Barber Half Dollar
Barber Half Dollars were struck for a total of 24 years and in 73 different date-and-mint combinations.
If you’ve been around coin collecting for a while, you may have heard the term, “slick Barbers.” That term has nothing to do with any kind of greasy hair crème a barber might use on you. Instead, you might hear a collector or dealer say something like, “There was nothing in that coin lot but a bunch of worn Indian cents, some dateless Buffalos, and a few slick Barbers.” The “slick Barbers” in question are, of course, worn-down Barber silver coins— they could be Barber dimes, Barber quarters or Barber half dollars. But if the term “slick Barbers” refers to any of these silver coins of 1892-1916, it’s the Barber half dollar. Simply put, most Barber half dollars come down to us today as slick, shadowy coins with virtually no detail left.
The Barber half dollar is actually quite a beautiful-looking coin when it DOES retain most of its detail. That’s why if you should ever come across one graded Very Fine or better at auction, you’ll likely face stiff competition from other bidders. Really nice Barber half dollars simply don’t turn up that often! Clearly, two factors are the culprits: one, the Barber half dollar was not struck in high relief, and secondly, the Barber half dollar clearly circulated a lot during the Gilded Age!
Interestingly, the Barber half dollar shared space in commerce with ANOTHER type of U.S. silver dollar: the 1892 and 1893 Columbus Head half dollar! As you may know already, this 1892-93 half dollar issue, better known as the Columbian Commemorative Half Dollar, was a special-issue commemorative coin not meant to circulate. But many of these Columbus half dollars, sold specially at the World’s Columbian Exposition DID circulate —so to the uninitiated who received them in change, it must have been puzzling as to why there were TWO types of U.S. half dollars dated 1892 and 1893!
Designer Charles Barber actually based his Liberty head design on the Liberty head of the 1848-52 silver coinage of the French Second Republic. But while the Barber dime had a reverse that closely mirrored the wreath reverse of the earlier Seated Liberty dimes, the Barber quarter and half dollar both featured a new eagle design: the eagle has its wings spread dramatically, and in one talon he clenches an olive branch, while in the other, he clenches a bundle of arrows. In its beak, the eagle holds a banner reading “E. Pluribus Unum”. Charles Barber also introduced a new design element to U.S. coinage with his quarter and half dollar: on the obverse of both, the stars are six-pointed, while the stars on the reverse are, for the first time on U.S. coins, five-pointed.
The half dollar received new life with the introduction of the Barber half dollar. In the last years of the Seated Liberty half dollar, from 1878 to 1891, half dollar mintages plummeted to almost negligible figures (except for a slight rebound in 1891 with a relatively healthy mintage of 200,600). But with the introduction of the Barber half dollar in 1892, mintages for each year regularly exceeded 1 million, often going up to 4 or 5 million in a given year. Throughout 24 years and four mints, mintages dropped to below 500,000 only a handful of times.
Speaking of four mints—yes, the Barber half dollar is the last half dollar to be struck at more than three mints. Specifically, the Barber half dollar was struck at the Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco and Denver mints. The last Barber half struck at the New Orleans mint was in 1909, while the first Denver mint Barber half was struck in 1906. The mintmark appears on the reverse beneath the eagle tail feathers.
After 1915, the Barber half dollar was replaced by (according to most) the even more beautiful Walking Liberty half dollar in 1916. Still, the Barber half dollar, especially in high grade condition, is a lovely, classic coin in its own right—a coin whose design typifies and well represents the age in which it circulated.
Key dates in the series include the following: 1892-O (retails $325 in Good), 1892-S (retails $250 in Good), 1893-S (retails $200 in Good), 1896-S (retails $92.50 in Good), 1897-O (retails $170 in Good), 1897-S (retails $150 in Good), 1913-P (retails $70 in Good), 1914-P (retails $150 in Good), and 1915-P (retails $95 in Good). In other words, pay attention to those 1890’s dates and those Philadelphia issues (which will NOT have a mintmark) from the teens. Easily the smallest mintage half dollars are the 1913-P, 1914-P and [[1915-P Barber Half Dollar|1915-P] halves, all with mintages between 124,000 and 189,000!
Collectors of Barber halves are looking for quality condition just as much – or at least ALMOST as much – as for scarce dates. A common-date Barber half dollar is a scarce coin if it’s in nice (as in Very Fine or better) condition! Just look at how Barber half dollar values progress for a common-date Barber half—in this case, we’ll use the quite common 1908-D: in Good, this half dollar retails $12, and in Very Good, the value makes barely a skip up to $13.50. Once we get up to Fine, the 1908-D makes a noticeable value advance to $30, but go up one grade to Very Fine and –wow—the value is now $85! In Extra Fine there is another nice-sized jump to $155, then another big jump to $295 in About Uncirculated. Then, clearly to Barber collectors, there is a big difference between and AU and an UNC, because a basic Uncirculated 1908-D Barber half dollar retails at $485! Clearly, nice-condition Barber half dollars are in demand and command a premium.
So what does a "nice grade" Barber half dollar look like? The first thing your eyes should zero in on, is the headband on the Liberty bust. Can you see most or all of the word, "Liberty" on the headband? If you can, that's the first sign that you have a nicer Barber half. Now look at the face: is there eye and mouth detail? If so, we're really rolling now. How about the leaves on the wreath that adorns the Liberty head-- are the leaves outlined? Even better! Is there some hair and ear detail also visible? If so, you just might have a Barber half dollar that's Very Fine or better! On the reverse, you want to see most or all of "E Pluribus Unum" in the banner, as well as to see at least 50-75% of the eagle feather detail. These are the qualities that elevate a Barber half above the "slick Barber" norm!