This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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No early coin of the United States can really be called available, but at least among early silver issues the 1794 half dollar would have to be seen as more available than might be expected. That makes it possible for collectors to obtain an example at a very reasonable price.
It is pretty easy to overlook the 1794 half dollar. When it comes to silver coins, the bulk of the attention goes to the 1794 silver dollar. In fact, as 1794 dawned it should have been the 1794 half dollar that was the first silver coin produced by the United States, but things did not work out that way. The production of silver coins had been delayed because the officials had to post a $10,000 bond before they could produce gold or silver coins, and they had balked at that idea. While everyone tried to settle that problem, the only coins that could be produced in 1793 were copper large cents and half cents.
Finally the bond matter was solved with a significant reduction in the size of the bond and that opened the door to the production of silver and gold coins. At that point an unusual decision was made. Some think that officials were going to start with half dimes but that a shipment of small silver coins from Europe caused officials to look at other denominations.
Whether the half dime story is true or not, the fact remains that the one denomination officials should not have been looking at as the first silver coin was the silver dollar. At that time the presses were only good for denominations up to half dollar in size. A press that could handle silver dollars was installed the following year but someone apparently got the idea that even though the press was not up to the task, they could still somehow make dollars.
On Oct. 15, 1794, they tried to make dollars and the delivery of 1,758 shows that it was a mistake. No one takes seriously the notion that the idea was to make 1,758 silver dollars and then call it a day and switch to another denomination. No, the 1,758 silver dollars that were made routinely are found by collectors to be softly struck and have alignment problems. The best that can be said for them is the 1794 silver dollars were able to meet a very minimal standard of quality that probably dropped as the day went along. Maybe it was not a disaster, but it certainly had not been a major success at the early Philadelphia Mint.
The next silver coin they would attempt would be the half dollar, and we can see an immediate difference in that a total of 23,464 half dollars were delivered before 1794 was finished. It seems likely that as far as production was concerned things were much improved over the unpleasant silver dollar fiasco.
There is a good reason why the 1794 half dollar isn’t as tough as one might think. Prior to 1836 in the town of Economy, Pa., there was a group known as the Harmony Society. Headed by a German immigrant named George Rapp, the members believed in paying “In Money,” which meant silver and, as the members were very thrifty, it meant a lot of silver.
When at least part of the Harmony Society silver hoard was sold decades later, it was a stunning cross section of the half dollars circulating before 1836. The half dollar was thedenomination of choice as silver dollars had their production suspended in 1804, making the half dollar the largest silver coin generally available to the average person at the time.
In the Harmony Society hoard, there were an estimated 150 examples of the 1794 half dollar. For a coin with a mintage of less than 25,000, it was an enormous number. The best estimates say that there might be 400 examples of the 1794 known to exist today. Without the Harmony Society total, the numbers available today would be greatly reduced and in all probability much more expensive than the current $2,850 in G-4 and $225,000 in MS-60.
In fairness, the Harmony Society hoard probably made little difference in the case of Mint State coins because they were basically saving coins from circulation, but there is no doubt that their hoard made a real difference in the supply in the circulated grades. This makes the coin much more available for many today.