Barber Coinage, Or, The Coin Contest Fail

In the 19th century, a seated Liberty featured on most U.S. silver coins. As the design looked rather English to many Americans, and as artistic tastes changed, as time went on more and more people began to object to it.

In a scathing commentary, a magazine called The Galaxy wrote about the silver coins in 1876:
“Why is it we have the ugliest money of all civilized nations? The design is poor, commonplace, tasteless, characterless, and the execution is like thereunto…That young woman sitting on nothing in particular, wearing nothing to speak of, looking over her shoulder at nothing imaginable, and bearing in her left hand something that looks like a broomstick with a woolen nightcap on it—what is she doing there?”

The Seated Liberty coin.

An 1837 Seated Liberty coin.

In 1890 President Benjamin Harrison signed to make all U.S. coins open for redesign, after which they would be altered 25 years later, to be repeated every 25 years.

Charles Barber, the chief engraver of U.S. coins, suggested a contest for new designs where artists would submit low-relief models as entries. The Mint director Edward Leech enthusiastically agreed, and the contest was in motion. Anyone could enter, but Leech made sure to specifically invite ten hand-picked artists to enter. The winner would receive $500, with no offers for any of the runner-ups.

One would expect a happy result – but the contest ended up as a failure. Out of the hundreds of entries, the jury rejected all of them, with only two designs receiving an honorable mention.

Leech commented on the results: “It is not likely that another competition will ever be tried for the production of designs for United States coins. The one just ended was too wretched a failure …

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“The result is not very flattering to the boasted artistic development of this country, inasmuch as only two of the three hundred suggestions submitted were good enough to receive honorable mention.”

Following that epic fail, Barber himself designed new coins. However, in his first attempt he disregarded the Mint director’s instructions. On his second try, Leech asked for further changes. Barber complained abut the constant demands for changes, and finally Leech chose not to extend further design requests but only communicated one more concern, sending Barber an olive branch from the National Botanical Garden as a design reference.

A number of problems continued to occur; Leech had second thoughts about a design with clouds over an eagle; two more versions had to be made; the words “Liberty” and “E Pluribus Unum” were emboldened but still wore away in circulation.

The coins were finally struck on January 2, 1892, and the disliked Seated Liberty was no more. After a complicated design battle the U.S. finally had its new coins.

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