By John Frost
Charles E. Barber, best known for his Liberty Head or Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars, as well as the Liberty Head nickel, was Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint from 1880 until 1917. A lot of supposition about the type of man he was leads many to believe he was a most disagreeable fellow who didn’t get along with his peers and was difficult to work with.
By an amazing set of circumstances, I was able to meet and visit with two of his great-grandsons earlier this year. The family was most gracious and shared a wealth of new information about Charles Barber, and also his father William Barber (Chief Engraver from 1869 until his death in 1879). The family also possess personal possessions of the Barbers, including documents, historical artifacts and other ephemera that shine a much more positive light on both William and Charles and leads to the conclusion that much of what people think they know about them is untrue.
One of the aspects that hasn’t helped the image of Charles Barber is that the one photo of him that permeates numismatic literature and any mention of the man comes from a grainy old group photo from the mint, in which Barber appears as a grumpy old man. In meeting the family, we discover a beautiful painting of him, along with six never-before-seen photographs. These new pictures of him more accurately portray him as he has been viewed by the family all these years – as a warm and kind family man, blessed with good friends. Since his lifetime, he has been referred to as “Dear Papa” by the family. His great-grandsons remember their grandmother Edith (“Dee-Dee”) talking about her father in the warmest regards.
Other historical artifacts shown to me by the family include a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln created by Charles Barber, along with the original Lincoln photograph Charles used to create it. Another remarkable item is a 39-star flag, which was presented to Charles Barber by President Theodore Roosevelt. Barber was to take the flag with him on his trip to Europe in 1905, in which he visited a number of foreign mints on an information-sharing mission.
Barber’s passport and numerous Mint memos (from various departments with questions they wanted Charles to ask their counterparts overseas) are also held by the family. And new information is learned from the diary of Charles’ 19-year-old daughter Edith, who accompanied her father and his wife on the European trip. The diary also provides strong evidence that Charles Barber and George T. Morgan, designer of the Morgan silver dollar, got along well, despite the assumptions of many that the two disliked each other.
The Barber Coin Collectors’ Society hopes that the old photo of Charles Barber will be retired in lieu of one of the seven new images of him that make a more accurate portrayal of him.
In addition to the revelation about the friendly Morgan relationship from Edith’s diary, the presentation of Roosevelt’s 39-star flag changes our view on the personal relationship between the President and Charles Barber. While it is true that Roosevelt wanted to give sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (whom he had known for years) the opportunity to redesign some of our coinage, it doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that he disliked Barber personally. The flag presentation actually refutes that assumption, as the 39-star flag, produced and acquired in 1889 by Roosevelt while living in Dakota Territory in anticipation of statehood, would have been a highly prized possession.
Many more details on the Charles Barber discoveries may be found in the March, June and future September 2018 issues of the Journal of the Barber Coin Collectors’ Society (www.barbercoins.org), and the August issue of the ANA’s publication, The Numismatist.
Equally impressive are artifacts related to William Barber. William, father of Charles, is the forgotten engraver, and many collectors are unaware that William even existed. But it was William who designed two Seated Liberty coins – the Trade dollar and the ill-fated double dime (20-cent piece). There are no known photographs of William, and until now, the only image we have had of him is from the William Barber commemorative medal that the Mint issued in 1880 (engraved by son Charles) following William’s unexpected death in 1879.
However, the family has a remarkable painting of a young William, and one of his wife Anna Maria (Anna May). Most likely painted on ivory (a very stable platform to paint on), these two portraits are exquisitely detailed and proudly hang on the walls in one of the family’s homes. Well preserved, the paintings are as fresh as the day they were presented to the Barbers.
Three original sketches of coin designs in pencil and pen by William Barber show his artistry and talent. These sketches, until now unknown by the numismatic community, were a startling find! One of them is a half dollar reverse that appears, with some modifications, on an 1877 pattern. Perhaps even more important, the family has obverse and reverse sketches of what would have been our first commemorative coin had it ever been made. These three-dimensional high-relief sketches on paper provide an excellent view of what William had in mind.
Other artifacts related to William Barber include a leather first edition of J.F. Loubat’s book, Medals of the United States of America – 1776-1876, published in 1878. It was personally inscribed and presented to William by the author in honor of all that William had done to expand the U.S. Mint’s medal program. And the most personal document related to William Barber is a two-page memo to the family, written and signed by the Officers of the Philadelphia Mint following a special meeting of the staff at the Mint on Sept. 2, 1879, two days after William’s passing. It is a moving tribute to the man, demonstrating the high regard the Mint staff had for Barber despite some earlier rough patches he had with the former Mint Director H.R. Linderman in Washington, D.C.
A lengthy article on William Barber can be found in the summer issue of The Gobrecht Journal, publication of the Liberty Seated Collectors Club (www.lsccweb.org).
Due to the generosity of the family, the Barber Coin Collectors’ Society and the Liberty Seated Collectors Club will display jointly an exhibit of most of the artifacts, documents and ephemera discussed above, along with some medals, patterns and coins. The two clubs will have side-by-side tables, Booths 146 and 148, in the Club Midway at the American Numismatic Association Convention in Philadelphia.
A discussion will be held at the Annual Meeting of the Barber Coin Collectors’ Society on Wednesday, Aug. 15, at 9 a.m. in Room 120-C. Everyone is welcome to attend. The Annual Meeting of the Liberty Seated Collectors Club will be held Thursday, Aug. 16, at 9 a.m. in Room 120-C.
In addition, an ANA Money Talks presentation will be offered on Friday, Aug. 17, at 4 p.m. in Room 121-B entitled, “Fascinating New Discoveries Regarding Father-Son Mint Engravers William and Charles Barber.”
John Frost has been a numismatist for over 40 years and is currently President of the Barber Coin Collectors’ Society and Director of Education for the Liberty Seated Collectors Club. He is co-author of the reference, “Double Dimes -- the United States Twenty-cent Piece,” contributor to the Red Book, instructor at ANA’s Summer Seminar, and speaker at coin shows regionally and nationally.
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