Few people have had as much impact on U.S. coinage as Charles E. Barber (1840 - 1917). The son of William Barber, who was the Mint’s Chief Engraver from 1869 to 1979, Charles Barber spent almost 40 years in the post his father occupied until his untimely death. The dimes, quarters, and half dollars the younger Barber designed, all of which were released in 1892, are routinely named for him today by coin collectors and scholars alike.
The Barber or Liberty Head half dollar, as it is also known, featured essentially the same obverse and reverse and the Barber quarter. The Barber dime has the same obverse but a different reverse, in which the half dollar and quarter’s heraldic eagle has been replaced by a wreath and the words “ONE DIME.”
In a way, none of these designs should exist, but the Mint Act of 1890 dictated that the design of coins must change every 25 years—dimes, quarters, and half dollars were due for a face lift in 1891. At the U.S. Treasury’s instigation, 300 sculptors submitted designs for these coins but they all faced a very tough juror, Charles E. Barber, who most experts agree wanted the opportunity for himself all along. Not surprisingly, then, Barber ended up redesigning the coins.
The Seated Liberty half dollars that preceded Barber’s version depicted the full figure of Lady Liberty, clad in robes and holding a shield. The Barber coins revealed only Liberty’s head and neck. Among other characteristics, the coin is notable for its profusion of stars—13 appear on both the obverse and reverse, a double nod, no doubt, to the nation’s founding 13 colonies.
Throughout its run from 1892 until 1915, the Barber half dollar was minted in plentiful amounts. Although the coins was modified slightly in 1901 to sharpen the appearance of the leaves in one of the eagle’s talons, and again in 1908 and 1912 (in these cases, the changes are really the result of new hubs), the coin had a mostly sleepy history.
The exceptions occurred in 1892, when the “O” mintmark to designate the New Orleans mint was struck at the same size as the “O” mintmark used on quarters. This “microscopic O,” as it is called, is far more rare than other coins minted in New Orleans that year, and typically trades at 20 times the normal version’s value.
Other Barber half dollars that are especially prized by collectors include the 1901, 1904, and 1907 coins minted in San Francisco—of the three, those from 1904 are the rarest.
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- Barber Coin Collectors Society
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