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UNITED STATES HALF DIMES OR FIVE-CENTS SILVER
(1794-1873) 

By Richard Giedroyc

It may be long forgotten by the general public, but the United States coinage system commenced with a silver 5-cent coin rather than that of nickel composition in use today.

The half dime was one of the original denominations introduced almost as soon as the United States coinage system began. The half disme of 1792 was a pattern designed by Thomas Birch. Birch is also remembered for his experimental Birch Cent, a coin perhaps better identified with Birch because it bears his name.

An examination of the obverse designs of the Birch cent and half disme shows the similarities in iconography, although the personification of Liberty faces left on the half disme and right on the cent.1

The design adopted for the denomination introduced more formerly in 1794 is similar to that of other contemporary silver coin denominations.

The half dime denomination was authorized April 2, 1792, by Congress, making it one of the initial denominations authorized for currency in the United States. The 1792 pattern issue is also known as the Martha Washington half disme. According to some sources, it may be Martha Washington, the wife of our first president, who was the model for the Birch 1792 half disme.2

It is generally accepted that U.S. coinage began in 1793, with the half dime denomination being produced beginning in the following year. There is, however, some evidence the 1792 half disme was meant to be the first regular issue U.S. circulation coin.

In the annual address given by Washington on Nov. 6, 1792, the president included the statement, "There has been a small beginning in the coinage of half dimes, the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them."3

According to an entry for Lot No. 550 in the Feb. 8-10, 1999 Superior Stamp and Coin auction catalog, "The majority of today’s collectors would tend to assign it [1792 half disme] to the regular issue pieces and for that reason any 1792 half disme draws lots of bidding attention."

The denomination was traditionally accepted to begin for circulation purposes in 1794 although the Superior comments may be evidence of a change in tastes to the contrary. The Flowing Hair style coin designed by Robert Scot rather than the design initiated by Birch appears on the new denomination. The Scot design was deliberately used on all silver denominations of the time in an attempt to standardize their appearance. This concept of identical designs for identical metal composition coins was used throughout most of the 19th century on circulation American coins.4

The bust of the personification of Liberty faces right on the obverse with hair flowing. There are eight stars behind her and seven to her right. The "small" eagle, a rather malnourished appearing bird, is shown to be perched on a cloud on the reverse.5

The Flowing Hair design was only struck in 1794 and 1795. The reasoning behind why the design was changed so quickly to that of the Draped Bust, Small Eagle (also by Scot) beginning in 1796 appears to have been lost. Breen observes in his Encyclopedia that "for uncertain reasons, the Birch design used on the 1792 Half Disme was abandoned in favor of the Flowing Hair design found on the dollar, half dollar, and copper coins of 1794."

The design used on the half dime coins of 1796 and 1797 followed suggestions made by artist Gilbert Stuart, the man whose painting of Washington is the model for the vignette on the current dollar bill.6

The Draped Bust, Small Eagle design also proved to be a two-year type design. The Small Eagle reverse was continued in 1797, then no half dime denomination coins were struck again until 1800. When production of the coin resumed the denomination was still produced of .8924 fine silver with a weight of 20.8 grains, however the Great Seal of the United States (better known to collectors as the Large Eagle) was now used for the reverse design. This time the denomination was struck annually through 1805. Production then ceased until 1829.7

The 1802 Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle half dime is one of the classic rarities in the U.S. coinage series. Mint records indicate 13,010 pieces were struck, however these may be fiscal rather than calendar year records. Far fewer specimens, perhaps 16, are known today. The detailed pedigree history of the 16 known specimens known through 1980 appears in The History of United States Coinage as Illustrated by the Garrett Collection by Q. David Bowers.

The William Kneass design adopted from a design by Robert Reich introduced on the 1829 half dime is known as the Capped Bust design. The denomination appears on the coin for the first time, being expressed in abbreviated form as five cents.

According to Breen, the appearance of the denomination on the coin put the by now antiquated term "half disme" to rest in favor of 5-cent coin or half dime.8

An eagle with a shield appears on the reverse beginning in 1829. The design was continued through 1837, then replaced with the Christian Gobrecht design of Seated Liberty with the denomination expressed with the words "half dime" appearing on the reverse for the first time during that year.9

Both the Capped Bust and Seated Liberty designs were used for half dimes struck during 1837. The Act of Jan. 18, 1837 authorized the new Seated Liberty design and also authorized a coin of the slightly lower weight of 20.625 grains struck of .900 fine silver. The diameter remained at 15.5 millimeters.10

Stars and drapery were added to the design elements beginning in 1840, however this was not an indication of any further changes in weight or metal purity for the half dime. The Seated Liberty design would continue with some further minor design modifications through the end of the production of the denomination in favor of the nickel composition 5-cent coin of today in 1873. The nickel composition coin was introduced and circulated simultaneously with the half dime beginning in 1866 following the end of the Civil War.

Beginning in 1838 for the first time the half dime was also struck at a U.S. branch Mint. Coins are available with an "O" Mint mark for the facility at New Orleans. The denomination was also struck at San Francisco beginning in 1863. Coins from this Mint carry the "S" Mint mark. Mint marks can be found either within or below the wreath on the reverse.11

Seated Liberty half dimes of 1853 to 1855 display arrow heads at the date to indicate the coins were struck of the reduced weight of 1.24 grams (or 19.2 grains. Earlier half dimes have a weight of 1.34 grams.) of .900 fine silver. The arrow heads were dropped as a design element beginning in 1856 although no further weight change took place in the denomination.

Collectors should be aware that the drop in the silver content weight of the coin caused the public to hoard the earlier issues. This was true of all silver content denomination coins for which the weight was reduced.12 As a result the Mint produced larger quantities of the coins with arrows at the date to replace the heavier coins quickly vanishing from circulation.

A mystery to which recent attention has been drawn is the discovery of a raised dot appearing below the date 1853 on some half dimes of this date with arrows. Several speculative reasons for the appearance of the dot have been given, but at the time this article is being written there are more questions than answers surrounding the dot.13

Mint Director James Ross Snowden’s plan to transfer the legend "United States of America" from the reverse to the obverse of the coin resulted in what may be the strangest coins in U.S. coinage history in 1859 and 1860, rare varieties on which the name of the country is not displayed at all due to the muling of specific obverse and reverse dies during this transition.

The Seated Liberty half dime design was modified several times, notably in 1856, 1859 and 1860, however the basic design type did not change again until the demise of the denomination at the hands of congressional legislation that revamped our coinage system in 1873.

Perhaps the greatest design change during this final period of the half dime is the so-called "Cereal Wreath" reverse change of 1860 in which Mint designer James B. Longacre made modifications to the wreath surrounding the denomination.14

Several things of importance should be noted about the later Seated Liberty half dimes. Proof coins began to be struck in significant numbers at Philadelphia beginning in 1860, often using the same dies as used to make business strikes.15

The New Orleans Mint, which began striking half dimes with Mint marks in 1838, ceased production of this denomination and all other U.S. coins quickly after hostilities began during the Civil War and this Mint facility fell into Confederate hands.

The San Francisco Mint facility began striking half dimes with an "S" Mint mark beginning in 1863. Half dimes between 1863 and 1870 all have low mintages.

The 1870-S Seated Liberty half dime, known from a single example, is one of the great mysteries of U.S. coinage. Six pair of obverse and reverse dies were shipped to the San Francisco Mint, according to Mint records, however this single coin is known today.

The year 1873, as alluded to earlier in this article, was the final year for the half dime. Congress moved to revamp the entire coinage system, doing away with several denominations while paving the way for the nickel composition 5-cents coin to replace the half dime once and for all.

Sources and Recommended Reading:
1.  Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins for a good comparison of these two coin designs.
2. Q. David Bowers The History of United States Coinage as Illustrated by the Garrett Collection.
3.  text of Washington’s 1792 annual address.
4.  observation of the author.
5.  Q. David Bowers United States Coins by Design Types.
6.  ibid.
7.  See annual Mint reports for published mintage figures. These figures have been repeated in many later U.S. coin catalogs, but these catalogs are secondary sources.
8.  Breen Encyclopedia.
9.  Daniel W. Valentine The United States Half Dimes.
10.  This information is repeated in virtually all coin catalogs without modification, as well as by Valentine.
11.  Richard Yeoman A Guide Book of U.S. Coins.
12.  Valentine.
13.  Ken Potter "A Half Dime with a Dot," The Numismatists, April 1999.
14.  Breen Encyclopedia, and Superior Stamp & Coin Feb. 8-10, 1999 auction, Lot No. 579 commentary.
15. Auctions by Bowers & Merena Inc. Aug. 3, 1998 auction, Lot No. 100 commentary.

1794 Flowing Hair Half Dime Obverse   1794 Flowing Hair Half Dime Reverse
Flowing Hair Type (1794-1795)
Images courtesy of  Heritage Numismatic Auctions

1800 Draped Bust Half Dime Obverse   1800 Draped Bust Half Dime Reverse
Draped Bust Type (1796-1805)
Images courtesy of Heritage Numismatic Auctions

  
Capped Bust Type (1829-1837)
Images courtesy of  Superior Stamp & Coin

  
Seated Liberty Type (1837-1873)
Images courtesy of the Professional Coin Grading Service

 

 
 

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