Things never went smoothly for the U.S. half cent. In the case of other denominations, when there were problems, the denomination was simply suspended, but the half cent kept coming back and it managed to hang around with sporadic mintages from 1793 until 1857.
Half cents make for an interesting collection and one that reflects many of the activities of the early Mint. They are interesting and they can be lot of fun.
When lawmakers tried to figure out the first denominations for issuance by the new republic, the half cent probably looked logical. While not universal, the idea of having two large copper coins with one one-half the size and value of the other was something that was seen around the world and had even been seen in some tokens in the country. For the U.S. that would be a cent and a half cent.
Moreover, there were a number of products that could be purchased for less than a cent and there were many Spanish “bits” in circulation that were valued at 12 and one-half cents (one-eighth of a dollar). Just making change for those bits at times would require a half cent, so while it might seem odd today, the denomination made a certain amount of sense to early Americans.
The decision was made in the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, to include half cents as the lowest denomination. As it would turn out, the first half cents would be produced a little over a year later in July of 1793.
Why there was early half cent production is an interesting question. It may be that it would not have happened had it not been for the fact that the Mint in 1793 was limited in terms of the coins it could produce.
The facility had just opened for business in Philadelphia, then the capital of the United States, but that business was very limited as there was a legal requirement that the Mint’s chief coiner and assayer post a bond as surety against theft before they could proceed to produce gold or silver coins.
That was a problem. The bond was $10,000 and the officials were balking at the requirement as at the time their salaries were $1,500 and being new to their jobs they were probably not the least bit certain about posting a bond of such a large size.
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, was responsible for the Mint because it was overseen by the Department of State and not the Treasury. He had to put his diplomatic skills to good use to try and settle the matter. Even so, it took until well into 1794 to reach agreement with Congress on how large a bond would be required.
While all of that was going on, the Mint had basically nothing it could do except make copper coins, which meant the large cent and half cent. As it would do virtually every year while the two denominations were produced, the first priority was large cents. Even so, during the course of that first year the half cent was also produced.
Had there been an option to produce silver and gold there is no way of knowing whether the half cent would have been produced or whether the production might have been half dimes or something else. As it was, there were simply no other alternative so a 1793 half cent was created.
The large cent production would almost always be steady as there was a solid demand for large cents in commerce. There was also another factor as the large cent and to a lesser degree the half cent were vital to the budget of the Mint. When making silver and gold coins the Mint would simply charge a small amount for making the coins from the silver or gold that was provided. The amount barely covered costs.
In the case of copper coins, however, the Mint purchased the copper and as long as the cost of copper stayed reasonable the profits were much better and that was important as the facility was on a very tight budget.
The first 1793 half cent featured a design with Liberty facing left, with a liberty cap on a pole behind her head. This was the ancient pilaeus or symbol of freedom, which was a motif adapted from Augustin Dupre’s “Libertas Americana” medal created in Paris in 1782 by commission from Benjamin Franklin.
As it turned out, the design of the half cent was apparently popular. The cent had been having problems as the initial Chain reverse touched off a wave of criticism and the Liberty was also not seen as especially attractive.
As it worked out, the half cent design, we think was the work of Joseph Wright.
The mintage of the 1793 half cent was just 35,334 pieces. Why the total was so low is unknown although the Mint was busy preparing other large cent designs to produce in the hope of quieting the critics. With a low mintage and being the historic first coin of the denomination, the 1793 half cent is naturally in great demand. While there are supplies, there are nowhere near enough to allow everyone to have an example or at minimum the example they want.
The 1793 half cent lists for $3,250 in G-4 going all the way up to MS-60. The numbers known are better than might be expected with the Professional Coin Grading Service reporting a total of just over 325 examples graded. Of that total about 17 have been called Mint State with one reaching MS-66.
In evaluating a 1793 half cent there are a number of things that should be considered. The first is that the 1793 tends to have a better planchet than many other half cents, which sometimes were produced on what was basically scrap copper.
Scrap was used out of need. Copper supplies were limited and because copper coins were the profit makers keeping the Mint financial solvent, there was an incentive to cut costs wherever possible.
Most 1793 cents are extensively worn being at best F-12 and sometimes falling below G-4 as there were few collectors at the time of issue to save examples.
There are also sometimes light strikes. These were compounded by shallow depth of the letters in the die so HALF CENT on the reverse can be lightly defined. That said, the 1793 half cent tends to be nicer than any number of later dates and with a low mintage and important place in history the 1793 will always be a prized item.
The half cent mintage in 1794 was 81,600 and the 1794 is an interesting coin. A part of the price of the 1793 today is because it is a one-year type. The question is whether the 1794 is also a one-year type. It is similar to the 1793 issue, but the Liberty Cap design shows the head facing right. The dates that followed from 1795-1797 essentially used the same design but yet in fact the 1794 is distinctive.
If the 1794 is considered with the other dates as just one type then its current prices of $400 in G-4 and $18,000 in MS-60 are probably correct. If, however, it is a one-year type, it could have more demand and the supply especially in top grades is not there to meet such demand. In Mint State for example the 1794 has been reported 18 times by PCGS, which is basically the same as the 1793.
There are additional problems in finding a truly nice 1794 that would make a really attractive example tougher than a 1793 in that the planchets are usually porous and dark. In addition the strikes are frequently light so finding a sharp, attractive 1794 is a significant challenge.
The half cents of 1795-1797 generally are considered the same type, but included in the group are many different stories and degrees of availability. For a basic type coin, the price starts at around $350 for an available date and variety with an MS-60 staring at $16,000.
The group includes quite an assortment of varieties, quality and numbers available. It must be remembered that at this time the supply of copper was a problem. The Mint was using everything to make half cents, especially cut down Talbot, Allum & Lee tokens. Spoiled large cents were also used to make half cents and there are even documented cases of a 1795 struck on a pattern 1794 half dollar with six such examples reported.
The major widely recognized variety comes in the form of the 1795 with or without a pole, which was a result of a die being reground during which the pole was removed. There are also plain and lettered edges. It is worth noting that the lettered edge variety has the denomination three times as “HALF CENT.” 1/200 on the reverse and “TWO HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR” on the edge. Ironically, at the same time the gold coins of the United States had absolutely no indication of their denomination. Apparently, if you were rich enough to use gold, you were supposed to know the value.
The significant rarities of the type start with the 1796, which came with or without the pole. The mintage of the with pole 1796 is placed at 5,090 while the without pole is put at just 1,390. That puts the with pole variety at $16,000 just in G-4 while the without pole is at $27,000. To say the numbers available are small would be an understatement with PCGS reporting 33 examples of the with pole. Of these seven were called Mint State. In the case of the no pole 1796, PCGS reports only four coins, a single one of which was called Mint State.
Another especially tough date of the type is the 1797 with a gripped edge which makes it look like it was gripped by a pliers, which might very well have been what happened. Priced at $16,000 in G-4, the gripped edge 1797 is never seen in top grades and barely ever seen at all, with PCGS reporting only two lower grade examples.
There are other varieties, but in terms of a basic type coin the thing to remember is that you will be confronted with a wide range of characteristics in the half cents of the period. In Mint State the 1795 tends to have the best quality while those of 1797 while available are frequently rough and dark. Half cents of the period are sometimes struck somewhat off center and strikes can be light with indistinct hair details and light leaf details.
The sporadic nature of half cent production can be seen in the fact that after 1797 there would be no new half cent date until 1800 at which time the design was new with the 1800-1808 being the Robert Scot Draped Bust design. The Draped Bust half cent thanks to years of production and a couple larger mintages is a coin that is available in some numbers in virtually every grade, with the most available examples being around $55 or $60 in G-4 while thanks to old hoards of the 1800 and especially the 1806 and a large 1804 mintage an MS-60 might be as little as $1,350 to $1,400. Others like the 1807 and 1808 are possible, but they usually have porous surfaces, making them a more difficult date for someone wanting a nice type coin.
There are lots of extremes such as the 1804, which has many varieties coming from the use of many dies. The rarity is the 1802/0 with a reverse of 1800, which has a leaf at each side of the wreath apex and which lists for $15,000 in G-4 and that price is supported by the fact that PCGS has seen only eight examples.
There are an assortment of other tough varieties and overdates, all of which make the Draped Bust half cent literally a type that is a collection by itself. Early American Coppers collectors devote an enormous amount of study time to become familiar with all of the issues. Most collectors don’t want to go into so much depth.
You can acquire many of the Draped Bust varieties in lower circulated grades at modest prices while most of the better varieties and overdates are under $1,000 in lower circulated grades, so a lot of fun can be had with these dates without spending too much money.
In 1809 the design would be changed to the John Reich Classic Head. It would be the current design until 1836. That said, it was not in production every year as after 1811 for example, there would be no additional half cent mintages until 1825.
Lack of annual issues was a reflection of assorted factors, including that the use of the half cent in commercial activity was decreasing. There were also priorities at the Mint and the half cent had rarely been a priority. The mintage, while only reaching 1 million in 1809 were still adequate and the years of production enough that the Classic Head half cent is not a problem to acquire today in virtually every grade. At $50 in G-4 and as little as $225 in MS-60, most hobbyists can acquire the half cent they want and if they are patient that half cent can usually be nice.
Some of the Mint State coins can be spotty while many others are retoned or artificially colored. Early dates can be weakly struck, although dates from the 1820s and 1830s, are usually decently struck with star centers and hair and leaf details being the places to check for light strikes.
There are better dates, such as the 1811, which had a mintage of 63,140 and which lists for $255 in G-4 with PCGS reporting just a single Mint State example. There are also varieties and overdates such as the 1809/6.
There are also a couple key dates starting with the 1831, which had a listed mintage of just 2,200. With that mintage an XF-40 price of $65,000 is certainly understandable if not affordable for most. Checking at PCGS an original 1831 has been seen just three times, although there have also been three proofs graded. What may complicate things and keep prices lower than might otherwise be the case are restrikes.
The 1831 had a couple of restrikes with the first having large berries being called a reverse of 1836. It is currently $6,500 in MS-60. The second restrike had small berries called the reverse of 1840 and it lists at $55,000. At PCGS they report 13 examples of the first restrike and four of the second having been graded, so whether original or a restrike the 1831 is an extremely tough date.
Much the same can be said of the proof 1836, which lists at $6,000 in the case of an original but $50,000 in the case of a restrike that has a reverse of 1840. At PCGS there have been 26 examples of the original 1836 graded but only three examples of the restrike, which may help to explain why it is so much more expensive.
The situation with the half cent in 1836 and through 1849 was really one where they were not produced for circulation. Ironically, at the same time they were not being used some of the businesses were forced to make tokens of the denomination to use for making change. It was a classic case of conflicting directions on the part of those in charge.
There were no mintages after 1836 until 1840 and then the design was changed to the Christian Gobrecht Braided Hair design. That was not the only change as the only half cents produced from 1840-1848 as well as the 1849 small date and 1852 were all only proofs. In addition there were restrikes of all produced at the Mint later, resulting in basically a case where prices, whether for an original or restrike, are all essentially in a very narrow range around $3,250-$6,000 for a Proof-60.
In the case of business strikes, which were begun in 1849 and lasted through the final half cent in 1857, type examples of available dates start around $52 for a G-4 with the most available MS-60s priced at $195. With about 135 Mint State examples reported by PCGS, the 1851 is certainly available in Mint State, but it would be wrong to consider it common. As many Mint State examples of the period have been recolored or are spotty, looking at a number before making a decision and possibly paying a small premium are good things to consider.
The only tougher date is the final 35,180 mintage 1857 and even with that low mintage it is still around $57 in G-4 and just $270 in MS-60.
After the 1857, the half cent was eliminated while the large cent was replaced with the Flying Eagle cent. It marked an end to the era of large copper coins, but certainly there has never been an end to the interest in these early large coppers. In their story and the many interesting dates and varieties the collector today can really get a feel for the early Mint and its problems while acquiring what were the classic coins of early America. It makes for a great collection and a lot of fun.