William Barber was the fifth Chief Engraver and Sculptor of the United States Mint, serving from 1869 until his sudden death in 1879. A skillful artist, Barber produced a number of impressive designs for coins, medals, and commemoratives. However, despite these accomplishments, Barber remains one of only two Chief Engravers of the U.S. Mint in the 19th century not to have designed any major circulating coinage.
Barber was born on May 2, 1807, and raised in a middle-class neighborhood of London. The son of an engraver, Barber was apprenticed to his father from an early age, and learned typesetting and the basics of engraving. Barber spent the majority of his life in London, where he established himself as a very competent engraver. In 1852, at the age of 45, Barber emigrated to the United States settling in Boston. There, he worked in various branches of engraving, including working as a local die sinker and letter cutter, but his passion was still the art of sculpting and engraving. For ten years, he continued to hone his craft, even designing prototypes for coins, medals, and commemoratives. And soon, his skill and expertise caught the attention of James B. Longacre, then Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint. Impressed with Barber’s talent, Longacre hired Barber as an assistant engraver at the Philadelphia Mint in 1865. Longacre passed in 1869, and after only four years at the Mint, Barber was named the new Chief Engraver.
During his tenure at the Mint, Barber produced numerous original designs on pattern coins, trade dollars and medals. In 1872 Barber created two sets of patterns—one design for silver coinage and another design for gold. The reverse image is the same on both coins, featuring a defiant eagle perched atop a rock, clutching a shield and arrows in its talons. The obverse images, in order to standardize the appearance of silver and gold denominations, are different. The gold obverse design depicts a left-facing portrait of Lady Liberty, her hair cascading down under a Phrygian cap. The silver obverse design depicts a seated Lady Liberty, resting on a shield and extending one arm towards a bald eagle. The coins, known as the “Amazonian” coins, are considered among the most beautiful and sought after of all U.S. coins.
Barber also adapted the Seated Liberty design for his 20-cent piece design. Due to its unoriginal design and peculiar size, the coin proved unpopular. After a large run in its first year in 1875, production all but ceased. Proofs were struck again in 1877 and 1878, but lack of public interest forced the Mint to melt down many of the coins.
Barber had better luck with his trade dollars. He is probably best known for his “Britannia-inspired” trade dollar, a coin meant to be used for the expanding trade with countries in the Far East, particularly China. The coin was produced from 1873 until 1878, then in Proof-only form until 1885.
Besides his work with pattern coins and trade dollars, Barber also produced over forty medals. Some of his most impressive designs include the images of David Rittenhouse, Jean Louise Rodolphe Agassiz, Cyrus Field, James Pollock, Joseph Pancoast, and Dr. Henry Linderman. He is also recognized for his work on medals for the Assay Commission, the Centennial medals, the medal commemorating the 100th Anniversary of American Independence, and the Valley Forge medal.
Barber may have encountered a few obstacles during his career, but there is no doubt that he was a prolific and impressive designer. In the American Journal of Numismatics, July 1883 issue, critic Patterson DuBois stated: “Besides much original work on pattern coins, he also produced over 40 medals, public and private. The work on all them was creditable, but we may specify those of Agassiz, Rittenhouse and Henry, as very superior specimens of art.” Barber’s technical expertise and creative ingenuity established him as one of most important designers in numismatic history, as his impact on American coinage continues to inspire and influence all future generations of artists.