Barber, William. Barber became chief engraver at the Philadelphia Mint following the death on January 1, 1869, of James B. Longacre, who had held the post since 1844. He produced many dies for pattern coins during the decade of the 1870s, most notably a large oeuvre of 20-cent pieces 1874-1875, commercial dollars and trade dollars 1873-1876, and silver dollars 1878-1879, among numerous others. His work varies from the ordinary to the inspired, perhaps his 1872 Amazonian silver coins representing his most acclaimed accomplishment in the latter category. For several years after Longacre's death, Barber used Longacre hubs and models to create new varieties of Liberty Seated motifs, later making his own version (which seemed to fall short of Longacre's work). Important to the study of patterns, William Barber was front row center during the most pivotal era of pattern issuance in American history, during the regime of Henry Linderman, during the making and/or distribution of restrikes, irrelevant mulings, etc. No doubt, if he had written his numismatic biography, many secrets would have been revealed. Today, the pattern field is richly endowed with his work.
William Barber was born in London on May 2, 1807, the son of engraver John Barber. He learned the engraving trade at a young age, and in London he worked with the engraving of silver plate tableware and the making of dies for printing cards and labels, the latter for Messrs. De La Rue & Co. In September 1852 he emigrated to the United States.
For the ensuing decade he practiced the engraving trade in Boston. In an 1860 directory of that city we find him located as a die sinker and letter cutter at 8 Congress Square. No doubt he knew Joseph Merriam, James A. Bolen, and other engraving luminaries of the Bay State. Concerning that period in his life, a contributor to the American Journal of Numismatics, October 1879, sniffed: "He was employed in Boston, but could not find much to do in the way of high-quality coins and medals, although there was work making "the inferior class of tradesmen's tokens, political medalets, and the like." That holier-than-thou connoisseur of high quality and coins and medals might be distressed to learn that in 1999, such inferior trade tokens and political medals are more avidly sought after and generally bring far greater prices than to typical medals of the 1860s! During the Civil War he worked for Gorham & Co., maker of silver and gold goods, a competitor to Tiffany & Co.
In 1865 he was hired as an assistant engraver at the Philadelphia Mint, where he worked under Longacre. In January 1869, William Barber was named chief engraver, and following timeworn tradition, immediately hired his untrained son Charles as an assistant. In 1877 Barber's compensation as chief engraver was $3,000 per year.
In August 1879, Barber vacationed at Atlantic City on the New Jersey coast, then as now a popular seaside spa. He ventured into the surf (probably dressed from head to foot, as was the custom in those days), but became chilled. Soon he was wracked by chills and fever. He hoped the illness would be transitory, but it worsened, he was forced to cut his vacation short and return home. On August 31 he died.
A few years later, in the American Journal of Numismatics, July 1883, Patterson DuBois, made the following comment, which was subsequently given wide circulation when reprinted by George G. Evans (he of "gift book" and encased postage stamp fame), in Illustrated History of the United States Mint: "Besides much original work on pattern coins, he also produced over 40 medals, public and private. The work on all of them was creditable, but we may specify those of Agassiz, Rittenhouse, and Henry, as very superior specimens of art. Mr. Barber was assisted by Mr. William H. Key. Charles E. Barber, and Mr. George T. Morgan."
Below is an example of Barber's work - the Amazonian design J1201/P1341.