by R.W. Julian
Today we think of the quarter dollar as the most useful coin in ordinary transactions. This was not always true. Prior to 1964, and the Kennedy half dollar, the half dollar was equally popular in many parts of the United States. The mass hoarding of the Kennedy version and the disappearance of this denomination from our pocket change has served to make us forget the former importance of the half dollar.
When the basic mint act was signed into law by President George Washington in early April 1792, one of the coins on the list was the 50-cent piece or half dollar. This denomination came about because our monetary system was based on the Spanish silver dollar (eight reales), and the four-reales piece was the same as our half dollar.
While coinage of half dollars had been very heavy as early as 1795, it was not until 1801 that full-scale minting resumed. At first, the mintages were hesitant because bullion depositors really did not want half dollars; instead, they wanted silver dollars for export in payment for foreign goods.
Finally, at the end of March 1804, Mint Director Elias Boudinot stopped the production of silver dollars and forced the bullion owners to accept half dollars instead. From this small beginning, the coinage of half dollars grew until, by 1808, it had passed the million mark.
In 1806, the design on the half dollar was the same as had been first used on this denomination in 1801: a Draped Bust head of Liberty on the obverse and the heraldic eagle on the reverse. By any standard, the Draped Bust design was one of quality, and the United States had something to be proud of when its coins found their way to foreign shores. However, all of this was to change after Robert Patterson became Mint Director in the summer of 1805.
The Draped Bust design had first been used in the days of President George Washington, who was considered a Federalist in politics. However, in 1801, Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, had been elected president, and there were several changes made in the way that the country was run. Patterson, who had been appointed by Jefferson to the mint post in 1805, was well in tune with the times and decided that a new design was required on all of our coins to reflect the political changes. (The modern Republican party dates from the 1850s, and the Republican Party of President Jefferson is now called the Democratic Party.)
Patterson did not think that the current chief engraver, Robert Scot, was capable of executing the new artwork, so the President was asked to authorize the employment of an assistant engraver named John Reich. Patterson believed that Reich, an indentured servant freed by Chief Coiner Henry Voight, was better suited to carry out the new artistic direction on the coinage.
It was made clear to the President that Reich was wanted for the specific task of redesigning our coinage. Jefferson, of course, knew that there already was an engraver at the Mint but that he was a Federalist, and one assumes that a member of the President’s political party would, of course, do a better job.
The President, whatever his views on coinage design, had very clear ideas about spending public money, and it was not until March 1807 that Director Patterson was able to persuade the Chief Executive to permit Reich to be hired as an assistant engraver at the sum of $600 per year. (Scot received $1,200 per annum). Shortly thereafter, Reich arrived at the Mint and began to prepare designs under Patterson’s supervision.
In his letter of March 25, 1807, to the President, Patterson noted that the “beauty of our coins would be greatly improved by his [Reich’s] masterly hand.” Modern collectors are not quite so charitable when it comes to this statement, and most think the design was a step backward. Yet the finished product has a distinct charm of its own, and many numismatists specialize in the half dollar coinage of 1807-1836.
The first Reich design to be approved was for the half dollar, then considered the most important coin being struck by the Philadelphia Mint. Within a matter of weeks, Reich had produced drawings that were acceptable to Patterson.
Because of a Mint memo that was written in the 1860s and later published by a researcher, there is a persistent rumor that the model for the new Liberty head was Reich’s “fat mistress.” Considering that Philadelphia was a relatively small town in those days, it seems unlikely that the memo was reporting the truth, however. It was more likely a case of sour grapes from someone who simply did not like the design.
Patterson was closely involved in the design work and would certainly have known had Reich, in fact, used a mistress as a model. Under no circumstances would such a woman have been portrayed on our coinage in those days. There would have been political fallout for the President had this become known, and Patterson would have been aware of the risks.
Oddly enough, there was a second rumor, in the 1850s, that Reich had portrayed Mint Director Patterson’s wife on the coinage. The story was furnished to a French numismatist, Alexandre Vattemare, who published this attribution in 1861. One suspects, however, that Mint officials were having a little fun at Vattemare’s expense because he also reported Pocahontas as the model for the Draped Bust Liberty head of 1795.
The reverse of the new Reich half dollar has an equally interesting story in that Director Patterson had ordered that the Great Seal, as found on the silver and gold coinage of 1796–1807, be altered so that the eagle would have a more natural pose. Even the motto (E PLURIBUS UNUM) was retained to show what was intended.
Later mint directors, including Dr. Samuel Moore, felt that the retention of the motto was a mistake, and it was dropped from the coinage by the mid-1830s. It was Moore’s contention that the motto properly belonged with the Great Seal but not the new eagle, since the meaning of the motto was little different from the words “United States of America.” In 1873, the motto returned, because by then it was thought that the motto was supposed to be there, regardless of the historical background.
Whatever the source of the design, half dollar coinage with Reich’s new dies began towards the end of 1807. In the late 1850s, Mint Director James Ross Snowden stated that about 750,000 of the new coins were made, as compared to 300,000 or so of the 1807 Draped Bust half dollars.
There are reasons for believing that Snowden simply fabricated the figures when he was unable to find anything in the mint records about the changeover. He certainly did so for at least one other coinage: the cents dated 1823.
Half dollars of 1807 are scarcer than indicated by the 750,000 mintage figure. According to the monthly price guide appearing in Numismatic News at the time of this writing, in XF40 the value is a strong $750 for the most common variety, which compares to $480 for the 1814 in this grade with a mintage of barely over one million. The true mintage of the 1807 Reich design was probably less than a half million pieces.
There are several varieties of the 1807 half dollar that are collected by specialists, including obverses with large and small stars, a reverse where the figure “50” was punched over an erroneous figure “20,” and the “Bearded Goddess” obverse. The latter, which brings as much as $4,000 even in VF20, is the result of a damaged die.
For the years from 1808 to 1814, the values are much more reasonable, and in most cases, an XF40 specimen can be obtained for as little as $350. Those collectors specializing in the half dollars of 1807-1836 tend to go after the higher-grade pieces because they are, after all, relatively common. This is partly due to the fact that banks used these coins as backing for their paper currency, and as late as the 1930s, half dollar hoards were still being discovered.
The fact that banks used these as backing for paper currency has led to an erroneous belief that half dollars really did not circulate in the years before 1840; nothing could be further from the truth. Except for the copper cent, the half dollar was the most common United States coin to be found in daily use.
In just one case, the famous Economite hoard of the past century, more than 100,000 half dollars from before 1840, were found. Even the rare 1815 date was uncovered to the amount of more than 100 specimens, probably forming a fair part of those in collections today.
Not only were half dollars widely used along the Eastern seaboard, where the bulk of the population lived, but they were also to be seen on the frontier. Indian treaty payments were often made in half dollars, which were promptly spent by the natives in local stores and with itinerant peddlers.
Although little noticed today by collectors, the half dollars of 1807 and 1808 did not strike up well in the presses; for this reason, Reich executed a new hub, in lower relief, of the Liberty head, and this was introduced in 1809. There was another minor redesign in 1812, perhaps because of some dissatisfaction with the 1809 revision. There were other changes from time to time, but these are of little interest except to specialists.
The half dollars of 1807-1836 all have lettered edges that read FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR. Because the denomination was put on the reverse in 1807, the wording on the edge was pointless (no one read it anyway), but the presence of lettering did have the specific purpose of deterring counterfeits. (Some of the 1809 issues have a special edge in which “XXXX” or “IIII” is found between certain letters.)
Although half dollars are relatively plentiful today for the years 1808 through 1812, in 1813 the supply of silver bullion began to decline. In those days, the government did not coin money on its own account, and all gold and silver coinage was derived from private deposits. In 1814, the mintage dropped to barely over one million, well below the peak of 1.63 million in 1812. Even though 1814 mintage is lower, in XF40 the value is a reasonable $480.
The War of 1812 created an unstable economic market; as a result, people began to hoard silver coins, and very little bullion found its way to the Mint after the middle of 1814. One firm (Jones, Firth, & Company of Philadelphia) brought in a quantity of silver in late 1815 and, just after the end of the year, in early January 1816, some 47,150 half dollars were struck with the 1815 date. A few were paid out to others, but most of the coins went to this particular firm.
The 1815 is a rare date and the most difficult to find for any year after 1797. Even in G4, the value is an impressive $1,400, while a VF20 tips the scales at a strong $4,800. All of the 1815s are actually overdates, 1815/2, there being only one obverse die used for this coinage.
In mid-January 1816, there was a fire at the Mint that damaged some of the outbuildings. Unfortunately, the rolling mills were contained in one of these structures and were destroyed by the flames. Director Patterson took the opportunity to order special rollers from the English firm of Belles and Harrold.
With the new rollers on hand, half dollar coinage resumed in May 1817, and through the end of this series in 1836, the number struck continued to grow. The best year was 1836, with more than 6.5 million produced.
The increased coinage means that specimens from the 1820s and 1830s are progressively cheaper for the collector to obtain. By the 1830s, an XF40 specimen can be obtained for about $120, certainly a bargain in view of the age and historical importance of these coins. Those of the 1820s vary of course by date but usually can be found in about the same price range for most dates.
Perhaps the most interesting issue of the 1820s is the 1823, which has some odd figure 3’s in the date. One is called a “patchwork 3” while another is simply called an “ugly 3” with good cause.
A modified portrait was executed in late 1833 by Chief Engraver William Kneass, and coins of the final three years, 1834 through 1836, used the revised motif.
Regular proof coinage began at Philadelphia in 1817, although for the early years such pieces are few and far between when it comes to finding one for a specialized collection. Probably the reason for the silver or gold proofs from that time was the new rollers, which gave a better finish to the strips of metal. Most proof half dollars before the 1830s bring strong prices; the 1820s, for example, have a book value of at least $50,000.
In 1836, the Mint finally introduced steam coinage in place of the antiquated screw presses, but this meant that the lettered edge would have to be dropped; only plain or reeded edges could be struck in the new machines. This, in turn, meant that new dies were required. There was an abortive attempt to coin the new pieces in November 1836, but it was not until early 1837 that the reeded-edge coinage got underway. It was still the Reich design but modified by a new engraver, Christian Gobrecht.
The collector may encounter some lettered-edge half dollars dated after 1836, but these are counterfeits. Pre-1837 dates also exist, usually made from copper-nickel or some similar metal in color. There is a certain value to these contemporary counterfeits, and a market for them does exist.
With the end of the lettered-edge half dollar coinage in 1836, only the collector was left to appreciate the coin that had once served the nation so well.♦