint in 1905-1907, when the chief executive sought to have a non-Mint employee, famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, prepare new designs for all American coins from the cent to the $20 gold piece. The president he felt that United States coins -- in particular, Barber’s current designs for the silver coins -- were insipid. The story of Roosevelt’s interest, which has been told at length many times in our catalogs and elsewhere, resulted in the creation of the memorable MCMVII High Relief $20, over Barber’s strong objections. 

Barber’s obituary in The Numismatist, April 1917, noted that “the latest coins designed by the younger Mr. Barber were the Panama-Pacific $2½ gold and the 50-cent silver pieces. Mr. Barber cut the dies for a number of the pattern series, and is said to have possessed a splendid collection of these pieces.”