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History of the Barber Half Dollar

By Atlantic Provinces Numismatic Association    |   Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Barber Half Dollar, once know as the "Liberty Head Half", was minted from 1892 to 1915. In 1887, Mint Director James P. Kimball noted in his annual report the "inferiority of our coinage" compared to other advanced nations and that in his opinion, the coinage of the U.S. was out of date and should be changed. At the request of Kimball, Senator Justin S. Morill introduced a bill authorizing the Treasury Department to redesign coins without first obtaining the permission of Congress, as long as the current design had been in use for at least 25 years. The bill passed on September 26, 1890 and the dime, quarter and half dollar were targeted for change. The decision of who should redesign the coins eventually fell to his successor, Edward O. Leech.

Ironically, new designs were submitted by Mint engravers throughout the early 1880's but the only change that occurred was a new nickel designed by Charles E. Barber in 1883. In 1891, when there was discussion of a public competition for new designs. Barber reported to Mint director Kimball that there was no one in the country capable in assisting him in preparing original designs. Augustus Saint-Gaudens confided to Kimball there were only four men in the world competent do to such a redesign: three were in France and he was the fourth. It did not matter. Kimball insisted that rather than going abroad to find the best design talent available, it would be possible to find able designers in America. Against the advice of Barber, the Treasury Department organized a competition to produce new designs. A panel of 10 of the leading artist and sculptors of the day were commissioned to judge which would be the best designs for new coinage. The panel met and instead of discussing the competition, they instead rejected the terms of the competition as proposed by Mint officials on the ground that the preparation time was too short and the compensation woeful. The Mint director rejected the panels' suggestions and threw the competition out to the public. The results were disastrous. Of the more than 300 drawings submitted, only two received an honorable mention by a smaller judging panel. It is interesting to note that two of the judges were Barber and Saint-Gaudens.

When Leech took over as Mint director, he was well aware of the problems his predecessor had experienced. In order to get new designs into production and avoid another disaster of a competition, he simply directed Barber to draw up new designs. This is what Barber had wanted all along has he felt as Chief Engraver, he, and he alone was responsible for coin design.

The result was not much in the way of originality. That would have to wait for more than another 25 years. What Barber did was to modify the large head used on the Morgan dollar by adding a Liberty cap and cropping Liberty's hair shorter in back. She is also facing the opposite direction of the dollar. He then placed his initial B on the truncation of the neck. This was the design used not only on the half dollar, but the new dime and quarter as well.

The reverse of the coin depicts the Great Seal of the United States and shows an eagle with outstretched wings, holding an olive branch with thirteen leaves in its right claw and a shear of 13 arrows in its left. There is a ribbon with the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM being held in the eagle's beak and 13 stars are in the field.

The half dollar was introduced in 1892 just as the new dime and quarter were. In 1916, no half dollars were produced and the Barber coinage would give way to a whole new era of coin designs. During the total run of 24 years, just fewer than 136 million Barber halves were produced with no mint producing more than 6 million in any given year. It is interesting to note, that in the first year of the Kennedy half, over 400 million were produced, more than double in one year than the entire series of the Barber half.

This article is part of the Collection of short articles for beginners from the Atlantic Provinces Numismatic Association.

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