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Hamilton thought half cent necessary

Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton

Both non-collectors and beginning collectors are surprised to learn that the United States once had a coin worth only one-half cent. Given what little value the cent has today, the natural inclination is to think that the half cent had very little purchasing power. Many non-collectors are surprised when they see a half cent for the first time. The natural reaction is to think that such a coin would have been of little use and to wonder why the Mint even bothered to strike them. To answer these questions, we need to go back in time to 1791, when Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton presented his famous report to Congress on the creation of a mint and coinage.

The Secretary noted that “If there are only cents, the lowest price for any portion of a vendible commodity, however inconsiderable in quantity, will be a cent; if there are half cents, it will be a half cent, and, in a great number of cases, exactly the same things will be sold for a half cent, which, if there were none, would cost a cent. But a half cent is low enough for the minimum of price. Excessive minuteness would defeat its object. To enable the poorer classes to procure necessaries cheap, is to enable them, with more comfort to themselves, to labor for less; the advantages of which need no comment.”

Although Hamilton did not mention current wage scales, these being well known to his readers, they are worth mentioning so that the half cent can be kept in the context of the times. A skilled workman might earn, in the 1790s, between one and two dollars per day, depending upon the type of labor; an unskilled laborer made about half of that. If one earns only about 75 cents per day, the value of a half cent is easily seen. (In 2018, this denomination would perhaps be equivalent to about 50 cents in purchasing power.)

Although half cents were mandated by the mint law of 1792, little attention was paid to this denomination at first, the cent being far more important in the eyes of everyone. When regular copper coinage began in late February 1793, it was the cent that was struck.

Mint Director David Rittenhouse knew that the half cent was relatively important, so in April and May 1793, more than 30,000 planchets were prepared but not struck because no dies were on hand. The Chief Coiner, Henry Voigt, had executed the cent dies used up to that time, but there was a delay while the government searched for a better engraver. Voigt had completed the reverse dies, but the obverse was the important side seen by the public.

The 1793 half cents were first struck in July 1793. (Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers)

By late June or early July, the search for a new engraver was put on hold, and Voigt was given instructions to finish the obverse dies. By about July 15, they were in fact finished and ready for use. Within a few days, more than 30,000 pieces had been struck and delivered to the treasurer of the Mint for public distribution. A few thousand more were struck in September, ending the half cent coinage for 1793. (More would perhaps have been made, but the Yellow Fever epidemic forced the closure of the Mint for several weeks.)

The government did replace Voigt as engraver, but this did not happen until mid to late August 1793. Joseph Wright became part of the Mint family at that time and executed the famous Liberty Cap cent dies of 1793. However, Wright died in mid-September from Yellow Fever and was replaced in November by Robert Scot.

It was not until a few weeks had passed in 1794 that Scot managed to finish the necessary dies for the half cent; the Voigt design of July 1793 was scrapped, and the new head of Liberty closely followed that on the Liberty Cap cent of 1793 by Joseph Wright.

Only about 80,000 half cents were struck in 1794 (compared to more than 900,000 cents), showing the importance placed on each denomination by the Mint. Due to the beginning of the silver coinage in 1794, very little copper was struck for more than a year. In addition, however, towards the end of 1795, there was a crisis in the price of copper, and the weights of the cent and half cent were reduced.

In early 1796, there was a fairly heavy coinage of half cents, more than one-half million pieces, but these were all dated 1795; they can easily be distinguished from those actually made in 1795 by noting that the reduced-weight coins have plain edges. Prior to 1796, the edges of all copper coins were lettered.

There were 1796 Liberty Cap half cents struck but only a small number, perhaps less than 5,000. For 1797, the Mint obtained a considerable quantity of sheet copper, from which the blanks were to be punched, as well as a large number of old Talbot, Allum, & Lee (TAL) tokens. The latter were rolled down and half cent planchets punched out.

1797 half cent. (Goldberg image)

The nearly 120,000 half cents coined in 1797 used a fair number (perhaps 50,000) of these TAL tokens. In some cases, it is possible to see the underlying design, while on others the original edge lettering appears on part of the new edge.

Much of the difficulty with the early copper coinage, and the half cent in particular, was the reluctance of Chief Coiner Voigt to use the rolling mills to flatten ingots of copper. He preferred to save the rollers for gold and silver coinage; for this reason, the Mint rolled almost no copper ingots after the spring of 1796.

The Draped Bust half cent was first struck in 1800. (Goldberg image)

There was no half cent coinage in 1798, but a few thousand, all dated 1797, were struck in 1799. In the spring of 1800, Chief Engraver Robert Scot finally completed the new half cent dies with the Draped Bust figure of Liberty. It was the last denomination to get this artwork and shows, once again, how little the half cent was appreciated by Mint officials.

At the same time that the new dies were finished, the first ready-made planchets for the half cent were received from England. As early as 1796, this had been done for the cent, but now it was the turn of the smaller value. All ready-made half cent planchets used by the Mint from 1800 to 1835 were made by the Boulton firm of Birmingham, England; this arrangement proved invaluable to the Mint, as it allowed the workmen to concentrate on the coinage of precious metals and not have to worry about the copper.

There was no Boulton copper shipment in 1801 or 1802 for half cents, so in 1802 and 1803 Mint workmen rolled down several thousand misstruck cents and punched blanks for the smaller coinage from them. The 1802-dated half cents are quite scarce and difficult to locate; most existing specimens are in poor condition.

The 1804 half cent with spiked chin. (Goldberg image)

From late 1803 to 1811, there were plenty of planchets on hand, and the Mint workmen were able to strike a considerable number of half cents. In fact, they coined too many, and by 1809 there was a large number on hand with little public demand.

In 1805, a new director, Robert Patterson, had been appointed by President Thomas Jefferson; Patterson strongly felt that our coins needed a complete facelift and in March 1807 persuaded the President to hire John Reich as an assistant engraver for just this purpose. The first denomination to get the “Reich” look was the half dollar, followed by the other values as time permitted.

The Classic Head half cent was struck from 1809 to 1836. (Goldberg image)

The turn of the half cent came in 1809; it was the last of the denominations then being struck to get the new artwork. The bust of Liberty on the 1809 Classic Head half cent is, in the opinion of most numismatists, a step backward from the superb Draped Bust Liberty head that had been dropped from the coinage at the end of 1808.

There were heavy coinages of the half cent in 1809 and 1810, but during the latter year there were so many unwanted half cents sitting in the vaults that coinage was suspended for several months. In the meantime, the Mint ran out of cent planchets, and those wanting copper coins were asked to take half cents. Cents were available but carefully rationed out.

At the end of June 1811, the Mint had no struck cents or half cents for distribution and only about 64,000 half cent planchets on hand. Director Patterson ordered these struck at once so that the Mint would at least have some copper coins for the public. These, too, were soon gone from the Mint. Patterson, because applicants simply did not want any more half cents, then stopped coinage.

Half cent coinage resumed in 1825. (Goldberg image)

It was not until 1824 that requests were again made for half cents, but the Mint had none on hand to distribute. That same year, a new director, Samuel Moore, decided to end the famine and ordered several hundred thousand half cent planchets from the Boulton firm in England. These arrived in the summer of 1825, and something over 60,000 were coined by the end of December. Demand was weak, however.

There was another coinage in 1826 and then none until 1828. The year 1829 also saw a strong coinage of half cents, with nearly one-half million being made in that year. Unfortunately, mintage was not matched by public demand, and at the end of 1829, several hundred thousand pieces were lying in the vaults, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

1831 has long been known as a rare date half cent. (Goldberg image)

In 1830, there was no coinage because of the large stockpile on hand, but 1831 saw the curious number of only 2,200 pieces made. The small mintage had nothing to do with demand, however, and was merely the testing of new-style dies that were being introduced to all denominations. This was connected with a change in the coining process.

The large overhang of half cents in the vaults was a continuing problem. Director Moore ordered that a considerable number of them be melted, in 1832 and 1833, for use as alloy in the precious metal coinage of gold and silver. (It seems likely that a considerable number of the 1831 half cents were caught up in this melting.) At the same time, he ordered a resumption of coinage using planchets delivered to the Mint as long ago as 1825.

The Mint ran out of the 1825 planchets in mid-1833, and Director Moore ordered more blanks from Boulton; these arrived in 1834. During 1834 and 1835, some 539,000 pieces were delivered. At the end of 1835, due to problems in balancing struck coins against demand, the Mint now had on hand several hundred thousand half cents, which would be slowly paid out over the next 14 years.

1837 half cent token. (Goldberg image)

In 1837, a major depression struck the economy, and fewer copper coins were paid out by the Mint. This problem allowed private mints to strike cent tokens for public use; the pieces were sold to merchants for 62.5 cents per hundred pieces. A few half cent tokens were also made, but these did not prove popular.

In 1840, Chief Coiner Franklin Peale, in office since February 1839, began to strike a series of proof-only half cents. These were struck for collectors. So far as is known, no premium was charged for these special coins. (Prior to 1839, Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt had also sold proof coins for face value, considering this a public relations effort by the Mint.)

In 1840, the Mint began to strike half cents for collectors. (Goldberg image)

The 1840 half cent carried a new design, very similar to the change in large cent artwork that appeared about this time. Chief Engraver Christian Gobrecht had prepared the necessary hubs awaiting resumption of regular half cent coinage.

Only a few dozen half cents were struck each year until 1848. At that time, the huge cache of half cents on hand finally began to run out, and in 1849, a new director, Dr. Robert M. Patterson, asked an American firm, Crocker Brothers of Taunton, Mass., to prepare about 125,000 planchets. This was done, and nearly 40,000 pieces were struck in 1849, a figure roughly matched in 1850.

In 1849 and 1850, an effort was made to coordinate supply and demand, but in 1851 mintage was nearly 150,000; this was, however, for a very special reason. There was a silver coin shortage in the United States beginning in 1850, and in 1851, the Mint greatly increased its coinage of copper to take up some of the slack. Half cents, for example, were sometimes put up in bags of 10 to pass for a half dime.

There was no coinage in 1852, the Mint having overestimated the need in 1851, but in 1853, about 130,000 half cents were made, perhaps as a last-ditch effort connected with the coin shortage. The Mint also struck a large number of silver coins beginning in the spring of 1853, which effectively ended the shortage by the late fall of that year.

Increased coinage in 1851 and 1853 masked an interesting fact: the use of half cents in America was declining. By the late 1840s, circulation of this coin was essentially restricted to eastern Pennsylvania, New York and the New England states. In the late 1850s, some collectors even informed the Mint director that they had never seen a half cent in circulation.

Many of the half cents of the 1850s were distributed through local post offices. Whether this meant some postal charge involving a half cent is not known.

Several tens of thousands of half cents were made each year from 1854 through 1857, but it is not clear how many of them made it to the marketplace. It is thought possible that some of the 1856 issue was later melted, while perhaps half of the 1857 striking got the same treatment.

The half cent was last struck in 1857. (Goldberg image)

In February 1857, the half cent was abolished as a coin at the same time that the large copper cent met a similar fate. After that time, only the numismatist was left to appreciate the beauty and lore of these small pledges of history that had served the country well.


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