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Mystery outweighs facts for 1792

Many numismatists begin their collections or type sets with the 1793 coins, the copper half cents and large cents. The coinage of 1792 includes a number of rare and historical pieces, of quaint designs, that fascinate the collector to this day, even if every detail of their manufacture and design is not known.

How many of these coins were minted? The 1792 half disme, the most famous and available of the 1792 coins, had an estimated mintage of 1,500-2,000, but this is just an estimate; only a few hundred of these coins exist. The others are excessively rare, with a dozen or less known of each variety. A single copper striking of the half disme exists – perhaps a pattern or die trial.

Were these coins patterns or circulating coinage? Again, the half disme was struck in a fairly high number and most pieces known show circulation, to the point of about good-good condition. The other 1792 coins exist in small quantities, but quite a few show signs of circulation, such as a well-worn disme, a Birch cent, and a few of the silver center cents.

Who engraved the dies for these coins? Perhaps Henry Voigt engraved the silver center cent. The Birch cent was engraved by someone named Birch – the name appears at Liberty’s neck – but was it William or Thomas, or someone else? Most likely it was not Thomas, born in 1779 and only thirteen years old in 1792. As for the disme, some say Birch engraved the dies; other claim Henry Voigt did the job; still others believe that Adam Eckfeldt and Birch were the engravers. Compare the Liberty head on the obverse of the Birch cent and the half disme, and a case can be made that Birch also engraved the famous half disme. Joseph Wright designed the 1792 quarter. Compare the lovely face of Liberty on this piece with another of his works, the Liberty Cap cent of 1793.

Where were the historic first coins struck? Philadelphia is the obvious answer, but the half dismes were struck in John Harper’s cellar. Harper was a local saw-maker. And which of these coins was the first United States coin? Was it the Birch cent, the disme, or the half disme? A strong case can be made for the half disme, as it went out into circulation; the mintage was relatively high; and it was made of silver. The striking of coins made in silver verified a country’s position and strength in 1792; the minting of the silver half disme may have accomplished this for the new country, the United States.

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Detailed information about these coins may never be fully known, but this does not diminish their status as some of the most historical coins in the American series. Seeing one of these coins, examining one, learning about it as it is offered at auction, can be a highlight of any collector’s experience, no matter what his specialty. Spending time studying these coins is a real link to American history. George Washington or Thomas Jefferson most likely saw the exact same 1792 coin you see at a convention or major auction, and might have even handled that coin.

Not knowing the full stories behind the coins adds to their mystique and enhances their desirability. Entire books have been written about modern series and even single coins (such as the 1933 double eagle). An older historic coin with many unanswered questions is something different for the true numismatist, who never stops learning. Specialists in high-grade modern coinage – common coins in super grades – may not be aware of these coins, and may not be interested. The 1792 coins, for the most part, are not available in top grades.

The 1792 coins bear old-fashioned designs and inscriptions and will never be number one on the collecting hit parade. Some of the legends on these coins only appeared in 1792. And the denominations? While collectors may be aware of five-cent coins called “half dimes,” what of the “half disme”? How was that word pronounced – dime or deem? Evidence says “deem,” and that sounds quaint, doesn’t it?

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The half disme circulated; many surviving specimens show wear and are found in fair, good, very good condition. A few are nicked, scratched, show edge bumps and one specimen is holed. One disme shows excessive wear and is barely recognizable. One of the Birch cents is worn almost smooth and a number of the silver center and fusible alloy cents show signs of wear.

One half disme grades Specimen-67 and was, no doubt, a presentation piece; whether it was struck for President George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Director of the Mint David Rittenhouse, or someone else, is not known. The coin is remarkably well struck and shows wonderful detail on its obverse and reverse. From Liberty’s hair to the feathers on the small eagle, even the coin’s borders show the very best the new nation had to offer in the way of coinage.

While the design may be quaint to modern eyes, it is a beautiful coin and a genuine link to the early days of the Mint and the Founding Fathers who established the Mint. The eagle on the reverse is small and looks like a fledgling emerging from its nest, perhaps a symbol of the beginning of a new country.

A few of the half dismes exist in XF or better grade. These 210-year old coins may show mint luster in between the lettering and have nice surfaces, despite their age.

A persistent rumor claims that Martha Washington was the model for Liberty; this is probably untrue, along with the story that George Washington supplied silver for these coins, but good rumors never quite die.

The 1792 disme bears a portrait of Liberty remarkably similar to the 1793 half cent, while the reverse shows a small eagle that is not exactly flying (hovering?). Only 15 copper specimens and three in silver are known. Many of the copper dismes in better grades show good strikes and nice surfaces; one grades Specimen-65. The details of Liberty’s hair are strong and the eagle’s feathers, including the breast feathers, are defined.

While the half disme and disme are attractive in an old-fashioned way, the silver center cent is less pretty, and has been described to me as “butt-ugly.” The portrayal of Liberty on the obverse shows an older, matronly Liberty with long hair streaming behind her, surrounded by the inscription, “Liberty Parent of Science and Industry.” The reverse looks similar to large cent fans: a wreath with the denomination, one cent, the fraction 1/100, and “United States of America.” About a dozen of these coins in copper, with a silver plug in the center, are known to exist; one without the center plug is known. This coin may have been a trial piece. Nine or ten specimens of this cent struck in “fusible alloy,” a blend of copper and silver, are known, with a few impounded in museums.

More charming is the Birch cent, a larger copper coin with a more attractive Liberty head. The reverse is quite similar to that used on large cents later in the decade. Unique to these cents is the edge inscription, “to be esteemed be useful.” About 15-20 of these cents are known, along with a single white metal coin inscribed “GWPt” on the reverse – meaning “George Washington President.” Our first President did not wish his portrait to appear on United States coins.

Perhaps the loveliest of the 1792 coins is the quarter dollar, although the denomination is not stated on this piece. A note from the Mint, dated Sept. 11, 1793, makes a reference to engraver Joseph Wright and “two essays of a quarter dollar.” The coin is simple but elegant, with a woman’s portrait, the word “Liberty” and the date; an eagle perched atop a globe and “United States of America” appears on the reverse. Two copper specimens exist, including the Smithsonian piece. There are also four struck in white metal and two uniface die trials.

The American series contains much more beautiful coins than the 1792 issues, coins in spectacular Mint State and proof, famous gold and silver rarities that command major headlines in publications when they are sold for millions of dollars. But those who want genuine pieces of history, visible links to Washington and Jefferson, coins that could really tell stories, there are no more important coins than the 1792 issues. Whether coins or patterns, these pieces were made in the earliest days as the Philadelphia Mint was in the process of being established; possibly, no other United States coins would exist if not for these classic issues of 1792.

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