In the early 1800s, half cent and cent coins were very much alike, both being very heavy. Over a period of years, however, too many half cents were struck, effectively saturating the limited market for such coins. The last of the British-made half cent planchets was struck in the summer of 1811 and after that nothing was heard for more than a decade.
With the death of Mint Director Robert Patterson in July 1824, Dr. Samuel Moore became director with the idea of making the Mint more useful to the public. Not long after his arrival he wrote the following letter to Matthew Robinson Boulton, which is self-explanatory:
“The coinage of half cents, which has for some years been suspended here, it is now found expedient to resume; and, as copper in planchetts suitable for the purpose has on several occasions been furnished by your house, to the order of my excellent friend and predecessor (Robert Patterson), lately deceased, it is my wish to rely on you in this instance.
“The planchetts for half cents, you will recollect, should weigh three and a half pennyweights (84 grains). Do me the favor to inform me whether an exact pattern of them is in your possession and how soon, after the receipt of an order for the purpose, you could supply the mint with ten tons of such planchetts. You will please to name the price and mode of payment which would be satisfactory to you. To pay the amount here, on receipt of the copper, would best comport with the ordinary practice in disbursements connected with the mint. An early communication from you will confer a favor.”
The letter was received by Boulton after an ocean voyage lasting nearly five weeks and he replied to Moore on Sept. 22. Boulton stated the price that he needed, but also noted that he wished the payment to be made as in the past, by a bill of exchange drawn on a London bank. The reply arrived in Philadelphia in late November 1824, but Moore considered the terms carefully before replying on Dec. 6:
“I avail myself of the Packet now about to sail for Liverpool (the port for Birmingham), to reply to your favor of 22 September, received some days since.
“You are requested to supply the mint, as soon as you can make it convenient, with Ten Tons of half cent Copper planchetts, conforming as precisely as may be, in weight and milling, to the pattern of the last invoice of the article.
“As you say nothing of the pattern, to which your attention was called in my last letter, I presume you are in possession of one that may be relied on, and therefore only observe that all attainable precision is desired as to the weight of three and a half pennyweights for each planchett, which it is my wish should not be exceeded. Your careful attention is requested to this point; as I learn from the correspondence of my predecessor with you, that in some instances, particularly, the half cent planchetts have been too heavy.”
Moore’s response was received at Soho in a matter of weeks, but Boulton was unable to begin processing the order until April 1825 because he did not have enough copper on hand and had to wait for the opening of the canals in order to obtain fresh supplies from the English copper mines. Because of this delay Boulton was unable to ship more than five tons (about 995,500 planchets) by mid-May. Carried on the ship Montezuma, the shipment arrived in Philadelphia in late June but was not unloaded for some time because the planchets had been used as ballast in the hold of the ship.
Once inside the Mint walls, the kegs of planchets were first weighed and then examined for quality. Unfortunately a few of the kegs had been stored in an area of the ship’s hold where dampness held supreme and the planchets were damaged by being exposed to salt air. In forwarding the bill of exchange Moore noted that “It would be an improvement in the packaging of them if a few folds of brown paper were interposed between them and the sides of the Cask … The paper, by its absorbitive quality, would lessen the injurious effects of dampness if they should unfortunately be exposed to it.”
Not long after the first shipment was received, another ship (the Algonquin) arrived at the Philadelphia docks and was soon unloaded. The weight was again about five tons, making the total number of planchets received 1,866,667 according to weight. For the second shipment, Robert McCarren received 12.5 cents for each of the 33 casks brought to the Mint from the ship. The planchets in all cost about $7,300, but were worth $9,333.33 when struck into half cents.
All of the planchets were inside the Mint by mid-August 1825, but once there the officials seem to have lost any sense of urgency. During that summer, however, Chief Engraver William Kneass had prepared dies for a resumption of the half cent coinage, using hubs prepared nearly 20 years earlier. No one thought it worthwhile to create new artwork for a coin of such low value.
The Mint archives record an order from the Baltimore merchant house of Jonathan Elliott and Company for half cents in November 1825. They were informed that none was on hand but would be in a few weeks, probably in January 1826. In fact coinage began on Dec. 22 and by year’s end 63,000 pieces had been struck and delivered to the Mint treasurer. The Elliott request seems to have gone nowhere, however, and it was not until April 1826 that the December coinage began to be distributed; all had left the Mint by late June.
There was little demand for the next few weeks but in the latter part of 1826 another 234,000 pieces were coined. Because the 1825 half cent is not as scarce as a mintage of 63,000 indicates, it is likely that left-over obverse dies from 1825 were used for a part of the 1826 coinage.
Moore’s estimate of the demand for half cents in 1826 proved wide of the mark. None was struck in 1827 and for the entire year only about 65,000 pieces were distributed to the public. The half cent was of course used in the marketplace but the large cent was far more popular, more than 2 million pieces being shipped to banks and businesses that same year.
It was not in fact until 1828 that the last of the 1826 coinage was issued. Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt, acting on the director’s orders, then produced 606,000 more half cents during 1828. The demand was again illusory, with only about 100,000 pieces being paid out by the end of the year.
Demand for the half cent continued at a low level throughout 1828 and 1829 with more than 400,000 coined pieces on hand during August 1829. Despite this massive overhang, Moore ordered half cent coinage to resume and through December 1829 another 487,000 pieces were struck.
It appears likely that dies of 1826 were used for part of the 1828 coinage, and in a similar vein, dies of 1828 were probably used for a portion of the 1829 coinage. This alone makes it difficult to determine true mintages by date but other actions by the Mint in the early 1830s make it virtually impossible.
The complaint by Moore in 1825 that some of the half cent planchets had been damaged by the salt air was soon recognized as a serious problem. The corroded planchets were not sent to the coining rooms but rather to the melter & refiner where they served as raw material in alloying gold and silver coins. This was easier than buying copper on the New York market although English sheet copper could be obtained at a lower price per pound than the planchets had cost.
The copper accounts for the half cent were brought up to date by a clerk at the end of December 1829. These accounts state (via Director’s Warrant No. 13) that 233,342 half cent planchets had been melted for alloy, a fact accepted as correct when the records were published in the 1970s. It turns out, however, that the clerk had forgotten to deduct the 1825 coinage in his calculations – along with some other minor discrepancies – so in reality only about 162,500 planchets had been used as alloy; this left on hand 314,000 planchets from the 1825 Boulton delivery.
The year 1830 was not a good for the half cent as only a few tens of thousands of pieces were distributed, leaving large numbers still on hand. Yet in 1831 we find that the tiny number of 2,200 half cents were struck by order of the director. The reason had nothing to do with demand but rather a change in minting techniques and dies.
This special small coinage, which was duly reported in the annual director’s report, was meant as a test of the new dies. The collector who owns one of the rare 1831 half cents may verify this by comparing the dentils along the edge for an 1829 and 1831 half cent. The 1831 has a beaded edge like the later coins of the 19th century.
By an odd quirk, the 1831 coins were never officially delivered by the chief coiner, at least not in 1831. Director Moore had changed the rules for annual reports to reflect actual coinage within calendar years, regardless of whether or not the coins had been formally delivered to the Mint treasurer. This system was a candidate for failure and it did just that in the early 1830s when the published mintage reports for copper coins had several errors.
At the same time, due to the worsening condition of many of the 1825 Boulton planchets, the melter & refiner continued to use them for alloy in the precious metal coinage. By June 1833 another 160,186 planchets, formally accounted for by Director’s Warrant No. 21, had found their way into making other coins. (The official ending date for this use as alloy is June 1833 but it is likely that most planchets had been melted by mid 1832.)
Moore made an even more interesting decision while the planchets were being employed as alloy. It would appear that many of the coined pieces from 1828 and 1829 had become so corroded or otherwise unsightly that a large parcel of these was also used for alloy from 1830 through June 1833 when a final report was made. By Director’s Warrant No. 24 the chief coiner accounted for 234,000 struck half cents melted through June 1833.
Deducting the planchets used for alloy from the known quantity in the 1825 Boulton shipment, left about 154,000 planchets on hand for coinage in 1832 but this number may – or may not – include the 2,200 pieces struck in 1831. Despite the large number of struck pieces still on hand, in late 1832 Moore ordered the remaining planchets to be struck into half cents. These continued to be coined, as time permitted, well into 1833 and were all delivered in June of that year.
There has been considerable disagreement among researchers about the fate of the 1831 half cents. I believe that a portion of the 2,200 pieces was caught up by mistake in the 234,000 struck pieces melted for alloy. The surviving Mint records in the National Archives are not detailed enough to prove or refute this opinion, however.
The delivery of 154,000 half cents in June 1833 has also caused problems for researchers. Because the Mint was lax about listing dates that appeared on coinage, we will never know exactly how many of these were dated 1832 and how many were dated 1833. Walter Breen estimated that the 1833s showed up about twice as often as those of 1832 and it is this observation that is the basis of the current Red Book estimate of coinage for these two years.
With the half cent delivery of June 1833 the chief coiner was out of planchets but there were of course a large number of struck pieces on hand for distribution to the public. Dr. Moore, however, wrote Matthew Boulton on Aug. 20 of that year asking for another planchet shipment, this time for only five tons (nearly 950,000 pieces). Moore noted that the demand for half cents had not been all that strong, one of the better understatements emanating from the Mint.
There were no deliveries of half cents from the coiner under warrant in 1834 but the annual director’s report, completed in early January 1835, shows a half cent coinage of 120,000 pieces. It is likely that this was an actual coinage despite the lack of a warrant and was merely continuing the curious accounting system started by Moore in 1830 for his annual reports.
On Dec. 31, 1835, the Mint treasurer receipted for 539,000 struck half cents from the coiner. He also reported that 408,334 planchets had been used for alloy, thus accounting for the entire 1834 planchet shipment from Boulton. Oddly enough, the annual report for 1835 uses the unexplained figure of 141,000 half cents struck in 1835; this one, however, was not prepared by Moore but rather his successor, Dr. Robert M. Patterson.
To make matters worse Patterson reported 398,000 pieces coined in the calendar year 1836, which cannot be correct as none was delivered that year. It was an attempt to balance the accounts published by Moore for the copper coinage but failed in this case.
The true number of half cents struck from 1832 to 1835 is known from the official warrants to be 693,000 pieces. Subtracting the delivery of 154,000 in June 1833, this leaves 539,000 pieces for 1834 and 1835. The Red Book at present uses 141,000 and 398,000 for the two calendar years as the most likely numbers. Whether these represent anything like the number of pieces with those dates is anybody’s guess.
Those who collect half cents, and especially dates from 1825 through 1835, will find a rich history behind their coins. It is this kind of background that makes numismatics even more interesting.