The half dollar is one of only two or possibly three silver coins of the United States to be produced in 1794. It is a denomination that has been produced on and off from that day to the present. Some question whether half dollars are really needed and point out that since 2002 it has been produced just for collectors.
Tthe fact remains that half dollars continue to be produced and with production stretching all the way back to 1794 it makes a half dollar collection a large and very interesting one that quite literally traces the history of the nation and its coins.
The half dollar like the other original denominations was authorized by Congress in April of 1792. That authorization, however, left a lot to be done before the first half dollar would be produced. The first item of business was to establish and outfit a mint. At the time the closest thing to a mint was the saw-making business of a fellow by the name of John Harper in Philadelphia, which was where it is believed the 1792 half disme was produced. That establishment, however, was not in the running to be the United States Mint. That meant Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State was put to work quickly as he was responsible at the time trying for getting a Mint up and running. It wasn’t until 1873 that the Treasury took over oversight of the Mint.
In fact, Jefferson was able to get the Mint ready for operation in less than a year, but then a new problem arose as the officials had to post a bond before they were allowed to produce any coins made of gold and silver. They did not want to or were unable to post the bonds required. Jefferson’s considerable diplomatic skills were put to the test trying to solve that problem. While that went on, the Mint could only produce copper half cents and large cents in 1793.
Finally, in 1794 the bond issue was settled. The amount required was lowered. At that point officials made a curious decision. The largest press they had was not large enough to produce silver dollars. A larger press was expected to arrive the following year, but the decision was made to try to produce silver dollars even though the press was known to be inadequate for the purpose. The decision was made more on the political grounds of keeping merchants happy than technical ones.
The results were less than impressive as a total of 1,758 silver dollars were delivered. No one really believes that they set out to make exactly 1,758 coins. In all probability the attempt was to strike at least 2,000 and possibly more. The 1,758 were the number that managed to meet what were almost certainly very minimal quality standards. We can say that with some certainty as the known examples of the 1794 dollar tend to be weakly struck and they have other assorted problems as well.
The half dollar was next and a total of 23,464 1794 half dollars with a Flowing Hair obverse and Small Eagle reverse were delivered. These were the first examples of a type that would last through 1795. Fortunately for the budget of type collectors, you do not have to depend on the 1794 for inclusion in a set, although it is available. The 1795, however, with a mintage of 299,680 is much more available and much less expensive at a price of $1,025 for the most available variety in G-4 while an MS-60 begins around $46,500.
The best estimates are that at least 3,500 circulated examples of the type exist with perhaps 100 examples in Mint State. The total was helped by the discovery of a massive hoard of well over 100,000 coins in Economy, Pa., years ago. The Harmony Society hoard was primarily half dollars including dates from 1794-1836 and it has provided the market with significant numbers of types from the period, including significant percentages of our supply of both the 1794 and 1795 although the hoard is more important for later dates.
In the case of the coins available today of the first Flowing Hair type, it is likely that you will see most in grades of F-12 or lower. Assorted problems are to be expected even on the nicest examples as the planchets were routinely filed to reduce their weight, leaving adjustment marks. Strikes were also frequently light and that is especially common on the breast of the eagle.
In 1796 the design was changed to a Draped Bust rendition of Miss Liberty on obverse with a Small Eagle reverse. The type would last from 1796 to 1797, but it is extremely tough, causing Q. David Bowers in his book A Guide Book Of United States Type Coins to suggest that the type is “the Holy Grail, the rarest by far.”
The reason why the type is so tough is that half dollar mintages until 1804 tended to be determined by dollar totals. The people who brought in the silver were allowed to select denominations and if dollars were possible, they would routinely pick the larger dollars. If, however, there were no dollars being produced as was the case after 1804 the half dollar would become the largest silver denomination and its totals would rise.
In 1796 and 1797, however, there were dollars and that resulted in a combined half dollar mintage of the two dates of just 3,918 pieces. Moreover, these were not the first half dollars so there was basically no saving and even the large Harmony Society Hoard only had a couple examples. It all results in a G-4 price of $36,500 for the most available examples while an MS-60 is at about $300,000 and there are very few examples with any hope of being called Mint State. In all grades combined there are probably only a few hundred examples of the type, making it difficult to be too demanding as finding any example in any grade is a challenge.
The next half dollar would not be produced until 1801 at which time the reverse was changed to a large Heraldic eagle and that design would continue through 1807. While officials were apparently happy with the design it had a production problem as it would not strike up well almost always leaving at least one weak area. The 1806 and especially the 1807 are well known as being particularly troublesome to find with a decent strike.
While there are numbers of this type available, finding a well struck coin can be a real challenge potentially requiring you to pay more than the current price listings of $195 in G-4 and $9,750 in MS-60. Naturally the two dates that are most available are the 1806 and 1807, the very dates where the striking seems to be the biggest problem. The stars on the obverse and reverse tend to be the area most frequently poorly struck, but with this type a weak strike can be evident in almost any part of the design.
The long-lasting John Reich Capped Bust half dollar made its debut in 1807. The design would last until 1836 and with the production of silver dollars suspended in 1804, the half dollar mintages were frequently more than 1 million pieces. In addition, it was this type that was heavily represented in the Harmony Society Hoard thus making an already fairly large supply even larger. The result are prices starting at around $55 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $1,000 and up with a few MS-65 examples being available beginning around $11,500, Certainly there are nice examples of the type available but strikes can vary greatly and in some cases dies were used far too long, causing quality to suffer.
A modification of the design was required in 1836 with the denomination expressed as 50 CENTS with a reeded edge as opposed to the lettered edge used previously, which typically read FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR. The Bust was also changed being reduced in size. The reason for the changes was the introduction of a new steam-powered press. The type, however, was only produced in 1836 and 1837 and the 1836 mintage was really a trial estimated at 1,200 pieces. Fortunately, the 1837 total was 3,629,820 pieces, which makes it available at $58 in G-4, $1,100 in MS-60 and $24,500 in MS-65. Ironically although striking is better it seems to be the 1836, which is the better struck of the two, perhaps reflecting greater care taken as a test while the 1837 was produced in large numbers under routine circumstances.
While every collector knows that age does not necessarily mean rare and valuable, it still strikes me that it is a privilege to be able to buy a fairly large silver coin for less than $100 that was current when Andrew Jackson was President.
The change made for 1838 and 1839 was in the denomination, which was now expressed as HALF DOL. While there were only two years of production of the type but at both Philadelphia and New Orelans, the Philadelphia totals were large, making the type available at around $58 in G-4 with an 1838 in MS-60 being the most available at $1,125 with an MS-65 at $21,500.
In 1839 there was another half dollar in the form of the first Seated Liberty half dollar designed by Christian Gobrecht. The 1839 is considered by many to be a separate type as it had no drapery at the left elbow of Liberty. Later in the year Robert Ball Hughes would modify the design and add drapery making the 1839 without drapery slightly different. Without drapery the 1839 is $40 in G-4 but the type demand shows as it is $6,250 in MS-60 and $200,000 in MS-65.
With the drapery added, the Seated Liberty design would remain basically unchanged until 1853, making it readily available at prices starting at around $30 for a G-4 with an MS-60 at $440 while an MS-65 starts at $4,500. Striking varies with New Orleans issues usually being weaker than those of other facilities but with solid supplies you can examine enough examples to find the coin you want.
There was a change in 1853 reflecting the fact that the amount of silver in the half dollar was reduced slightly. That had become necessary when gold was discovered in California as the huge amounts of gold had upset the traditional silver-to-gold ratio in the market, making the cost of producing silver coins higher than their face value. The public learned of this and immediately began to hoard silver coins with the Congress being forced to take action in 1853 to reduce slightly the amount of silver so that the regular silver issues could circulate. To mark coins made with the slightly lower amounts of silver, officials added arrows to each side of the date and rays on the reverse.
The 1853 Seated Liberty half dollar with arrows and rays would be a one-year type, but with mintages of 3,532,708 in Philadelphia and 1,328,000 in New Orleans and a surprising amount of saving, it is available but at higher prices than might be expected because of the type demand. The more available Philadelphia example is at $31 in G-4, $1,400 in MS-60 and $24,500 in MS-65 and it should be noted that they were produced in haste so they can be weakly struck.
In 1854 the rays were removed and for 1854 and 1855 there would only be arrows at the date. The mintages were fortunately large and the type can be found starting at $28 in G-4 with an MS-60 at about $675 while an MS-65 starts around $8,000 with the 1854-O with the largest mintage of over 5 million pieces being regarded by most as the most readily available date.
In 1856 the arrows at the date were removed and this would create yet another type that would last for a decade, although in reality it was basically a return to the design that had began in 1839 once the drapery was added. Produced for a decade and sometimes in large numbers the type is readily available at $28 in G-4 and around $350 in MS-60 and $4,800 in MS-65.
In 1866 the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse. Once again, finding an example is no problem as G-4 examples can be found at $28 and MS-60 at $350.
Arrows were put back at the date to denote an increase in the silver weight. These were used for two years. In 1875, the design reverted to the previous one.
An example of the arrows type can be purchased for $32 in G-4 and an MS-60 is $850.
For the 1875-1891 design, which matches the one in use 1866-1872, you can get G-4 examples for basically silver value while the MS-60 can be had for as little as $360.
The available supply tends to be from 1878 or before as after 1878 the mintages of half dollars dropped to basically token levels. The most available dates can be found for around $16 in G-4 while an MS-65 starts at about $3,500.
By the early 1890s officials were anxious to make a change in the design but they waited for Congress to decide whether congressional approval was needed or not. The Congress decided that any time after a design had been in use for 25 years it could be changed by the Secretary of the Treasury without consulting Congress. The Seated Liberty design at the time was basically at twice that total so attempts were made to find the best possible new design. The efforts did not work and ultimately Chief Engraver Charles Barber was assigned the task and the Barber half dollar was the result.
The Barber half dollar was never very popular or heavily saved and while there are still plenty around in lower circulated grades, finding a nice Barber half dollar for the current $465 MS-60 or $2,925 MS-65 listing can be a challenge.
The very law which had enabled officials to change designs in 1892 would be used to bring the Barber half dollar to an abrupt halt in 1916 when a design competition produced the A.A. Weinman Walking Liberty half dollar. The Walking Liberty half dollar is readily available at prices around $36 in MS-60 while an MS-65 would start at around $135.
It should be pointed out that while not considered a different type, the 1916 and some of the 1917 mintages from Denver and San Francisco had the mintmark below the word TRUST on the obverse. Starting with some of the 1917 mintage this would be change to a place on the reverse at about 8 o’clock. Many like to include an obverse mintmark coin in their type collection with the 1916-D at $360 in MS-60 and $2,500 in MS-65 being the least expensive of the uncirculated grades. In G-4, you can pick up a 1917-D for $23.50.
In 1948 it was Benjamin Franklin’s turn to be honored with a coin and the half dollar was the choice. The Franklin half dollar would be cut short after 1963 as it was decided to use the half dollar for the new John F. Kennedy coin. While it did not last 25 years, the Franklin half dollar is readily available as large numbers were saved over time. There was, however, virtually no attention paid to the quality of the Mint State coins and many are marked and relatively few have the full bell lines desired by demanding collectors today. That makes the Franklin half dollar slightly tougher than might be expected with an MS-65 starting at around $55 with an MS-65 with full bell lines will be $95 and up.
The first of the new Kennedy half dollars in 1964 would be 90 percent silver, but that would be the only year of the 90 percent silver composition. That makes the 1964 Kennedy half dollar a one-year type, but one with enormous mintages and that makes an MS-65 or even a Proof-65 about the same $15 price.
After 1964, the amount of silver in the half dollar was reduced to 40 percent and that would remain the composition through 1970. The mintages were frequently enormous, although the saving was limited as the 40 percent silver Kennedy half dollars were not very popular with collectors and later would be among the first of the silver coins to be melted as silver began its price rise to $50 an ounce in early 1980. Even with the melting, there are still significant numbers of 40 percent silver Kennedy half dollars around, putting the most available example in MS-65 at about $14.
As of 1971 except for special issues for sale to collectors, the Kennedy half dollar would contain no silver. As they remain the current Kennedy half dollars, the clads since 1971 are easily available and inexpensive although it is probably worth your while to spend a little extra and get an example on an extremely high grade like MS-69 or MS-70. The same can be said for the proofs and silver proofs offered to collectors each year as it is one time where quality does not cost a great deal.
There was one special issue in 1976 when the half dollar as well as the quarter and dollar celebrated the Bicentennial. That meant the half dollar had the dual 1776-1976 date and a reverse of Independence Hall designed by Seth Huntington and selected in a national competition. The special Bicentennial Kennedy half dollars thanks to large mintages are also readily available and here too paying a little extra for quality is worthwhile.
We certainly cannot predict the next new design for the half dollar although we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy half dollar in 2014 and such anniversaries are frequently all the excuse officials need to change designs. Moreover, we know that at the time of the decision to make a Kennedy half dollar the Kennedy family was interested in a half length figure, but there was no time to consider one. Perhaps now with time such a change might be considered.
Whatever the future of the half dollar, it is already secure as a fascinating collection which virtually everyone can enjoy as the half dollar was really the top silver denomination seen by most Americans on a regular basis for much of the period up to the 1870s. Collectors who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s might also remember them fondly. That makes them an interesting collection and a great deal of fun for collectors of all ages.