United States Barber Coinage - Inception

Inception

Three days before the signing of the 1890 act, Barber wrote to the superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint, Oliver Bosbyshell, setting forth proposed terms of a competition to select new coin designs. Barber suggested that entrants be required to submit models, as opposed to drawings, and that the designs be in low relief, which was used for coins. He proposed that the entries include the lettering and denomination, as submissions without them would not adequately show the appearance of the finished coin. He received a reply that due to other work, the Mint would not be able to address the question until the spring of 1891.

On October 16, 1890, a new Mint director, Edward O. Leech, took office. Leech, aged 38 at the time, had spent his career at the Bureau of the Mint, and was an enthusiastic supporter of redesign. He took the precaution of obtaining recommendations from Barber as to suitable outside artists who might participate in a competition. Since most of the proposed artists were New York-based, Andrew Mason, superintendent of the New York Assay Office, was given the task of finalizing the list of invitees. Leading Mason's list of ten names was that of Saint-Gaudens. Mason sent Leech the recommendations on April 3, 1891; the following day, the Mint director announced the competition, open to the public, but he specifically invited the ten artists named by Mason to participate. Besides Saint-Gaudens, artists asked to compete included Daniel Chester French, Herbert Adams, and Kenyon Cox. Although Barber had warned the director that reputable artists would likely not enter a contest in which only the winner received compensation, Leech offered a $500 prize to the winner, and no payments to anyone else. He sought new designs for both sides of the dollar, and for the obverses of the half dollar, quarter, and dime—Leech was content to let the reverses of the Seated Liberty coins continue. By law, an eagle had to appear on the quarter and half dollar, but could not appear on the dime.

Most of the artists conferred in New York and responded in a joint letter that they would be willing to participate, but not on the terms set. They proposed a competition with set fees for sketches and designs submitted by the invited artists, to be judged by a jury of their peers, and with the Mint committed to replace the Seated Liberty coins with the result. They also insisted that the same artist create both sides of a given coin, and that more time be given to allow the development of designs. Leech was unable to meet these terms, as there was only enough money available for the single prize. In addition to inviting the ten artists, he had sent thousands of solicitations through the country; a number of designs were submitted in response to the circulars. To judge the submissions, he appointed a jury consisting of Saint-Gaudens, Barber, and Henry Mitchell, a Boston seal engraver and member of the 1890 Assay Commission. The committee met in June 1891 and quickly rejected all entries.

Leech was quoted in the press regarding the result of the contest:

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 ... 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.

Barber wrote years later about the competition, "many were sent in, but Mr. St. Gaudens, who was appointed one of the committee to pass upon designs, objected to everything submitted". Numismatic historian Roger Burdette explained the artistic differences between the two men:

It is likely they were so far apart in their artistic understanding that neither listened to what the other had to say ... Barber was from the English trades-apprentice approach where engraving and die sinking were crafts closely aligned to other metal workers such as machine tool makers. His father and grandfather were both engravers. Saint-Gaudens was a classically trained sculptor who began his career as an apprentice cameo cutter in New York, later moving to Paris and Rome for extensive training while perfecting his artistry. Barber generally worked in small, circular formats—a three-inch medal was a large size for his sculptures. Saint-Gaudens was uncomfortable with small medals and typically designed life-size or larger figures ... the 1891 competition turned the two against each other for the rest of their lives.

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