Normally speaking, the 1855 half cent gets as little attention as a 3-year-old car gets driving down the highway. Like a middle-aged car, the 1855 half cent is just not very noticeable because it is rather common.
In 1855, the bulk of the American public was doing their best to ignore half cents no matter what date. The public was tired of large copper coins, especially half cents. Over the years, the half cent had some low mintages as well as proof-only or even zero mintages.
The 1855 was no exception, with a mintage of 56,500 pieces. That, if anything, made the 1855 half cent one of the higher-mintage dates of the period. There was in fact some collecting interest at the time, which would grow significantly with the introduction of the Flying Eagle cent.
However, this doesn’t mean there was any last minute saving of half cents. In fact, when the public turned in their old copper coins for Flying Eagle cents, it is likely that many of the returned coins were half cents.
In his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards, author Q. David Bowers describes one individual who appears to have countered the majority, Judge J.P. Putnam. When his estate was included in an 1885 sale, it included a surprising run of 1855 half cents, which there is evidence he bought at least some while in Philadelphia for the Assay Commission. There appear to have been 44 examples that were uncirculated in five lots, while another 31 pieces appear to have been in assorted circulated grades.
To make matters more interesting, Bowers recounts another hoard of 1855 half cents reported by a Troy, N.Y., dealer, with the number placed at 500 coins in a cloth bag all described as “bright red.”
Although it is certainly possible that some of the Putnam hoard ended up in this second hoard, the description does not suggest this. Whatever the case, the question is whether these hoards are a major part of our supply of the 1855 half cent today.
Unfortunately, most of the time coins from hoards do not come with an easy identification as to what hoard they were once in.
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In the case of the reported 500 examples of the 1855, all were allegedly red, while with the glowing auction description of the 44 from 1885, we have to assume that these coins were red or red and brown. You are not going to find many coins like those described that will grade below Mint State.
If we look at the Professional Coin Grading Service, we find the company has graded 233 1855 half cent examples that were called red and another 232 that were described as red and brown.
At the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, we see 152 examples of the 1855 half cent that were called red and brown and another 92 that were deemed red.
We have to assume there were at least some repeat submissions, but even so, it would appear that the hoards played a major role in our supply today. The 1855, at $195 in MS-60, is not an especially tough half cent.
Whether other dates of the half cent had hoards that have provided a large part of their supply today cannot always be determined. However, it is clear that the 1855 half cent is available today in top grades thanks in large part to its past hoards.