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1792 half disme generates healthy debate

Trying to figure out the most historic coin in the history of the United States is a significant challenge. High on the list is the 1792 half disme, which was not made inside the United States Mint.

NN0213itema.jpgLawmakers agreed on denominations for the new coins of the U.S. on April 2, 1792, which included a half disme. The question was where they would be made, as there was no U.S. Mint. It was going to take time to set one up, even with Thomas Jefferson in charge of the project.

The 1792 half disme circulated, but was made before there was a U.S. Mint.

While they were waiting for a mint, John Harper struck 1792 half dismes. His day job was a sawmaker and by night, he was the U.S. Mint. His operation was located on the corner of Sixth and Cherry streets in Philadelphia. His role as a mint is seen in a notation by Jefferson, who wrote that he had taken ?75D to the Mint to be coined into half dismes.?

NN0213itemb.jpgAs there was no mint, that had to be Harper.

There is a story that Martha Wash-ington was the model for the coin, but she had no known modeling career and the figure looks nothing like the known depictions of her. The design is more similar to the Birch cent of the period.

Jefferson never said where he got the ?75D? in silver. An interesting source was mentioned in Don Taxay?s book, The United States Mint and Coinage, where there is an account of James McClintock, who had interviewed longtime Mint employee Adam Eckfeldt, stating, ?In conversation with Mr. Adam Eckfeldt today at the Mint, he informed me that the half dismes above described were struck at the request of Gen. Washington to the extent of one hundred dollars, which he deposited in Bullion of Specie for the purpose.?

Right away we have a problem ? Eckfeldt says $100 and Jefferson says $75. The historical number used for a mintage agrees with Jefferson, as it has been put at 1,500.

The purpose of the 1792 half disme is also uncertain. Eckfeldt is quoted as saying that Washington, ?distributed them as presents ? some were sent to Europe, but the greater number of them, he believes, were given to acquaintances in Virginia ? No more of them were coined except those for Gen. W ? they were never designed as currency ? the Mint at the time was not fully ready for going into operation.?

Q. David Bowers observed, ?In the strictest sense, it is a federal coin authorized under the 1792 legislation, but is not a product made within the walls of the first Mint building.?

Two people seemed to have no questions, as Washington announced to Congress Nov. 6, 1792, before there was a U.S. Mint, ?There has also been a small beginning in the mintage of half dismes; the want of small coins in circulation calling first attention to them.?

Jefferson, who as Secretary of State was responsible for a mint, said in his accounts on July 13, 1792, ?rec?d from the Mint 1,500 half dismes of the new coinage.?

We know this ? they circulated and people saved them, with the 1792 now listing for $1,250 in AG-3 and an XF-40 at $16,500. The Professional Coin Grading Service totals show 63 examples graded and about 10 were Mint State, but fully half fell between VG and VF.

There might be 200 or more known to exist today, so it?s a coin many can hope to own. The eagle?s breast can be lightly struck and there might be adjustment marks, but whatever the problems, nothing can take away from the history of the 1792 half disme.

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