One of the most popular and challenging U.S. coin series is the Barber dime – not only because it's the work of the prolific and controversial Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, but because of the number of key and semi-key coins that comprise the 74-coin set. Varieties also abound.
The denomination also provides one of the great coin mysteries in American numismatics: the production of the Proof 1894-S dime, with just 24 pieces believed struck.
The Barber dime was born as the result of a design competition that was dubbed "a wretched failure."
COIN VALUES: See how much Barber dimes are worth today
Lamenting the "inferiority of our coinage," Mint Director James P. Kimball was successful in persuading Vermont Sen. Justin S. Morill to sponsor a bill authorizing the Treasury Department to redesign those coins in use for at least 25 years. Approved Sept. 26, 1890, the Mint Act allowed for dimes, quarter dollars and half dollars to be redesigned after 1891.
Treasury's initial plans were to invite the 10 most prominent artists in America for a design competition. However, the artists bickered over the two-month preparation period as being too short and the remuneration for the work highly inadequate.
Unnerved by the demands to improve the situation, Treasury scrapped its original proposal, opting for an open design competition judged by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, and Henry Mitchell, a gem and seal engraver from Boston.
The results were abominable. Only two of the 300 designs submitted were worthy of mention. And the egomaniacal Saint-Gaudens and Barber both believed they were the only ones capable of producing a suitable design.
Kimball's successor as Mint director, Edward O. Leech, opted for Barber.
Barber's original design as submitted to Leech was modeled after British coinage. It depicted Columbia standing with Liberty pole and sword in front of an eagle. Leech rejected the design and asked that the replacement bear a Liberty head similar to several French bronze and silver coins of the Third Republic. The result was a Liberty bust facing right wearing a Phrygian cap. Leech sought to retain the reverse from the Seated Liberty series.
The first Barber dimes were produced at the Philadelphia Mint on Jan. 2, 1892. During its production run, the Barber dime underwent obverse and reverse hub changes. From 1892 to 1900, the leaves in Liberty's wreath on the obverse have round tips and the leaf below the second S in states is distant.
Later in 1900, through the end of production in 1916, the leaves are more pointed and the leaf below the second S is close.
On Reverse 1, the right ribbon on the wreath below the bow is thin. On Reverse 2, the right ribbon is thicker with an extra fold on the underside. Rev. 1 was used on the 1892-1901, 1903-S and 1905-S coins; Rev. 2, 1901-1916. Some dates are reported using both reverses.
Several different Mint marks were used. From 1892-1898, the S Mint mark from San Francisco was thick in the center diagonal, leaving the upper and lower loops fairly closed. Beginning in 1899, several S styles were used, in some cases, more than one in the same year.
There are also different styles for the O Mint mark from New Orleans, with a Micro O on some specimens produced in 1905. The Mint mark is believed to have been the one used for the Barber quarter dollars. The 1905-O Micro O is a highly sought variety.
There are 13 date/Mint mark coins with business strike mintages of fewer than 1 million coins each for circulation : 1892-S, 1894-O, 1895, 1895-O, 1896-O, 1896-S, 1897-O, 1901-S, 1903-S, 1904-S, 1909-D, 1913-S and 1915-S. The 1895-O has the lowest with 440,000 pieces struck. While it is elusive, it can be obtained at a hefty price.
Although it has a mintage of 2,010,000, the 1900-O dime is considered the most underrated in the series, rivaling the 1895-O coin in scarcity. Other dates also offer a challenge.
What many Barber collectors dream of owning is an 1894-S dime. Twenty-four were produced but only nine can be traced today. Why were so few coins struck? Research, based on Mint records, published in 2006 concludes that 24 Barber dimes were struck at the San Francisco Mint on June 9, 1894, to round out the total silver coined for the Mint's 1894 fiscal year. It also supports the theory that the 1894-S Barber dimes were created as an unintentional rarity, with a number of examples exchanged by Mint employees for coins in their pockets and others sold to prominent collectors in the San Francisco area.
Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:
Cents and half cents:
2- and 3-cent coins:
Dimes and half dimes: