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Only a collector can make half dime case

When the nickel five-cent piece was introduced in 1866, it was widely popular  with the public. So popular it was in fact that the coin it supposedly was a temporary substitute for, the silver half dime, was completely abolished in 1873.

Now, after 135 years, could the the half dime be about the strike back? Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma hopes so – at least in a copper-nickel clad composition.

Ordinarily, a topic like this would be silly. Most Americans don’t know what a half dime is. Those who do know will, like Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island, think that somebody has been eating brandied peaches without the peaches again.

To his credit, Lucas is a coin collector, and it certainly takes the knowledge one attains as a coin collector to even talk about the idea with a straight face.

Lucas says it is all driven by costs. The nickel is too expensive. Indeed it is. The Mint Report for Fiscal Year 2007 puts the cost of striking the coin and getting it into circulation at almost 10 cents.

Extrapolating from the cost of the dime, the half dime would cost just over 2 cents apiece. That is a good way to start a conversation in Washington, D.C. But how do you finish it? The views of the general public will be the yardstick most will use.

No doubt the public will be reluctant to give up the familiar nickel. That alone is a problem, yet it is only half the battle. Often on questions like this there are individuals who say they could give up the nickel, but then they reverse course when a specific replacement is suggested. What will make a half dime appealing?

Even when Americans had no alternative to the silver half dime, it was not particularly popular. It was small and easily lost. Perhaps as implicit recognition of the fact that coins can be too small to be usable, let’s note that when the opportunity arose for the Mint to strike a nickel three-cent piece, the coin was given the diameter of a dime. It did weigh less.
Some might argue that these considerations are good reasons to get rid of the lower denominations completely. Lucas did not make this argument. I would expect nobody at a hearing in 2009 to make this argument.

But it does raise the issue for the future. Is elimination of the cent and the nickel someday a two-step process? The first step is the creation of a substitute for the current coins that a majority will come to dislike. The second step then is getting rid of coins that the public no longer supports.

I expect the half dime legislation will not gain much in the way of support, but  I am delighted to see the issue raised. Collectors like to talk about coins. This will give them the opportunity to do so in public.

Perhaps in its way this proposal will grease the skids for alternative compositions for the cent and nickel that everybody can agree would work better than any alternative proposals like the half dime. The current effort to change compositions seems stalled until the results of the election are known.

We’ll see. I certainly enjoy thinking about half dimes old and potentially new. It makes a good break from the topic of gold and silver bullion.

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