HomeUS CoinsCharles Barber's Influence on Classic U.S. Commemorative Coins

Charles Barber’s Influence on Classic U.S. Commemorative Coins


By Dan DuncanRetired, Pinnacle Rarities ……

The works of engraver Charles Barber weren’t fully appreciated until after his death. His coinage was considered pedestrian in contemporary artistic circles. But in fairness to Barber, most of his work was predesignated to one idea or another. His use of classic Greco-Roman motifs has proven timeless. And, when given the chance, after a lifetime of learning, Barber illustrates his artistic side through the classic commemorative series: a series that saw its humble beginnings with Barber as Chief Engraver. This series is where Barber after numerous rejections, ultimately showcases his best work.

Born in London on November 16, 1840, Charles moves to the United States in 1852. His father, William Barber, worked at the Royal Mint prior to their move. He began working for the United States Mint in 1865, and by 1869 secured the position of Chief Engraver. Early in his tenure he brought on a 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… something Barber doesn’t allow again until Theodore Roosevelt launches his “pet crime” after the turn of the century.

Linderman dies in January of 1879 and is succeeded by Horatio C. Burchard. In August of the same year William Barber also passes away and Burchard names Charles as Chief Engraver. Morgan becomes the Assistant Engraver. Charles Barber was instructed to redesign the minor coinages. Only his 5c design is accepted. To achieve some uniformity, Barber does his rendition of the Lady Liberty that James Longacre used on his minor coinage. This so-called Liberty Nickel becomes one of the United States most widely circulating coinage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and remained unchanged for over 30 years.

The nation began to tire of the Seated motifs of its silver coinages, and Congress passed a bill in 1890 authorizing the Treasury to change current designs. The Mint began plans to redesign the dime, quarter and half. A contest was held to choose designs. Barber worked with famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and commercial engraver Henry Mitchell as judges. The trio failed to choose any of the applicants, and the choice fell to Mint Director Edward O. Leech. Leech, frustrated by the contest failures, has Barber prepare designs – a choice to which Saint-Gaudens expressed disapproval. Charles Barber looked to Greek influences and produces the three designs that now bare his name. He was criticized for his lack of artistry and imagination, but indeed Barber’s motifs were under the direction of Leech who desired something similar to then-circulating European coinage. The concept was to create designs on par with the other great industrial nations. Barber achieves this, and in a relief crucial for quality mass production. The new designs begin circulating in 1892. And, despite criticisms from the art community, the new laws prohibited the designs from being changed for 25 years.

Soon afterwards, Barber and Morgan began work on souvenir coins for the coming World’s Fair. The attention to the fair grew and the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival proves worthy to be nation’s first commemorative coinage officially authorized August 5, 1892. The obverse bust and reverse globes were prepared in plaster by Olin Levi Warner and engraved by Barber and Morgan. With no verified image of the famed explorer, the bust used is similar to 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. Barber commonly gets credit for the design for both the half and the quarter. His work on the smaller design was taken from drawings done by Kenyon Cox. The use of Queen Isabella met with some discord, and neither of the coins sold well during the event. Commemorative coins were not issued again for eight years.

Another World’s Fair peaks the interest for another commemorative issue. With the approval of a half dollar coin to be distributed at the 1900 World’s Fair – the Exposition Universelle in Paris, France. The denomination was increased to a dollar, and it was determined that the coin would commemorate General Lafayette of France. Whose help in the revolutionary war was instrumental in the success of General George Washington. The decision was eventually made for the coin to depict Lafayette and Washington and a reverse with a depiction of a Lafayette statue being gifted to the French government. Barber takes this project on and claims his portraits are derived from previous medals of Washington and Lafayette independently for his obverse depictions. The final coin holds an uncanny resemblance to the 1881 Centennial Medal for the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia. It remains commonly accepted that Barber must have referenced this medal as well, if not exclusively. The reverse design is a depiction of the statue of Lafayette given to France at the fair. It was engraved from mock ups of the actual statue. The coin designs were complete prior to the final approval of the statue and some differences are present. In a break from the norm, the Mint produced the coins in a single day during 1899, despite the date of 1900. The entire production was done on no less than two presses. Distribution at the fair was minimal with many of the coins returning to the U.S. and subsequently melted – in 1945. The first coin struck was given to then President McKinley, who had it encased and had it presented to then French President Loubet.

McKinley would soon be at the center of the next commemorative issue; he is assassinated in 1901 and succeeded by his Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt.

The commemorative coins were beginning to take hold. And the St. Louis World’s Fair afforded Barber another opportunity to display his craft. The fair was set to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the purchase of the large land tract from France known as the Louisiana Purchase. The idea behind a commemorating coin was promoted by numismatic insider and prominent business man Farran Zerbe. Congress approves two gold dollar commemoratives for the 1903 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. One to bear the likeness of Thomas Jefferson, president at the time of the purchase, and a memorial commemorative for William McKinley whose death was still fresh on the public’s conscious. Barber again borrowed on older medals to create the two designs. One, the bust of Jefferson, was taken from the medal by John Reich (1802). The other, McKinley, is a copy of his own inaugural medal created in 1901 for McKinley’s second inauguration. His portraits are excellent renditions for a tiny planchet. The concept of commemorative coinage was beginning to heat up and the numismatic community was warming to the idea.

The following year another commemorative was approved by Congress. This time in conjunction with the Lewis and Clark Exposition to be held in Portland, Oregon scheduled for 1905. Morgan had done the reverses for all the commemoratives 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. The designs were taken from portraits of the great explorers by Charles Wilson Peale.

By this time, the rare coin renaissance is beginning. Roosevelt insisted on changing all the coinages and did so without so much approval. Barber suggested designs were all rejected. Over the next decade Barber is forced to work with artists to replace what surely he considered his life’s work. He does so going up against some of the nation’s top sculptors and ultimately enforces his influence. The artists wanted a creative representation and the engraver needed a working die. Saint-Gaudens’ designs are eventually changed lowering the relief of the famed Saint-Gaudens high relief design. Victor David Brenner (brought on to design the cent) also butted heads with Barber. The two rehashed many of the obstacles Barber and Saint-Gaudens had argued about for decades now. With some alterations 1909 Lincoln Cent was introduced. Barber softened a bit and the Fraziers’ design (Nickel 1913), Herman MacNeil’s quarter (1916), and Henry Weinman’s dime and half dollar (1916) all have higher relief central images, and all suffer from striking issues.

Barber’s last chance at a half dollar design was the commemorative coinage created for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal. He submitted designs for all four approved coins. Charles Barber’s designs were rejected by the Commission for the Fine Arts (CFA) and suggestions for possible artists are made. Amid some complaints Barber’s designs are chosen for the half. Barber finally departs from his usual Greco-Roman style. He’s again looks at 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 numismatics most beautiful coins. For Barber it was a coup de grace, encompassing so much that he struggled with between sculptors designing coins and his job as engraver. He used time-tested motifs, and hints at his Greco-Roman tendencies with the use of Columbia (an Athena for the Americas). The small child juxtaposed just behind representing the future (homage to Aphrodite and Eros). The use of the allegory figure for Liberty was a common theme with French using a similar Marianne sowing seeds on their contemporary coinage. Barber’s work here stands on its own. His central figures are of higher relief than his usual engravings and placed off center to alleviate metal flow shortages. The resulting work is praised by collectors for its beauty, both then and now. His other work for the fair was for the $2.5. He breaks from his norm here also, working on a small planchet, he again alludes to Greek coinage by placing Columbia on the back of a Hippocampus. This design is lost on the smaller canvas, but when examined, proves another blend of workable dies and artistic beauty.

Barber’s work continues at the Mint until his passing in 1917. The fiasco that some of the Pan-Pac coinage had created swung the balance of power away from the Commission of Fine Arts and back to the Mint. With the authorization of a Memorial gold dollar (originally silver) to be sold with funds going to defray costs of building a memorial site. Charles Barber is called upon to design one last coin. He produces designs similar to his early McKinley dollar but worked to make the portrait different from the earlier piece. Morgan again creates the reverse. These designs were submitted to the Commission, with their suggestions being ignored, the coins were produced and sold. Only a fraction of the original approved 100,000 are minted, with only a fraction of that being sold. The remaining coins were melted.

Charles Barber died in 1917. His time with the Mint was marked with both criticisms and successes. His tenure 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, the classic commemoratives mentioned, a wide range of medals, and coins for foreign nations much of which met with contemporary criticism. But when finally given the opportunity, free from certain constraints, Charles Barber creates 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.

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Pinnacle Rarities
Pinnacle Rarities
Kathleen Duncan co-founded Pinnacle Rarities in 1992. Based in Olympia, Washington, Pinnacle sought to provide continuing professional service to a clientele composed of collectors, investors and dealers from all 50states and several foreign countries. They tried to specialize in handling the rarest, most desirable coins the industry has to offer. Pinnacle closed in 2022.

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