UNITED STATES HALF DIMES OR FIVE-CENTS SILVER
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
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 todays
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
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
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
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 Snowdens 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
1. Walter Breens
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 Washingtons 1792 annual address.
4. observation of the author.
5. Q. David Bowers United States Coins by Design Types.
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.
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.