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The Bust Half Dollars of 1836-39

by R.W. Julian 

There are many collectors of the Capped Bust half dollars, struck from 1807 to 1836, but the reeded edge Bust half dollars of the late 1830s have not received the same amount of interest. Those who do specialize in these later pieces know that there is an equally rich history.

This short set of half dollars is perhaps all the more special as it marks a turning point in American coinage. Prior to 1836 all United States coins were struck on the old-style screw presses, driven by strongly-muscled men. It is undeniable that such coins have a certain charm about them but this was not in evidence in 1836 when Mint officials wanted to get rid of the old ways as quickly as possible.

In July 1824 mining engineer Samuel Moore became director of the mint following the death of Robert Patterson. Moore believed, and rightfully so, that the Philadelphia Mint was technologically backward compared to the European mints and also housed in quarters too cramped for a modern institution. He was determined to correct these problems and, on the whole, succeeded with style and a certain elegance.

As early as 1827 Moore was not only lobbying for a new mint building, large enough to house all its functions as well as provide for expansion, but was working closely with Chief Engraver William Kneass to speed up the production of coinage with the antiquated equipment then on hand. The first step in this new process was to redesign the dime, making the dies slightly smaller in diameter. This meant, in turn, a narrower and thicker planchet.

Next Moore worked with mint mechanics to alter the screw presses so that the edge would be reeded when the coin was struck instead of having to add the edge decoration prior to actual coining, as had been done in the past. Once this was accomplished, dime coinage in the new style began in 1828; for the first time, an American coin was now perfectly round. It was a small but important step.

Over the next three years this change was also brought to the two gold coins then being struck (the half and quarter eagle) as well as the half dime, half cent, and quarter dollar. The first of the new quarters, for example, was struck in 1831.

In the meantime Moore, using his political connections in Washington, had persuaded Congress and President Andrew Jackson that a new mint building was not a luxury but a necessity and the cornerstone was duly laid in the summer of 1829 for what would be, by the standards of the time, an imposing structure worthy of the nation. It was completed in January 1833 and all functions transferred to the new site.

:  The second United States Mint as it appeared in the 1830s.

The second United States Mint as it appeared in the 1830s.

Mint Director Robert M. Patterson

Mint Director Robert M. Patterson

At the same time as the other projects were underway, Moore also began to consider the designs to be found on the coins, in particular, the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM (“One Out of Many”). In 1796 this had been added to the coinage as part of the Heraldic eagle reverse – taken directly from the Great Seal of the United States – but in 1807 Robert Patterson had ordered that the motto be kept when the form of the eagle was altered.

Moore came to the conclusion that Patterson had no right to do this for two reasons, the first being that the new eagle did not resemble that on the Great Seal and thus the motto was not appropriate. In the second place Moore felt that the motto was simply a clever way of saying “United States” in Latin and there was no particular reason in the director’s mind that the name of the country should appear twice. In Moore’s view, the motto was proper on the coinage only if part of the Great Seal.

As a result of these deliberations, in 1831 the revised quarter dollar dies omitted the motto. Moore submitted a trial striking of the new design to the Treasury Department and the President, both of whom approved the change without comment. The director now had a free hand to remove the motto as desired.

The half dollar, the most important coin then struck at the Mint, was high on Moore’s list as deserving of the same change, but the size of the coin meant special modifications to the screw press. There were several attempts to change the style of coining for this denomination but all failed due to its size; for the time being only smaller coins would get the reeded edge at the same time as striking occurred. Moore bided his time as he knew that that the turn of the half dollar would come in due course.

As if the above was not enough, in 1833 Moore had obtained a special appropriation from Congress to send a skilled mechanic to Europe to study the latest coining techniques. Franklin Peale was chosen for this task and was able to spend the better part of two years examining the processes at the best mints, including Paris, London, and Birmingham. He was even allowed the luxury of having detailed drawings made of the steam coining presses at Paris so that they might be duplicated in the United States.

Moore was not destined to complete his planned changes because of an event that he tried to derail. The discovery of gold in the Carolinas and especially Georgia in the late 1820s, led to demands for a regional mint. In the best tradition of pork-barrel legislation, one mint became three when New Orleans, Dahlonega, and Charlotte were approved by Congress in the late winter of 1834–1835. Although not the only reason for his resignation in the summer of 1835, the new mints were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

The new director was Dr. Robert M. Patterson, who just happened to be the son of the old director by that name and brother-in-law of Moore’s. In essence, one family ran the Mint from 1805 to 1851 when the younger Patterson retired from office. R. M. Patterson, as his letters were normally signed, also had strong views about the modernization of the coinage. He accelerated the process, leading directly to the new-style half dollars that were first struck towards the end of 1836. In the meantime, of course, there were many hurdles to overcome.

The new director had even stronger opinions, if that was possible, about the designs then appearing on American coins. He did not like any of them, thinking the artwork unworthy of a modern nation, especially one like the United States whose star was ascending. A major facelift was in the making.

Christian Gobrecht

Christian Gobrecht

Patterson began his serious artistic changes with the silver dollar, which had been last coined in 1804. Engraver Christian Gobrecht worked closely with Patterson to produce the superb silver dollar first coined in early December 1836.

At the same time matters were continuing at a rapid pace towards complete mechanization of the coining process, especially the introduction of the steam press. The first such press was completed in late March 1836 and within a short time was coining tens of thousands of copper cents per day, far above the rate accomplished by the old screw presses. The turn of the half dollar was now close at hand and Patterson was anxious to see it come about.

Half dollar coinage in 1836, with 6.5 million struck, was extremely heavy and shows how important this coin was to the Mint. As this coinage went on, Patterson met with Gobrecht and discussed what the new dies would be like in terms of artwork. The famous Gobrecht dollars had yet to be struck and publicly accepted so Patterson evidently decided that the best way to proceed was to tighten up and improve the current half dollar design, minus the motto which was to be dropped. This die work began in the summer of 1836 but was not finished, due to interference from the silver dollar dies, until late October 1836.

The 1836 steam coining press.

The 1836 steam coining press.

To prepare for the new half dollar coinage on the steam press, there was no coinage of this denomination in October while Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt conducted tests of the equipment. At length, on Nov. 8, coinage of the reeded-edge 1836 Bust half dollar commenced and the director sent ten pieces of the new coinage to the Treasury for examination that same day.

As there has been confusion in the past over the status of this 1836 half dollar, it must be emphasized that it is not a pattern and was intended as regular coinage. The weight and fineness are of the standard established in 1792 (208 grains, .8924+ fine), not the standard of 1837 where half dollars had a slightly lesser weight (206.25 grains) of .900 fine silver. Even the prestigious “Red Book” (A Guide Book of United States Coins, published by Whitman) has the facts wrong for this issue.

Once the new half dollar coinage began, however, it was plagued with one problem after another. We do not know the exact details but the interruptions were serious enough that Patterson ordered the resumption of the lettered-edge coinage on the screw press, much to his dislike. The mechanical problems still had to be overcome and this would take several weeks of effort to accomplish.

The reeded-edge 1836 half dollar. (Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers)

The reeded-edge 1836 half dollar. (Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers)

Because no separate record was kept by the mint treasurer in the official accounts, we do not know the number of 1836 reeded-edge half dollars that were made. The frequently seen estimate of 1,200 is based on the number of halves delivered by the coiner in December (1,034,200) but the correct number could just as easily be 4,200 or 14,200. It also might well be that the November total of 738,000 includes a certain number of the new pieces as well. The number struck was certainly small, however.

In January 1837 Congress overhauled the mint laws and Director Patterson was able to institute many needed reforms in the process. In particular, the silver and gold coinage were now both struck at .900 fineness, a great saving of time and work for the assayer. The change also meant that half dollars struck in 1837 would be on a different standard than was true in November and December 1836.

The last half dollars of 1836 were delivered at the end of December but coinage did not resume until mid-February 1837 because of the new law and the time required to solve the mechanical problems that had derailed the reeded-edge coinage in 1836. The first delivery of half dollars under the new law came on Feb. 22.

Through some odd quirk, the warrant number (1476) for the February 22 delivery does not match the last one (1473) for 1836. Warrant numbers 1474–1475 are simply missing, an extraordinary event in the mint ledgers. This may mean that Patterson, unable to solve the mechanical problems for the time being, ordered the resumption of lettered-edge half dollar coinage (later melted), on a temporary basis, using the new dies of 1837. The records are silent on this point and the suggestion must remain pure speculation.

The 1837 half dollar is similar to that of the 1836 except for the slight change in weight and fineness. (Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers)

The 1837 half dollar is similar to that of the 1836 except for the slight change in weight and fineness. (Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers)

Regardless of what actually happened in early 1837, minting of half dollars was strong throughout the year, with 3.6 million pieces being delivered by the chief coiner. In the latter part of 1837, Patterson decided to change the denomination from 50 CENTS to HALF DOL in accordance with similar alterations made on the half dime and dime in 1837. Oddly enough, despite the Seated Liberty design (from the Gobrecht dollar obverse) being used on the smaller silver, this was not done for the half dollar in 1838. Perhaps Engraver Christian Gobrecht was too pressed with other matters to get the necessary work done until 1839 when the change was in fact made.

The 1838-O half dollar is extremely rare, with less than 20 having been struck. (Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers)

The 1838-O half dollar is extremely rare, with less than 20 having been struck. (Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers)

The coins struck in 1838 and 1839 use HALF DOL on the reverse. (Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers)

The coins struck in 1838 and 1839 use HALF DOL on the reverse. (Image courtesy of Stack’s Bowers)

Dies for 1838 had been sent to the Louisiana Mint in 1838 but not used during that year; in early 1839 New Orleans coiner Rufus Tyler tested the dies and his equipment by striking a few pieces and these were distributed locally as souvenirs. It is said that less than 20 pieces in all were struck but New Orleans Mint records are silent on this point as the coins were never officially delivered.

Those readers interested in learning more about this interesting series of coins should consult the recent work by Richard Graham, A Registry of Die Varieties of Reeded Edge Half Dollars 1836–1839