This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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To modern collectors, the half dime might seem like a silly denomination. What’s wrong with the nickel, they might ask before they learn that the half dime came first.
It also might seem remarkable after all the years of inflation that have occurred since half dimes were produced that such a low denomination could have contained silver at all. (At the current price of $21.42 a troy ounce, the silver in the half dime is worth more than 83 cents – not that anyone is likely to trade such a coin at that price.)
So whether silly or remarkable, the half dime is an interesting denomination that receives very little attention today. Historically, it was a denomination where officials seemed to say one thing, which was that half dimes were needed in commerce, but the Mint did another, which was basically to not produce them.
There were gaps in the Mint’s production of half dimes. One lasted a generation. This apparently was a result of the practice of letting those who brought in silver and gold pick the denomination to be made from their metal, but the fact remains that despite constant claims that half dimes were needed until the 1830s mintages were small if they took place at all. The half dime was not minted at all for a period after 1805 when 15,600 were produced until 1829 and such a gap is hard to explain especially when half dimes are in theory desperately needed for commerce.
The situation with the half dime began to change with the 1829 mintage, but it can really be suggested that the first real collection of half dimes of any size began in 1837 when Philadelphia produced its first Seated Liberty half dime.
That first 1837 half dime with the Christian Gobrecht Seated Liberty design was definitely a work in progress as there were no stars around the rim on the obverse. That makes for an interesting appearance in top grades. If you can find a nice 1837 it can seem like a cameo. From there, the Philadelphia set of Seated half dimes runs until the last one came off the press in 1873.
We cannot really be sure of the mintage of the first Seated half dime because in 1837 Philadelphia produced both the old and new design. In both cases they are available at least in circulated grades, but the Seated Liberty 1837 half dime is a key type coin as only it and the 1838-O, which had a lower mintage, are of the no stars design.
Being the historic first example of the Seated Liberty design and an important type coin, there is demand for the 1837. It comes with either a small or slightly tougher large date. The lower priced small date variety is priced at $35 in G-4. In Mint State it is the large date which is less expensive at $640 in MS-60 and $3,650 in MS-65 with the Professional Coin Grading Service reporting a surprising 94 examples in MS-65 or better although the total for the small date is just eight, so it may be a bargain at a current listing of $3,450 in MS-65.
In 1838, stars would be added to the half dimes produced at Philadelphia and the type would be produced in 1839 and part of 1840. The 1838 mintage included large and small stars varieties, but realistically all dates of the type are available with even MS-65 examples being in a range of $2,000 to $2,500 depending on the date while all three dates in MS-60 are $280 or less.
If you want to buy the 1838 with small stars, it will set you back $3,950 in MS-65 and $610 in MS-60.
Some of the 1840 mintage would be of a new type as drapery was added to Liberty’s left elbow. This addition would settle the design for over a decade with the 1,344,085 1840 mintage being split between the no drapery and drapery types. In fact, the 1840 with drapery is better except in G-4 and the PCGS totals are very low in Mint State with just 33 graded and only five of them being MS-65 or better.
Of course with the design produced for over a decade, there are solid numbers of type coins available. The 1841 had a mintage of 1,150,000, making it one of the available dates with an MS-60 price of just $180, which essentially is an available date price for the type, and the MS-65 at $1,325, is $75 more than the cheapest coin of the type in that grade. The PCGS totals show that the 1841 is seen with some regularity as just under 70 have been called Mint State and of those a total of 18 was at least MS-65. Those would prove to be fairly typical totals for dates of this type and with limited demand such totals result in very reasonable prices.
The pattern would be similar for the dates from 1842-1845 as they with the exception of the 1844 had mintages near or slightly above 1 million and are at available date prices in both circulated grades and Mint State.
The 1844, however, had a mintage of just 430,000 and that number makes it look like a very good value today at just $19 in G-4, $180 in MS-60 and $1,250 in MS-65. This might be a case of a mintage being misleading as the 1844 appears to have been saved in similar numbers to the others with a total of 27 being reported by PCGS in MS-65 or better and roughly 80 in all Mint State grades combined.
The 1846, however, is a very different matter for its mintage of just 27,000 is not misleading. It’s low. The 1846 is a tough date even if some were saved. It is $410 in G-4. In MS-60 it lists for $11,500 and PCGS reports only two Mint State examples with the better being an MS-63. If anything, the 1846 appears to be relatively cheap at today’s prices so this time the mintage total is an accurate indication of the how tough the date is today.
Mintage in 1847 jumped to 1,274,000 and that high total also is an accurate indication of the value of surviving examples, with prices in all grades being at the lowest levels for the type.
The 1848 had a mintage of 668,000. The coin has either a medium or large date with the large date being the tougher in all grades although both varieties are tougher than normal in both MS-60 and MS-65.
The parade of special coins continued in 1849 as that year saw a regular date as well as 1849/8 and 1849/6 overdates which are both better at $28.50 and $24, respectively, in G-4 while the regular 1849 is $19. In some respects the close prices may be a lack of demand to truly establish significant differences in availability as the two overdates remain remarkably similar in price throughout the grades despite the fact that the 1849/8 is seen much more often in MS-65 and above than the 1849/6 with the difference being 16 appearances at PCGS in MS-65 and above for the 1849/8 and just six for the 1849/6 in the same grades.
The 1850, 1851 and 1852 are all available with mintages of basically 750,000 to 1 million, with the 1,000,500 mintage 1852 being slightly less expensive than the others especially in MS-65 where it is at available date prices.
Even though the early 1850s dates are available to collectors today, the situation was changing at the time they were minted. The discovery of gold in California had upset the traditional gold to silver ratio and silver coins were costing more than their face value to produce. That resulted in hoarding by the public on a large scale with the Congress failing to act to reduce the amount of silver, which was the only way to solve the problem.
By early 1853 the Congress was getting ready to act and that saw Philadelphia produce just 135,000 half dimes of the old composition. When a slight reduction in silver was approved, those 135,000 pieces were potentially melted as they could be distinguished from the new 1853 half dimes by the fact that the new half dimes had arrows at the date. The no arrows 1853 half dimes with their low mintage are currently at $40 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $850 and an MS-65 is at $2,850 and in MS-65 or above the PCGS total stands at just seven pieces.
The new with arrows 1853 had a record mintage of 13,210,020 as the government apparently attempted to flood the channels of commerce with the new half dimes. With such a mintage there is no doubt that the with arrows 1853 is available and that shows in a $16 G-4 price with an MS-60 at $200 and an MS-65 at $2,150, which is actually high probably reflecting the heavy production, which usually means a slight reduction in quality. That said, PCGS still reports 75 examples in MS-65 and better and that total is well above the 5,740,000 mintage 1854 or the 1,750,000 mintage 1855, although all three dates are at similar price levels in all grades.
In 1856 the arrows were removed resulting in another relatively short-lived type. The 1856 at nearly 5 million and the 1857 at nearly 7.3 million are both readily available in this case with MS-60 examples at $175 while an MS-65 1856 is $1,400 and the 1857 is $1,250.
The 1858 has a mintage of 3.5 million. In MS-60 the 1858 is at $175 and an MS-65 is at $1,350. Just 42 examples have reached MS-65 or better at PCGS.
The 1858 is famous for a couple of errors including one with an inverted date and another with a doubled date. The inverted date 1858 lists for $30 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $675 while the doubled date is at $45 in G-4 and $800 in MS-60. The PCGS totals show the inverted date has been seen just 21 times with seven examples being called Mint State with the nicest being an MS-64. The doubled date numbers are very interesting as PCGS reports only two coins, one of which was Mint State. The extremely low total has to raise questions especially when a G-4 is just $45 and an MS-60 is just $700. Certainly there is a lack of demand, but something like a doubled date would seem like a coin that should be sent in for grading simply to have it authenticated as well. To have a total of just two examples immediately raises a number of questions as to whether the doubled date 1858 might well be much better than the current prices suggests. Even if there are a number of other examples that have not been graded at its current prices the doubled date 1858 looks like a coin well worth buying as with so few graded even with limited demand it has to be seen as close to a “can’t miss” purchase.
The 1859 was the last date of the type and it had a mintage of just 340,000. Despite that fairly low total the 1859 does not bring any significant premiums in circulated grades or for that matter in Mint State where it is only slightly better in MS-60 at $225 and MS-65 where it lists for $1,550, which is actually close to an available date price and that is fair because PCGS reports over 35 examples in MS-65 and up.
One fact influencing the relatively low prices of the 1859 is that it was in 1859 when we see for the first time a significant number of proofs. That would be the case in the years that follow and while a Proof-65 1859 is currently more expensive than an MS-65 at $4,000, the fact is the supply of proofs is usually fairly strong in this case close to 190 examples with about 40 grading Proof-65 or better. All those proofs have to keep the Mint State prices in check and that becomes especially true with dates in the 1860s and 1870s where the cost of a proof can sometimes be less than the cost of an MS-65.
The 1860 would see an increased mintage to 799,000, although that was still a modest total. The 1860 is of special interest as it was the first date of a new design as the obverse stars were replaced by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA on the obverse. It was an interesting change with the nation on the brink of Civil War, but this would become the final design of the Seated Liberty half dime. The 1860 with a mintage below one million brings a small premium in circulated grades, but is basically at the same levels as other available dates such as the 1861 and 1862, which had mintages of over 3.3 million and nearly 1.5 million, respectively.
The impact of the Civil War and the suspension of specie payments was seen in the 1863 mintage. With three branch mints being lost in the first year of the war only Philadelphia and San Francisco were producing coins and the priority at Philadelphia was not silver coins as they would only be hoarded. That saw an 1863 mintage of 18,460, which makes the 1863 a premium date at $200 in G-4. What is interesting is that despite the low mintage the 1863 is not especially difficult in Mint State. If anything the MS-60 price of $800 may be too high, although an MS-65 is probably not at $1,575. What you see at least in the PCGS numbers is that someone saved the 1863 with PCGS reporting safely over 100 examples in Mint State and 51 were in MS-65 or better. Add to that total about 175 proofs with a Proof-65 listed at $1,550 $25 less than an MS-65 and you have a date that is definitely more available than the mintage suggests in top grades.
The parade of low mintage half dimes from Philadelphia would continue with the 1864. It had a mintage of 48,470, which results in a G-4 price of $375, the 1865 with a mintage of just 13,500 also results in a $375 G-4 price, the 1866 with a 10,725 mintage gets a $350 G-4 price and the 1867 with the lowest mintage of the group at 8,625 produces a $550 G-4 price today. In the case of these dates, the mintages are reflected in higher Mint State prices with an MS-60 ranging from $1,225 for the 1866 to $1,375 for the 1864 and 1867. In MS-65, the levels are from $1,950 for the 1865 to $2,575 for the 1866. In fact Proof-65 examples would be less costly as they are all around $1,550.
The PCGS totals continue to paint a somewhat different picture than the mintages. The lowest mintage 1867 is a good example, with nearly 50 examples called Mint State at PCGS and of that total 15 were MS-65 or better. To that total can be added roughly 175 proofs of which nearly 100 were Proof-65 or better and that sort of pattern is seen in all these lower mintage dates.
It must be remembered it was also in this period that the first Shield nickel would be produced in 1866 and although no one seems to have suggested it directly, the production and acceptance of the copper-nickel Shield nickel would mean that the 90 percent silver half dime had a very limited future. The 1868 mintage, however, would rise to 89,200, which produces a G-4 price of $60 today while an MS-60 is $625 and an MS-65 is $2,400. Once again a Proof-65 is less costly at $1,550. The 1868 shows slightly lower numbers at PCGS but they are still solid with over 40 coins called Mint State about 25 of which were MS-65 or better and just under 165 in proof grades.
The 1869 commands a slight premium in G-4 at $20 reflecting the fact that while higher, its 208,600 mintage is still relatively low at least based on the standards from before the Civil War. In Mint State the prices of the 1869 are also lower at $200 in MS-60 and $1,375 in MS-65 while a Proof-65 is $1,560. It’s availability in top grades follows the established pattern from the 1860s.
The 1870 mintage topped 500,000 and it as well as the final Seated Liberty half dime dates are all priced at available date levels with none reaching $200 in MS-60 or more than $1,375 in MS-65. The PCGS totals support the price with over 200 examples of the 1871 having been seen in Mint State grades along with similar high totals for the others. The one slightly lower date is the 1873 as there PCGS reports about 75 examples in Mint State, but that still with the limited demand today is enough to meet most immediate demand.
In 1873 the final Seated Liberty half dimes were produced at Philadelphia and San Francisco. It would bring to an end a coin that had been a solid part of commerce for many years but whose silver composition during the Civil War seemed to cause problems that only a coin containing no silver could solve. Had it not been for the Civil War, the Seated Liberty half dime might have had additional decades of production, but even though its time in production was cut short the Philadelphia Seated Liberty half dime is an interesting group to study and collect.