Skip to main content

Charles Barber's dime design appreciated by collectors

 Charles Barber, as he appeared in the early 1900s.

Charles Barber, as he appeared in the early 1900s.

In the later days of the 19th century, it was the practice at birthdays and Christmas to give a gift of money to a child. Today we might think of a few dollars, but in those days, a dime was a prized gift because it would actually buy a fair amount of candy or other desired sweets. With the wages of even skilled workmen under $3 per day, it is small wonder that the 10-cent piece was so highly prized by the young.

Dime coinage in the early days of the Republic was not all that large but increased after the War of 1812. By the early 1830s, a considerable number of dimes were being struck, and in the summer of 1837, Mint Director Robert M. Patterson was able to put the new Seated Liberty design on the dime and half dime.

In 1860, the minor silver coins were redesigned and the name of the country transferred from the reverse to the obverse, requiring a new and larger reverse wreath. Early collectors usually gave credit for this revised wreath to Harold P. Newlin, a prominent collector of this era; this wreath was to remain in place until 1916, when the last of the Barber dimes was struck.

It is not clear what part Newlin played in the creation of this reverse design, but probably he made a rough sketch of his idea for James B. Longacre, the chief engraver. Longacre certainly did the actual engraving work as considerable skill was required in preparing coinage dies.

Because of the Civil War, silver and gold coins were hoarded or exported as early as the end of 1861 and by the summer of 1862 none was to be seen. It was not until 1873 that large numbers of dimes and other silver coins were put into the marketplace to replace the tattered shinplasters (paper notes of less than a dollar in value). The first of these was the dime and it was well received by a coin-starved public.

By the mid-1870s there began to be public comments about the Seated Liberty design having been around too long and these ideas eventually reached the official level. Mint Director Henry R. Linderman brought George T. Morgan—later to design the famous silver dollar—from England in the fall of 1876 to redesign the minor silver coins.

 The head of Liberty on French coinage was the model for American version by Charles Barber.

The head of Liberty on French coinage was the model for American version by Charles Barber.

Morgan arrived in the United States in early October 1876 and soon set to work on new artwork for the silver coins. He was still doing this in the summer of 1877 when an unexpected event completely changed official thinking.

Although silver had been put into the marketplace as early as the spring of 1873, gold did not reenter circulation until the end of 1878. In the meantime the premium on gold gradually declined until at times during 1877 it was nearly at par with the paper currency.

The decline in the premium caused the hoarded United States silver to return to this country in massive quantities. In fact, so much returned that, added to the large coinages of the 1870s, there was now far too much silver coinage around and a great part of it flowed into the Treasury vaults. (Most of the returned silver came from Canada and Central America.)

This unexpected influx of coin forced the Treasury to halt minor silver coinage except at the Philadelphia Mint where small quantities were made for collectors and as presents. The Mint Bureau quietly dropped any ideas of redesign and nothing was to be done for several years.

Toward the end of 1882 the Treasury stockpile of dimes had finally been distributed and coinage was resumed. There were still large quantities of quarters and half dollars on hand, however, and the last of these, some dating back to the 1850s, were not distributed until the summer of 1891.

With only the dime being coined in quantity there was little discussion of redesign for the silver coins, but with the ending of the Treasury stockpile in 1891, official thoughts turned once more to new artwork. In 1890 there was an attempt to have a nationwide design contest among artists, but this failed and Mint Director Edward O. Leech decided to have the work done inhouse, by the Mint engraving department.

Leech visited the Philadelphia Mint and spoke at length with chief engraver Charles E. Barber and his assistant, George Morgan. Both men were asked to submit sketches for silver designs at the earliest opportunity. As a result of this small competition, Leech gave Barber an official order to redesign the silver coins except for the dollar.

Charles E. Barber had been chief engraver since the death of his father (who had held the same post) in 1879. He was to serve in this office until his death in 1917. He has been the subject of much criticism for his supposedly dull designs, but at least he understood the requirements of coinage and was capable of superb work when given a free hand.

 Shown is an 1891 pattern for the Barber dime.

Shown is an 1891 pattern for the Barber dime.

For the obverse Leech decided to use the contemporary head of Liberty as found on the French coinage and directed Barber to use that profile as a model, but making such modifications as the engraver thought proper. Barber was told that the reverse of the dime would not be changed from the design of 1860, but that the quarter and half dollar would have a new eagle, based on the Great Seal of the United States, adopted in 1783.

Throughout the summer of 1891 Barber worked on the plaster models for the coinage in an effort to please Leech. On a number of occasions Barber and Leech clashed over certain artistic matters and finally the director curtly informed the engraver that henceforth that latter would do as he was told.

The head of Liberty was accepted at an early date by Leech, but the reverse eagle for the quarter and half dollar held up final adoption of the designs until late in the year. Leech submitted a series of half dollar patterns to the Treasury and the final designs were chosen at a meeting of President Benjamin Harrison’s Cabinet. The Mint director then ordered that coinage begin on Jan. 1, 1892.

The obverse of the pattern dime of 1891, which is known today only from a single specimen in the Smithsonian collection, varies slightly from the dies used for the production run beginning in 1892. The reason for the changes is unknown.

 Coinage of the Barber dime began in 1892.

Coinage of the Barber dime began in 1892.

Coinage did begin on the appointed day, despite attempts to delay the start. It was felt that the new dies had not been properly tested and historical experience had shown that hurried coinage usually meant major modifications within a year or two. Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Oliver C. Bosbyshell asked in vain for such permission.

Oddly enough the Jan. 1 coinage went quite smoothly and the coins were struck with ease by the presses. There were some problems with the quarter dollar, but these were taken care of in 1892 with little difficulty. Dime coinage was heavy at all three mints (New Orleans had resumed dime coinage in 1891) with only San Francisco falling below the magic number of 1 million.

The dimes of 1892 are easily obtained by the collector, despite the lower mintage at San Francisco. The first year of coinage of any new design is always saved by the public and the 1892 Barber dime was no exception. They are always available for a reasonable price, though if one goes for Mint State-65 coins, the cost will be stiff. According to the price guide appearing monthly in Coins, an 1892 Barber dime in proof is worth about $1,050. Even the 1892-S dime books at only $340 in MS-60.

The only probable overdates in the Barber dime series were announced by Walter Breen in the early 1960s. The overdate 1893/2 was thought to exist on both the Philadelphia and San Francisco issues but is generally discounted at present as merely repunched dates. The uncertain 1893/2 Philadelphia dime, however, is valued at $1,300 in MS-60.

Most collectors who are attempting complete sets of Barber dimes obvious (with the exception of the extremely rare 1894-S) usually try for high-quality pieces. Throughout most of the 1890s strictly uncirculated Barber dimes can be obtained for little more than $100, though there are quite a few dates and mints that bring much higher prices. The most notable of the regular issues in this respect is the 1895-O, which is worth about $5,600 in MS-60. Catalog value for this particular issue is over $30,000 in MS-65.

(In 1954, four years after he began collecting, the present writer was given an old dime bank for yard work by an elderly neighbor, in which the last coin had been deposited in 1918. One of the scarce 1895-O dimes was there in Extremely Fine condition.)

 The 1894-S is the most famous of the Barber dimes.

The 1894-S is the most famous of the Barber dimes.

The most famous Barber dime is the 1894-S, of which a mere 24 pieces were coined. Various stories have appeared as to why this tiny mintage was made, but the most likely explanation is that San Francisco Mint Superintendent John Daggett simply wanted to strike a few dimes of the current date for friends. Whatever the status of its origin, it has never failed to create great interest when offered for sale.

One of the curiosities of this tiny issue is a claim that more than one pair of dies was used. The official report of San Francisco dies indicates that only one pair was employed. Perhaps some day a record will be found which explains the mysteries behind this special issue.

Three or four of these special 1894-S dimes were supposedly given to the superintendent’s daughter Hallie, who is said to have spent one of these treasures for ice cream on the way home. Some consider the story apocryphal.

While great attention has focused on the 1894-S dime, there is more to the Barber coinage than just this one great rarity. The Barber series in many ways symbolized America as it grew into a world power at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

When coin collecting became a mass hobby in the United States, in the early 1950s, Barber dimes could still be found in circulation, though most were dated after 1905. Numismatists who were active in the 1950s can still remember the pleasure of finding an old Barber silver coin in their change at that time. It was possible for the ordinary collector to acquire 15 or 20 different date and mintmark combinations for the dime out of circulation.

Several of the S-mint coins of the early 1900s have low mintages and have been strongly sought after by collectors. However, none of these is all that rare and perhaps “scarce” is the better term to use. An MS-65 1903-S (mintage: 613,300) is cataloged at about $2,200, showing that such coins are not as rare as commonly believed.

The 1905-O dime has a special feature for some of the coins. The mintmark for New Orleans (the letter O) appears in two sizes, the smaller one being called the “micro O.” There is strong competition among serious collectors for this variety and prices are correspondingly strong.

 The last of the dimes struck at the New Orleans Mint came in 1909.

The last of the dimes struck at the New Orleans Mint came in 1909.

The years 1906 through 1909 are special ones in the Barber dime series. Four mints were striking this coin at the same time and many collectors assemble year sets. The easiest date is probably 1908 as uncirculated prices are generally lower than for the other three years. Some numismatists include the proof dime in their year sets.

Because the New Orleans Mint closed in 1909, many collectors have specialized in the issues of 1909. There were at one time several large accumulations of O-mint dimes for this year, but these have been somewhat dispersed, keeping the price down for this issue.

After 1909 the general state of the American economy and rising wages meant that more silver coins would be struck. The Barber dime was no exception to this rule and most mintages were in excess of 10 million. Only for the 1913-S (510,000 pieces) and both mints in 1915 (there was no Denver coinage) were mintages appreciably lower.

The year 1916 would almost certainly have seen the largest Barber dime coinage (nearly 50 million) except for the change of design. The 25-year legal requirement for change was reached and the Treasury decided to do just that. There was a competition and A.A. Weinman produced his classic Mercury head dime design, first struck in that year.

Although some numismatists believe that there are too many Barber dimes around for the current number of collectors, this is not quite true. During the great silver melts of the 1960s and later, many of the common-date Barber dimes went into the melting pot. No records were of course kept, but many tens of thousands of such coins must have been turned into silver ingots.

The last proof coins of this type were struck in 1915 and for the year 1916 none was made. It is possible for the collector to complete a set of Barber dimes in proof for 1892-1915 but the price will be stiff for a few of the issues. Most the proof dates for the Barber dimes, however, are not worth that much over $1,000, considerably less than a strictly uncirculated specimen.

The summer of 1916 saw the last of the Barber dimes being struck. It was the end of an interesting series, well worth the attention of serious collectors. Today only the dedicated numismatist is left to appreciate what was once an important coin in the American marketplaces.

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.

More Collecting Resources

• Liked this article? Read more by subscribing to Numismatic News.

• If you enjoy reading about what inspires coin designs, you'll want to check out Fascinating Facts, Mysteries & Myths about U.S. Coins.