U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber had the daunting task of redesigning the half dollar along with the dime and quarter dollar denominations after a public design competition failed to generate satisfying alternatives.
The Mint Act of Sept. 26, 1890, allowed for coins in use for at least 25 years to be redesigned. The coins named after the engraver who designed them would be the first to be affected by the new mandate.
The final designs selected for the Barber half dollar would be the same as used for the quarter.
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The obverse design Barber initially submitted showed Columbia standing holding a liberty pole with an eagle in the background. This design was ditched in favor of Mint Director Edward Leech's desire for a head of Liberty comparable to several French bronze and silver coins from the Third Republic.
For the reverse, Leech leaned toward the use of the national standard of a eagle symbolizing the nation's strength.
A number of pattern designs were submitted for the reverse of both the quarter and half dollar, but Mint and Treasury officials had difficulty in selecting a design. They took their time trying to settle on the number of points on the stars, the number of olive leaves and arrows.
The obverse design showing a bust right of Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap encircled by a wreath captured 13 six-pointed stars instead of five-pointed stars (normally found on U.S. coins) around the visage.
The reverse design selection became somewhat more complicated. The adopted design dropped the clouds above the eagle's head, moved the stars from points around the eagle to the field above the eagle, and moved the ribbon with E PLURIBUS UNUM grasped in the eagle's beak running to behind the eagle's neck instead of in front.
On the adopted reverse, the eagle's right wing (left side of coin) crosses the letter E in UNITED below the middle serif, leaving most of the letter exposed.
The first Barber half dollars were ejected from the coinage presses at the Philadelphia Mint at 9 a.m. Jan 2, 1892.
Eight years later, the obverse hub for die production was modified for use on coins beginning in 1901. The difference is most readily seen in at Liberty's ear. The Type II hub has a fuller lobe and clearly defined rib of central cartilage.
Half dollars were struck at all four Mint production facilities for circulation: Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver and New Orleans. There were no Barber half dollars struck in 1916.
There were also a number of Mint mark changes for the half dollar series, for New Orleans and San Francisco, according to David Lawrence's book, The Complete Guide to Barber Halves.
Most of the half dollars struck at the New Orleans Mint carry a medium-sized O Mint mark, while some of the later years (1903 and 1905) also have a more wide open O. A micro O Mint mark, the size of which was used on the Barber quarter, is found on some 1892 half dollars. It is also reported on some 1898 issues as well.
Lawrence notes at least four types of S Mint marks from San Francisco can be identified for the series. Early dates, 1892 to 1898, exhibited a well-rounded, closed Mint mark. A second type, also found on 1898 coins, is more open. The third type is straighter and more open and can be found as early as 1899.
The fourth type is a thin S that appears later in the series. Lawrence notes some years have several Mint mark types, and some examples carry Mint marks that do not match any of the four other identified types.
Barber half dollars were produced for the minimum 25 years, after which Adolph A. Weinman's Walking Liberty half dollar design was approved.
There are 73 coins by date and Mint mark to make up the basic set. The keys and the semi-keys to the Barber half dollar series include the 1892-O, 1895-S, 1913, 1914 and 1915. Other tough dates include 1892-O Micro O, 1893-S, 1894, 1896, 1896-O, 1896-S, 1897-O, 1897-S, 1898-O, 1901-S, 1903 and 1913-S.