Charles Edwin Barber served as the 6th Chief Engraver and Sculptor of the United States Mint. He was born in London in 1840, immigrating with his family to America when he was just 12 years old. His father, William Barber, went to work for the Philadelphia Mint as the assistant to then Chief Engraver James B. Longacre. In 1869, Longacre passed, and William was appointed as his successor. Later that year, William hired Charles, who was untrained and inexperienced, as the assistant engraver. When William died in 1879, engraver George T. Morgan was being considered for the position of Chief Engraver. Many believed Morgan was indeed the most qualified, or at least most talented engraver deserving of the title, but President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Charles as the next Chief Engraver, just ten years after being hired as an apprentice.
During his tenure at the Mint, Barber designed many coins and medals, but is best known for the Barber Dime, Barber Quarter (also known as the “Liberty Head” Quarter), and Barber Half Dollar. Some of his lesser-known pattern coin designs include the trial copper-nickel cent, trial three-cent piece, the $4 Stella “Flowing Hair” coins, and the 1883 Hawaiian silver coin. Among the commemorative coins, he created the dies and models for the obverse of the 1892 Columbian Half Dollar, the 1893 Isabella Quarter, and the 1900 Lafayette Dollar.
Barber was a prolific designer, but his tenure at the mint had its share of controversy. As early as 1879, public dissatisfaction with the nation’s designs was heard in Washington and Philadelphia. When Mint Director James Kimball proposed the idea of a competition for new designs in 1882, Barber was quick to argue that he was the only designer and engraver capable of achieving the artistic standards of the U.S. coinage. Kimball rejected Barber’s claim, and proposed a design competition among 10 of the leading artists and sculptors of the day. When these artists demanded more time and money for the task, Kimball decided to open the competition up to the public.
There was an overwhelming response, as more than 300 designs were submitted. Barber, along with renowned sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Henry Mitchell served as the judges, so it came as no surprise that not a single design was approved. The new Mint Director, Edward Leech, called the competition a failure and turned over the task to Barber, who was clearly pleased with the outcome. The “Barber” dime, quarter and half dollar were the result of this decision.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of Barber’s battles in coin design. In 1905, President Roosevelt made it known that he felt Barber’s designs were uninspiring, and Roosevelt was not alone in his opinion. In fact, many believed the designs could not even compare to the coinage of foreign nations. In a move that infuriated Barber, Roosevelt went outside the Mint to find talent, and found it in Barber’s long-time rival, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who he commissioned to design the new $20 (Double Eagle) and $10 (Indian Head design) coins.
While his designs were not met with an overwhelming reception, Barber’s coins always met the striking requirements of modern, high-speed coin presses. He understood the exact specifications needed to strike millions of coins from one coin press, allowing his designs for the nickel (1883-1912), dime (1892- 1916), quarter (1892-1916) and half dollar (1892-1915) to have a superb sense of durability. Yet these coins do not merely represent technical precision, as they have become some of America’s best-loved coins. Indeed, Barber’s legacy supersedes any controversy that followed him, as he not only created lasting designs, but made an indelible impression on the history of American numismatics.