The Mint Act of 1890 allowed for change of coin designs every 25 years, and the dime, quarter, and half dollar were eligible for a redesign in 1891. An initial competition to come up with a new design was opened only to 10 eminent U.S. sculptors, but when those invited presented a list of requirements that included compensation for every entry, whether selected or not, the Treasury demurred. The contest was instead opened to the general public; judges for the entries included Mint Engraver Charles E. Barber, Boston engraver Henry Mitchell, and artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens. None of the entries were deemed satisfactory, though; just two of about 300 entries were awarded even an Honorable Mention. Mint Director Edward Leech deemed the competition a ‘wretched failure’, and assigned Barber the task of redesigning all the coins that were eligible for a change.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Barber’s design is said to be modeled after Morgan’s Liberty on the dollar, though other than perhaps the somewhat stoic appearance of both models, the comparison would likely not be obvious to a casual observer. In contrast to the dollar, Barber faced his Liberty to the right, shortened and covered most of her hair, and minimized the headband that displayed LIBERTY, instead featuring a laurel wreath around the base of the cap. He also replaced the naturalistic eagle used on the reverse of Bust and Seated half dollars with one reminiscent of Robert Scot’s Heraldic eagle from the early 1800s. The Barber dimes, quarters, and half dollars are some of the few coin types to be known by the name of the designer (Gobrecht and Morgan dollars, and Saint-Gaudens double eagles being the others), but this type is also known as Liberty Head. Barber half dollars were produced for 24 years, a design that both started and ended according to the terms of the 1890 Mint Act.
On the obverse Liberty faces right, with tightly constrained hair barely visible below a prominent wreath of laurel that surrounds the base of a hat; the wreath is tied at the back by a ribbon. Above the forehead is a small band that displays LIBERTY. Inside the dentilled rim are the words IN GOD WE TRUST at the top, the date at the bottom, and completing the circle, six-point stars connecting the phrases, six stars to the left of Liberty and seven to the right. The designer’s initial B is toward the back of the base of the neck. The reverse displays a somewhat awkwardly proportioned eagle with outstretched wings and legs, the dexter claw (viewerÕs left) clutching an olive branch and the sinister a bundle of 13 arrows. The eagle holds in its beak a flowing ribbon displaying E PLURIBUS UNUM, and a Union shield is across the chest. The rim is dentilled and around the periphery of the surface are UNITED STATES OF AMERICA at the top (overlapped by the tips of the eagle’s wings) and HALF DOLLAR at the bottom, the phrases separated by two centered dots. Thirteen five-point stars fill the field above the eagle below STATES OF. Half dollars were minted at Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Denver; O, S, and D mintmarks are below the eagle and above the DO in DOLLAR.
Several hundred business strike Barber half dollars have been certified for each year, with nearly 30,000 coins total in census/ population reports. Prooflike examples have been identified. The 1892-O Micro O is the most infrequently seen, with fewer than 50 pieces currently certified. Prices are moderate for most dates and mintmarks through MS60, expensive to near-Gem, and very expensive finer than that. Higher priced issues include the 1892-O Micro O (very expensive at lower grades, extremely expensive finer than Select Uncirculated); and some New Orleans and San Francisco issues (particularly the 1904-S), expensive as MS60 and finer. Several thousand proof Barber half dollars have been certified, including Cameo and Deep Cameo pieces. Prices are moderate to Select Proof, expensive from PR64 through PR66, and very expensive finer than that. Prices of proof Barber halves are uniform from date to date, with Cameo and Deep Cameo examples listing at higher prices (higher for Deep Cameo), particularly as Gem and finer.
Designer: Charles E. Barber
Circulation Mintage: high 5,538,000 (1899), low 124,230 (1914)
Proof Mintage: high 1,245 (1892), low 380 (1914)
Denomination: Fifty cents (50/100)
Diameter: 30.6 mm, reeded edge
Metal Content: 90% silver, 10% copper
Weight: 12.5 grams
Varieties: Several known, most minor die variations. The 1892-O, Micro O is the best known, showing a smaller than normal O mintmark, presumably from a punch designed for the quarter rather than the half dollar.
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
The Complete Guide to Barber Halves. David Lawrence Feigenbaum. DLRC Press.
The Complete Guide to Certified Barber Coinage. David Lawrence Feigenbaum and John Feigenbaum. DLRC Press.
The Authoritative Reference on Barber Half Dollars. Kevin Flynn. Brooklyn Gallery.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.