The Lathes of Giants – William Barber by David Kielek

As part of a continuing series to familiarize the public with great artists of heroic persona, the men who worked the gold and silver of our national coinage, I will periodically feature short biographies of the creators of our splendid US coins.

Today’s entry is William Barber, British by birth, American by choice, he came to our shores in 1852, family in tow. Himself the son of an engraver, William (1807-1879) was apprenticed to his father in his early years and gained wide experience in such varied arts as typesetting for cards and labels, and fine silver engraving.

After settling in Boston in September of 1852, he continued his craft, designing a host of patterns (prototypes for coins for possible circulation), trade medals, commemoratives, etc. His employer of long standing in Boston, Gorham & Co, manufactured silver and gold jewelry, and had a reputation similar to famous contemporaries as Tiffany & Co.

With such long exposure to and experience in the trades of gold and silver and precious metals fabrication, die making and pattern design, it is no surprise that William Barber eventually came to the attention of US Mint officials, specifically James B. Longacre. The Chief Engraver hired him as an assistant engraver just as the civil war was winding down in 1865. Moving to Philadelphia, Barber set to work designing patterns and medals.

Upon the death of Longacre in 1869, William Barber was named Fifth Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, at a salary of $3,000 per year. This position he held until his death on August 31, 1879. In a sign of the clichéd patronage at the Mint that Longacre had tried to eradicate, Barber immediately hired his untested son Charles as an assistant engraver.

Primarily renowned for his work in pattern coins, Barber was also responsible for production of a variety of fine medals. The dies and prototypes for these coins and medals were repeated, improved upon, slightly modified, etc., over many iterations. Two of the prototypical examples of William Barber’s work,, would be the silver wreath seated liberty design, example shown here: and the Amazonian seated liberty quarter.

Although William Barber’s body of work has been considered inconsistent and uninspired by some, there is no doubt that he was one of the most influential and prolific pattern designers in the history of the US Mint. In addition, his fame may have only been increased by some of his poorer productions. For example, the newly-created twenty-cent piece Barber designed (1875-1878) was immediately unpopular, due to it’s similarity in design and size to the Liberty Seated quarter then in circulation. After a large run in the coin’s first year, production dropped to practically nothing; only extremely rare proofs from the mintage of 1877 and 1878 are extant. In addition, many of the coins that were minted were melted down at the Carson City or Philadelphia mints due to the lack of public…

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