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New Orleans stopped short on Barber dimes

Gre0904a.jpgWhen people think of Barber dimes, they think of the famous 1894-S. If one does not come up for sale, then the odds are pretty good that there might be nothing printed about Barber dimes for the year as no other dates get any attention.

The situation would make it natural for many to simply assume that there are no other particularly tough Barber dimes. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in the case of the Barber dimes from New Orleans, virtually every date is good and interesting. They may be lesser known, but the Barber dimes from New Orleans are a group everyone should know as they make a great collection and have a very interesting story.

In some respects it was probably surprising that the New Orleans facility even produced a single Barber dime. At the time the continuing soap operas involving New Orleans and Carson City and what roles if any the two would play in the coin production of the United States were reaching final stages.

If anything, New Orleans ended up producing Barber coins basically by default. The Carson City facility was newer, having opened in 1870 while New Orleans dated back to the 1830s. Carson City, however, had been a disappointment in terms of production. The situation there had gotten off to a bad start and had seemingly only gotten worse. The initial superintendent, a fellow named Abe Curry, had been unpopular with many in the area. Rather than send their silver and gold to a facility run by Abe Curry, the mines had sent it to San Francisco instead. That situation continued, and after 1878 Carson City had produced only silver dollars and gold coins.

Part of the reason Carson City had no coin production other than silver dollars and gold after 1878 may be a result of the fact that in 1879 New Orleans had come back on line. In 1879 New Orleans was not producing dimes or half dollars, but the fact is that it was in operation and that in itself was a story.

Gre0904b.jpgThe New Orleans saga had been unusual from the start. Back in the 1830s three new facilities were approved with Dahlonega, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C., being logical choices for the first branch mints because they were in the heart of the gold fields. New Orleans, however, in the minds of some was in the heart of a swamp. What New Orleans had to offer was a strategic location ? it was a transportation center. In addition, as politics has always been a popular activity in the area, the city made an offer that the federal government could not refuse. That offer was a prime piece of land for the location of a mint. Not unlike Carson City decades later, from the start there were problems.

The project in New Orleans was quickly over budget and behind schedule. That, however, would prove to be not too unusual when it came to branch mints. Once the facility was opened, it was closer to a full-service mint than either Dahlonega or Charlotte as New Orleans also produced silver coins while the others were limited to gold.

The facility ran into trouble fairly quickly. New Orleans was famous as a location where flooding and other problems are normal. By the mid-1850s the facility appeared to be sinking and was in dire need of significant repair. Investment was made, but in the spirit of no good deed goes unpunished the investment did not really pay off. In 1861 the facility, dies and precious metal inside were seized by forces of the state of Louisiana.

Soon afterward, when Louisiana joined the Confederacy, they would become Confederate States of America property. The facility quickly ceased to function as a mint and sat in disrepair for years.

In the period after the Civil War there were no plans to reopen any of the facilities that had been seized during the war, including New Orleans. Any such ideas relating to New Orleans were made even more remote by the situation in the West. In fact, even in the mid-1850s the New Orleans? importance had decreased when the San Francisco Mint was opened. That was 1854. Prior to that, New Orleans had played a role in receiving large amounts of California gold and turning it into coins. With the San Francisco facility up and running, that role was not needed. When you added in Carson City, which opened in 1870 for coin production, the potential of reopening New Orleans probably seemed even more remote.

By 1878, however, things had changed. The Carson City facility was mired in its own set of problems, which saw the facility vastly underutilized. In addition, there was something of a nagging concern coming out of New Orleans. It had been discovered that somewhere in the original agreement for the facility that in order for the land to remain in federal control, the facility had to be producing coins. No one had bothered with those fine legal points when the place was seized by the state back in 1861, but in the 1870s the legal concerns were raised.

Just to make matters all the more interesting, there was the matter of silver dollars and the legislation in the form of the Bland-Allison Act that was on the horizon. The legislation would require massive silver dollar production. That prospect suddenly made getting New Orleans ready for a resumption of coin production seem like a better idea. By 1879 New Orleans was back in business although the prime reason was simply to make silver dollars that were not really being used but rather just thrown in bags to sit in vaults.

At least for a brief period of time the two historically troublesome facilities were both used, but by the early 1890s it became clear that the era of large silver dollar mintages was coming to a close. There would be additional mintages, but not at the levels seen before. Having both New Orleans and Carson City in operation at the same time was not required. The decision was made to cease coin production as of 1893 at Carson City. That was the year following the first Barber dime mintage at New Orleans.

In the first year of the Barber dime New Orleans produced 3,841,700, which was actually significantly higher than the San Francisco mintage of that year. The 1892-O might have been saved in some small extra numbers although there is little evidence that many people were excited by the new Barber designs. Historically, there was never heavy saving of issue from New Orleans. The 1892-O is available in circulated grades at just $11 in G-4, $54 in VF-20 and 96 in AU-50. In MS-60 it is $160 while an MS-65 is $1,275. Those totals also suggest a certain amount of saving although the Mint State totals of the 1892-O at Professional Coin Grading Service show about 125 coins in Mint State but just 19 in MS-65 or better.

The 1893-O would follow with a mintage of 1,760,000 and lower contemporary saving, as is usually the case in the second year. In G-4 the 1893-O lists at $31 while an MS-60 is $330 with an MS-65 at $3,250. PCGS showed just over 80 Mint State examples and only 17 in MS-65 or better.

The 1894-O would have a continuing decrease in mintages with a total of 720,000. It is interesting, as by 1894 the Carson City facility was finished in terms of coin production. The low mintage seems simply to be a function of the needs of the time, but it leaves us with a better date today at $70 in G-4 and $1,550 in MS-60 with an MS-65 at $15,500. The PCGS totals show the reasons for those prices. The 1894-O has been graded fewer than 35 times in Mint State with the MS-65 or better total at just seven, six of those seven being called MS-66.

The 1894-O was actually a sign of things to come. The key New Orleans dime would be issued the following year, in the form of the 440,000-mintage 1895-O. The 1895-O is really a much better date than many realize with a curr ent price of $385 in G-4 while n MS-60 is $6,000 with an MS-65 at $19,500. Once again, the PCGS totals support these prices and possibly higher ones. The 1895-O has been seen in Mint State 25 times and only seven were MS-65 or better.

A couple factors must be remembered, not only for the key 1895-O, but even for the most available New Orleans and other facility Barber dimes. The first is that dimes were not heavily collected, in the 1890s and for many years after that. The denomination was too high for many people. In addition, many of those who were collecting might well have been assembling date sets as the notion of collecting by date and Mint was still not widely popular. There was some increase in collecting by date and Mint thanks to the publishing of pioneering efforts by Augustus Heaton to popularize the idea, but it would still be decades before collecting by date and Mint were universal.

We can see evidence of the situation in the New York Subway Hoard, purchased by the Littleton Coin Co. in the 1990s. The hoard was assembled starting in the 1940s and included primarily key dates. As Barber coins were probably starting to thin out in terms of numbers, those assembling the hoard did collect sets of Barber dimes and the total in the hoard was 45 complete sets (all without the famous 1894-S). The fact that 45 sets were found in the 1940s, however, is dramatic proof that Barber dimes were still available in circulation closing in on 50 years after some of them were issued.

The 1896-O was another of the tougher dates, and another that was never really appreciated. With a mintage of  610,000, it was definitely a better date although not quite as good as the 1895-O. Today the 1896-O sits at $80 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $1,000 with an MS-65 at $9,400. The PCGS totals continue to support the prices with 27 examples of the 1896-O called Mint State and just 11 of that total being called MS-65 or better.

The 1897-O would be similar as it had a similar 666,000 mintage. That results in a G-4 price of $69.50 while an MS-60 is at $975 with an MS-65 at $4,700, reflecting slightly better availability as is seen by 18 examples graded MS-65 or better at PCGS.

The low mintages had apparently dried up whatever supply of Barber dimes there was. In 1898 the New Orleans mintage of Barber dimes would jump to 2,130,000. That total makes the 1898-O available at $13 in G-4 and $450 in MS-60 with an MS-65 at $4,150. Interestingly, the PCGS totals are not high with just under 35 examples graded Mint State and only 10 of them graded MS-65 or better.

That would become something of a pattern as many of these later dates are not as expensive as the earlier dates, yet at least in terms of grading service numbers they are not plentiful. It could be that people have simply not sent them in for grading, or it could be that prices do not really accurately reflect how tough some are in top grades. It is also possible that is true in lower grades as well ? having circulated for so long, it is certainly possible that many seemingly average New Orleans and other Barber dimes were retired and destroyed. In fact, some would even be melted around 1980 when silver reached $50 an ounce and a silver dime of any type was worth perhaps $3 if melted. Many lower grade Barber dimes were sold and destroyed.

The 1899-O certainly could have been one of the dates destroyed. With a mintage of 2,650,000, it would have seemed average to many. Today at $9.75 in G-4 it brings a premium, but certainly not the sort of prices seen with some earlier dates. In MS-60 the 1899-O is $415 while an MS-65 is $4,850 although, like the 1898-O, the numbers seen so far by PCGS suggest that potentially higher prices are possible.

Starting with the 1900-O and going through the 1903-O, Barber dimes share large mintages, and also continuing small numbers in top grades. The one date of the group that is a surprising problem in lower grades is the 1900-O, which currently lists for $19.50 in G-4 despite a mintage of over two million. Otherwise, the New Orleans Barber dimes of the period are generally available in circulated grades. It is in top grades where there are problems.

The dates from the period show prices in MS-60 in a wide range with the 1900-O being the top at $595 while the 1903-O is just $250. None, however, are readily available in MS-65 where the 1900-O is $6,000, the 1901-O is $4,500, the 1902-O is $4,650 and the 1903-O is $5,100. With PCGS totals supporting such levels, the basic conclusion has to be that with limited saving the top-quality examples were simply missed. It?s also possible that, not unlike its reputation for dollars, the quality of the coins produced in New Orleans might have been at best indifferent, resulting in very few truly nice coins in the surviving numbers.

The final New Orleans issues from 1905-O through the 1909-O are generally seen as available in all grades. It is not a case where the Mint State or MS-65 and above totals are large, but rather that they are larger than was the case for dates in the 1890s. That puts the MS-65 prices at less than $2,000 except for the 1909-O, which is exactly at $2,000. Even as the better date in the group, its PCGS total is over 20 in MS-65 or better.

The New Orleans Barber dime would end with the 1909. Other facilities would continue the series until 1916. But, the New Orleans facility was finally being closed, this time for good as Denver was now producing coins. It was an end to a fascinating story in American numismatic history. That story has been faithfully reflected in the Barber dimes produced in New Orleans.

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