This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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The list of most historic coins of the United States is one where many can disagree. That is especially true in the case of the 1792 half disme, but as with all other early half dimes, the 1792 is certainly an interesting item.
For those with a love of history and an interest in the early workings of the U.S. Mint it is hard to do better than a collection of the early half dimes as they all tell a story and usually a very interesting one.
The early half dime story started in April of 1792. It was at that time that lawmakers reached a decision on the coins of the United States and that included a silver half dime. The problem at the time was that while authorizing denominations was fine, there was in fact no place where the newly authorized coins could be produced.
America was a newly independent nation, recognized as such by Great Britain by the peace treaty of 1783. It was a republic headed by President George Washington, who was sworn in in 1789 after the ratification of the Constitution, which had been written by the constitutional convention assembled in 1787 in Philadelphia.
Coins are a feature of sovereignty and the new United States government was eager to establish itself in the eyes of the world.
We cannot be sure precisely what happened, but we know that sometime in 1792 a half disme appeared and that was before there was even a United States Mint. What happened is the stuff of legends, but frankly these are legends that can be disputed as the facts are not certain and the stories are numerous.
Certainly the 1792 half disme was an issue made shortly after the denominations were approved in April of 1792. We know relatively little about the issue except that we are certain it was not produced at the United States Mint simply because at the time there was no United States Mint. It would not begin coin production until 1793 and even when it did it could not produce silver or gold issues until a $10,000 bond had been posted by the top officials. Those officials were not willing to post the bond, leaving Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was responsible for the Mint, to work his diplomatic skills not with Spain or France, but rather with the Mint officials and the Congress who had passed the law requiring the bond.
For Jefferson, who had spent most of 1792 at work trying to get a mint up and operational, it was one more problem in a series of unpleasant surprises when it came to making the first official coins of the United States.
In fact, it appears that Jefferson had found an easier or at least a quicker way to make coins and that was to go to the corner of 6th and Cherry streets in Philadelphia to the saw-making business of a fellow by the name of John Harper. It seems that Harper had saw making as a day job and at night he was something of an unofficial mint. Actually, he was close to official as Jefferson actually called his operation the “mint” and coming from the man responsible for the mint that was about as official as things got back in 1792.
In fact, it was of the 1792 half disme where Jefferson had written in his records that he had taken “75D to the Mint to be coined into half dismes.” That certainly answers at least one question about the 1792 as the issue was seen as official by Thomas Jefferson and that should count for something in determining it’s importance.
Of course in the case of the 1792 half disme almost every answer regarding the issue seems to raise or at least leave unanswered other questions. In this instance the question is where Jefferson had come up with $75 in silver for this project. The truth is we do not know.
There is, however, a very interesting story found in the Don Taxay book The United States Mint and Coinage. In his book Taxay uses an account of a James McClintock who allegedly interviewed one of the original Mint employees, Adam Eckfeldt, regarding the 1792 half disme.
In the McClintock story the source of the silver is revealed. McClintock wrote, “In conversation with Mr. Adam Eckfeldt today at the Mint, he informed me that the half dismes above described were struck at the request of Gen. Washington to the extent of one hundred dollars, which he deposited in Bullion or Specie for the purpose.”
Of course this account conflicts with the account of Thomas Jefferson as Jefferson had the amount as $75. Historians have sided with Jefferson, suggesting a 1,500 coin production, which would be $75. It’s typical of the situation which Q. David Bowers mentions in his book, A Guide Book Of United States Type Coins, where talking about the 1792 half disme Bowers observes, “The 1792 half disme is one of the more fascinating early federal issues because facts concerning it are scarce and legends and rumors abound.”
Typical of the rumors is one that suggests that the design features Martha Washington as a model taken from a Trumbull painting. It seems unlikely for a variety of reasons, but the prime one is that the figure looks much more like a Robert Birch cent of the period and nothing like any of the known depictions of Martha Washington. That said, the rumors still persist.
The precise purpose of the 1792 half disme remains another unsolved matter. In the Eckfeldt description Washington, “Distributed them as presents – some were sent to Europe but the greater number of them he believes, were given to acquaintances in Virginia – No more of them were coined except those for Gen. W – they were never designed as currency – the Mint at the time was not fully ready for going into operation.”
That would seem to suggest the 1792 was a private issue of George Washington yet they circulated as coins. In fact, Washington in an address to the Congress on Nov. 6, 1792, mentioned the 1792 half disme announcing, “There has also been a small beginning in the coinage of half dismes; the want of small coins in circulation calling first attention to them.”
That view was actually supported by Jefferson who had not only sent the silver noting it was for half dismes but also on July 13, 1792, he recorded their receipt noting, “rec’d from the mint 1500 half dismes of the new coinage.”
Under the circumstances Bowers probably comes up with the best description suggesting, “In the strictest sense, it is a federal coin authorized under the 1792 legislation, but is not a product made within the walls of the first Mint building.”
We can debate the matter all we want, but it appears that the people at the time had their own opinions as they accepted the 1792 in commercial transactions. Of course they were used to unusual issues in circulation and what mattered to them at the time was that it was silver. After that, whether from Spain or England or George Washington himself was of little concern in terms of the issue being accepted.
Certainly views on the 1792 can vary but the fact remains that they are historic and certainly interesting. They are also in short supply at least when compared to the demand. The estimated 200-300 known today is actually a very large percentage of the estimated 1,500 mintage and that suggests someone at the time saw them as special and worth saving.
The 1792 when found today is likely to be in lower grades with dents and marks. The strike is better than expected but oftentimes light on the eagle’s breast. There are also adjustment marks from filing the planchet in some cases to reduce the weight to an acceptable level.
Most are in grades of F-12 or below. An AG-3 is valued at $5,000. The F-12 alone will set you back almost $50,000. An XF-40 would be $120,000. A few were saved immediately as is seen by the Professional Coin Grading Service totals which show 63 examples graded and of that total 9 were called Mint State.
The first official half dimes of the United States would come a couple of years later. Once the problem of posting the required bond was solved by lowering the amount to $3,000, an attempt was made at producing silver dollars in 1794. The equipment, however, was only good for coins up to a half dollar in size and that resulted in 1,758 generally poorly struck dollars. That was followed by a half dollar mintage and by then the year was basically over.
We cannot be precisely sure when the 1794 half dimes were struck. It could be the case that none was actually struck in 1794, but rather 1795 when they were delivered. We simply cannot be sure but we know there were five deliveries of half dimes in 1795 and some carried that date while others were dated 1794. One of the natural questions is how many carried each date, but all we have today is a 1795 production figure of 86,416 of the two dates combined.
Certainly with the low mintage both the 1794 and 1795 are tough. The 1794 is currently $1,325 in G-4 while the 1795 is $720. In MS-60 the 1794 is $19,850 while the 1795 is at $13,850 although the historic importance of the 1794 could account for at least part of the price difference.
Trying to determine the mintages of the two dates is not really possible, but the grading services do provide some guidance. Combined Professional Coin Grading Service and Numismatic Guaranty Corp. have seen the 1794 roughly 220 times while the 1795 has been graded 611 times, suggesting that perhaps one-quarter of the dimes reportedly made in 1795 were dated 1794. Naturally that is not scientific, but it is the best we can do when the information is not conclusive.
The 1794 and 1795 were the only years of the type, which means added demand from type collectors for the lower cost 1795 as it is the more available date in all grades. That said, even top grade examples can have slight flaws such as light strikes in certain areas or adjustment marks.
The new design for 1796 and 1797 would feature the Draped Bust obverse with a small eagle reverse. These dates probably do not receive the attention they should receive as they are a very tough type with mintages of 10,230 for the 1796 and 44,527 for the 1797, which combined is a smaller total than the 1794 and 1795. That produces a $1,000 price for the two in AG-3 even though the 1796 had the far lower mintage.
There are varieties as well including the popular 1796 “LIKERTY” and a tough 1797 with 13 stars as opposed to 15 or 16 seen on other varieties of the 1797. The 13 star variety has begun to outpace the others in price.
There would be no additional half dime production until 1800. The country still needed small coins as it had back in 1792, but the Mint was a prisoner of its policy of producing the denominations requested by those bringing in the silver or gold. That meant large silver dollar productions but limited mintages of others including some years of no production.
When the half dime returned to production in 1800, it was with a new large eagle reverse and the type would be produced through 1805. Of the half dimes of the period, the 1800 is currently the least expensive in G-4 at $1,000 and $13,850 in MS-60. Even at those prices, the numbers are modest, although PCGS does report roughly 40 examples of the 1800 in Mint State and that total simply dwarfs the total for any other date as even the highest mintage of the type, the 37,850 mintage 1803, has only had a few examples called Mint State.
The date from the period that really stands out is the 3,060 mintage 1802. This is a very, very tough coin with a price today of $28,500 in G-4 and it is easily worth that amount. The 1802 is listed at $375,000 in AU-50. Moreover, the total number graded by PCGS is just nine in all grades combined. So scarce is the 1802 that the first record of a sale in 1863 suggested that there might be only a few known. Later it was suggested there might be 35-45, but that appears optimistic as to the PCGS total of just nine can be added the three seen by NGC and they were all graded AU-50, which would suggest in many minds the possibility that they were the same coin submitted three times. There is no proof of that. but certainly an AU-50 1802 is unusual and three of them is very unusual.
Whatever the situation, the fact is that the graded total of 12 is 23 coins short of even the lower estimated total of 35. There has to be very real doubt there are another 23 to go with the graded 12 simply to bring us to a 35 coin total.
There are other difficult dates from the period, but they are nothing when compared to the trouble faced by anyone wanting an 1802. The 1805 for example is thought to have about 100 known examples, which would help to explain a $1,225 G-4 price and an MS-60 listing of $31,350, but here too estimates may be high as NGC has seen just 17 examples and PCGS another 35, which makes 52 and that is 48 shy of the estimate.
Certainly NGC and PCGS have not seen every 1805 half dime, but there is reason to doubt there are 48 they have not seen and that assumes that none of the 52 they do report was graded more than once.
Ironically, despite the known need for lower denominations after 1805 there would be no half dime mintages until 1829, a production gap that is hard to explain. When the half dime did return to production in 1829 it was with the William Kneass Liberty Cap design. The design was not the only thing changed over the years as by 1829 things had improved a good deal at the Mint and that meant much higher mintages, which is seen in the fact that the lowest mintage of the type that would last until 1837 would be the 1832, which had a 965,000 mintage. That makes for available dates with a G-4 starting in a $47.50 range while the most available MS-60 is $350 while an MS-65 might be found for as little as $3,150.
There were also a number of varieties with the highest mintage date of the type the 1835 being found with both small and large “5C” varieties and the same was true of the only other 2 million mintage date, the 1837, although the 1837 mintage was split between the Liberty Cap design and the new Seated Liberty design.
The other dates tend to be in the 1.2 million to 1.5 million range, but those numbers might be misleading as to the numbers that have survived. With relatively few collectors around, it cannot be assumed that any of the dates are readily available. Certainly there is no difficulty in finding a type example if you want one. There are even a fair number of examples in MS-65, but if you decide to really get serious and look for a specific variety, of which there are many, you can sometimes learn that their availability is much less than might be expected. This is especially true if you are seeking a Mint State example as some of the varieties were not discovered for years, meaning they were never sought at the time of their release. Any examples found later in Mint State were simply lucky finds set aside as an example of the date but not the variety.
Certainly the early half dime is not an easy collection to complete, especially in upper grades. Those buyers who are jostling to own the finest known examples of each date will have to pay dearly for the bragging rights.
But for the rest of collectors, who would be pleased to own worn examples of historical coins, half dimes from before the Seated Liberty series began in 1837 are possible to obtain.
They make for a great deal of fun to assemble even if you will never aspire to own an 1802 or 1792. These were the coins of the Americans of the Founding Fathers’ generation and their children. These coins sometimes show clearly that those Americans were not in many cases avid coin collectors. Even with original defects, it is hard to not get excited when holding an early half dime of the United States and fortunately almost all collectors can have that opportunity.