During the early days of the 19th century, the half cent was a popular coin, and several million pieces were struck. Considering that many workers earned less than one dollar per day at that time, even the half cent had real purchasing power.
With slowly rising prices and wages after the War of 1812, however, the half cent became of less interest to the public. There were, in addition, all those millions of coins which had been struck before 1812 and most of which were still around to be used. For these reasons, there was no half cent coinage from 1812 through 1824.
Under Mint Director Samuel Moore, who assumed office in July 1824, half cent coinage resumed in late 1825. The director was under the impression, based on inquiries made by merchants and banks, that such coinage would again prove popular with the public. However, the initial coinage of 63,000 pieces, struck in December 1825, took several months to distribute.
There were heavy coinages of the half cent in the late 1820s, but without corresponding public demand. It was as if Mint officials felt that a large stockpile would eventually be distributed. The stockpile grew by leaps and bounds and by 1830 there was a large supply of the small copper coins on hand.
Modern collectors tend to think of the Lincoln cent or Jefferson nickel when they think of a long series of coins. In these kinds of coins there are some very scarce dates, but with minor exceptions, no absolute rarities that are virtually impossible to obtain.
The half cents of 1840 through 1857 are just the opposite of the above thinking. Not only are there rarities virtually impossible to obtain, but some of the dates are so easily found that we call them relatively common and think little of them. This part of the story begins a few years before 1840…
By the early 1830s the Mint had seemingly lost track of the public demand for half cents and produced far more than were necessary. By 1836 there were several hundred thousand of these coins sitting in Mint vaults with almost nowhere to go.
Because of the large number on hand, Mint Director Robert M. Patterson ordered, at the end of 1835, that coinage cease until there was really a need to strike more half cents for public distribution. That time did not arrive until late 1849, two years before Patterson resigned his position.
Despite all of the above, the Mint did resume half cent coinage in 1840, but only for collectors and on a very limited basis. Chief Coiner Franklin Peale, who had taken office in 1839, was a collector himself but also a man well attuned to the making of money. He used Mint facilities and workmen to strike medals for various organizations, with considerable profit to himself.
Unlike his profits in the medal world, so far as is known at present, Peale made no surcharge for the proof coins. He simply continued the policy instituted by his predecessor, Adam Eckfeldt, who sold such pieces to collectors at face value just for the goodwill it generated for the Mint.
In the 1840s, as was true until 1859, the Mint did not charge a premium for proof coins and simply sold them at face value to anyone who inquired. It was never a requirement to buy entire sets of silver or gold coins in proof and the collector had only to pay the face value plus postage, if mailing was necessary.
The first proof half cents struck under Peale’s direction, in 1840 and 1841, have a reeded edge. It is not clear if the special edge was done while the planchets were being made or somehow applied when the coins were struck, as was normally the case with silver and gold coins of this era. The reeded edge may have been done to set these coins apart from regular-issue half cents.
For some of these proof-only years less than 20 originals still exist, perhaps indicating that only a few dozen pieces were struck in some years. Some specialists believe that the most valuable original date is 1845, closely followed by 1844 and 1846.
Those who are interested in collecting the half cents of the 1840s, whether restrike or original, need deep pockets as such pieces generally bring at least $3,000 in Proof-60. Some of the rarer varieties for these years are worth well over $6,000 in this grade. Pristine pieces bring even stronger prices for those collectors seeking only the very best.
However, there are several dozen known of some dates and therein lies a tale. In the late 1850s Mint Director James Ross Snowden was interested in expanding the national collection of coins and medals, then housed at the Philadelphia Mint. In particular he wanted to acquire new and interesting coins and medals of the first president, George Washington.
In order to provide working capital and trading material, Snowden ordered the restriking of rare U.S. coins and medals where the original dies were still on hand. These were sold or traded to collectors. The most common restrikes were the Gobrecht dollars of the 1830s, but half cents were also a popular target of his coining operations.
Unfortunately Snowden had competitors in the Mint who used the dies when he was busy elsewhere. They are known to have struck the Class II and Class III 1804 dollars, for example, as well as different runs of the proof-only half cents. The resulting scandal forced an end to the restriking in early 1860 although there was a brief resurgence under a later Mint director in the spring of 1869.
It is generally accepted at present that the original proof half cents of the 1840s may be distinguished from restrikes by the size of the berries in the reverse wreath. Originals have larger berries than the later pieces. Collectors should deal only with experts in the purchase of such pieces, however, as they might wind up with a restrike instead of an original. Very deceptive electrotypes also exist to entrap the unwary.
Those collectors interested in researching this fascinating aspect of numismatics should consult Walter Breen’s superb work on half cents, published in 1984. There are enlarged photographs of each variety, including large and small berry reverse dies, which enable the specialist to determine which is which.
By late in 1848 the Treasurer of the Mint found that he was down to a few thousand half cents on hand for public distribution. Demand was slight but steady and he informed Mint Director Patterson that the hoard was in the process of becoming extinct.
In the summer of 1849 Mint officials inquired of Crocker Brothers in Taunton, Mass., as to whether or not that firm would prepare ready-made half cent planchets for the Mint. The Crocker Brothers firm, which had made the bulk of the cent planchets since 1837, readily agreed to this and began preparations to make the smaller planchets.
Director Patterson made a definitive order of about 1,700 pounds (127,000 planchets) in September and in October these were shipped to Philadelphia by Crocker Brothers. Some 39,864 good pieces were then struck in the latter part of 1849 and this was a large enough coinage to last for several months. Proofs were also struck of this date for collectors.
Although the 1849 half cent is easily obtained by collectors, it is not the most common of the late-date coins for this denomination. In XF-40 the value, according to the price guide in Numismatic News, is only about $90. Of course, the half cent series is not all that strongly collected and if there was the same number of collectors as is found for Lincoln cents or Morgan dollars, the price would be far higher.
Half cents in the late 1840s actually circulated even less than they did before 1815. Many were distributed through post offices, but whether this means that there was some postal service costing a half cent is not known. It may be the post offices were just a handy distribution point where citizens could obtain these coins with little bother.
The coinage of half cents in 1850 was about the same as in 1849 (39,812 pieces) and the price is remarkably close as well. For 1851 the demand for half cents picked up and almost 150,000 were struck. The value is about $70 in XF-40, certainly a bargain in view of the age and condition.
Although the 1851 is the most common of the post-1848 half cents, the value is about the same as for other dates. This is because of pressure from type collectors. The 1851 proof half cent is actually quite rare, but not in as much demand as the proof-only issues of the 1840s; most numismatists are content with the circulation issue.
Demand for half cents in 1851 had nothing to do with a sudden resurgence of pricing in odd amounts. Rather it had to do with a massive coin shortage in the early 1850s when citizens used any kind of coin that they could find. Silver was in especially short supply and enterprising people simply used half cents whenever possible.
Great amounts of gold had entered circulation beginning in 1849, because of the California Gold Rush, and this upset the delicate balance between gold and silver in the world’s coinage systems. That of the United States was under heavy attack and by the end of 1850 most of the circulating silver coins had either been hoarded or shipped abroad. Copper coins, including the half cent, were struck in large quantities to take up some of the slack.
The Mint somewhat overestimated the need for half cents in 1851 and no further pieces were struck until 1853. However the coin shortage was not over until late in 1853 and the nearly 130,000 pieces of that year again reflect genuine demand. After 1853, however, mintages ranged from 35,000 to 56,000, well below that of 1851 and 1853.
Because half cents really did not circulate all that well in the United States after about 1830, except for periods of coin shortages, coins of the 1850s are usually found in fairly decent condition. Many of them were saved as curiosities by the public when the denomination was abolished in 1857.
The year 1857 is something special in half cent coinage. Some 35,180 were struck, which would seem to be enough to go around, considering the hoarding of this denomination that went on in the late 1850s. However, many of the 1857s were melted at the Mint and not paid out to the public, reducing the effective mintage to something like 15,000 or 20,000.
Because of the melting of the 1857s, specimens in XF-40 now bring about $100, somewhat above other non-proof dates of the same decade. Even though relatively few were released to the public, they were still heavily hoarded or the price would be higher.
The half cent was abolished by Congress as a denomination in early 1857 for the simple reason they just did not circulate and many people considered them a nuisance. If there had been some national product requiring a half cent, they might have lasted a few more years.
Proofs exist of post-1849 dates with the exception of the 1853 while the 1852 is a proof-only date in the same league as those of the 1840s. With the end of the series in 1857 also came the end of an era, which had begun in 1793 with the coinage of the first half cent.
Pattern half cents are quite rare but a few exist, dated 1856. These were not ordinary patterns, in the sense of a proposed change for the half cent, but were rather meant to illustrate an alteration in the composition of the large cent. Director Snowden had been thinking of reducing the size of the cent to that of the half cent, but in the end it was made even smaller. The final result was of course the famous Flying Eagle cent.
With the end of the half cent in 1857, few tears were shed by the public. Its low purchasing power in that era made it of little real use and after that only collectors were able to appreciate its beauty and the fact that this denomination had once served the nation well.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.
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