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Half Dime Enjoyed a Long History
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
May 10, 2011

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The five-cent “nickel” has been around more than 140 years, but it’s just a youngster compared to the silver half dime. The half dime originated during George Washington’s presidency and lasted until 1873, seven years after the nickel’s arrival made the it redundant.

The Act of April 2, 1792, authorized the half dime four months before construction of the Mint began.

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Initially, it was called the “half disme,” but its pronunciation and background are mostly a matter of speculation. Hard facts about the first half dismes are as scarce as the coins themselves.

At the heart of the tangle is President George Washington’s alleged connection. Silver was scarce when the first half dismes were struck. According to the A Guide Book of United States Coins, Washington provided about $100 worth of his own silver for the first half dismes. However, documentation of the legend is mainly hearsay repetition of a story that has been passed down for generations.

“Possibly,” “might have been” or “may have been” are recurring words in the case of the first half dismes. Possibly, Martha Washington served as the model for the Liberty portrait after her husband rejected presidential portraits on coins as a monarchial practice.

Surrounding the Liberty portrait is the legend “LIB. PAR. OF SCIENCE & INDUSTRY.” A flying eagle highlights the reverse, with the inscriptions “HALF DISME” and “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”

Robert Birch and Adam Eckfeldt may have engraved the designs, but no one knows for sure. The exact status of the first half dismes—whether they were patterns or regular issues—has also been debated.

A unique copper 1792 half disme exists, unquestionably a pattern. In July 1792, about 1,500 silver half dismes were struck. Some collectors classify them as the first coins minted by the government. Because the Philadelphia Mint was still under construction, the half dismes may have been struck in the cellar of John Harper’s saw-maker shop.

Most surviving 1792 half dismes are worn, lending credibility to their classification as regular issues. Their distribution and background were the subjects of a note discovered in the flyleaf of a book in the 1940s. Dated April 9, 1844, and attributed to Mint melter and refiner Jonas McClintock, it said:

“In conversation with Mr. Adam Eckfeldt today at the Mint, he informed me that the half dismes above described were struck at the request of Gen. Washington to the extent of one hundred dollars, which sum he deposited in bullion or specie for that purpose.

“Mr. Eckfeldt thinks that Gen. Washington distributed them as presents. Some were sent to Europe, but the greater number of them, he believes, were given to acquaintances in Virginia. No more of them were coined except those for Gen. Washington.

“They were never designed as currency—the Mint was not at the time fully ready for going into operation. The coining machinery was in the cellar of Mr. Harper’s saw-maker at the corner of Cherry and Sixth Streets, at which place these pieces were struck.”

However, researchers have questioned the accuracy of the note or “memorandum,” if not its authenticity. Was some of Eckfeldt’s information based on hearsay? Was his recollection of events reliable more than half a century later?

George Washington’s account was more basic and irrefutable. In his November 1792 annual address, he wrote, “There has been a small beginning in the coinage of half dismes, the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them.”

The Mint opened in 1793 but produced only cents and half cents that year. In 1794, engraver Robert Scot worked on a new design in anticipation of the start of half dime production at the Philadelphia Mint.

A unique 1794 copper pattern has the same portrait of Liberty with flowing hair as the regular issue that followed, but it lacks the obverse stars. The reverse depicts an eagle within a wreath, similar to the design accepted for full-scale production, but with “HALF DISME” below the eagle.

On other 1794 pattern half dismes, the denomination is omitted, and stars frame the Liberty portrait.

The combined mintage of 1794 and 1795 Flowing Hair half dimes was fewer than 90,000. I use the “half dime” spelling because of its predominance in numismatic reference books, even though the revised spelling does not seem to have been officially recognized until the early 1800s.

In 1796, the Flowing Hair dime gave way to Scot’s Draped Bust design. The new half dime retained the small eagle reverse.

It was a banner year for varieties, including 1796/5 and 1796 “LIKERTY” half dimes. The “LIKERTY” variety is not an “error” coin as sometimes described. It was struck from a damaged die missing a portion of the “B.”

At first the intention was for the half dime to have a star for each state. The concept was eventually abandoned as impractical. Sometimes, human error resulted in variations in the number of stars. In 1797, for example, half dimes were struck with 13, 15 or 16 stars.

In 1800, the half dime received a heraldic eagle reverse inspired by the Great Seal of the United States. Years later, even the dime was exempted from the requirement of having an eagle on the reverse because it was too small. However, the early half dimes demonstrate there was really no basis for the exemption.

During the Draped Bust half dime’s production run, damaged or worn tools and equipment and makeshift techniques continued to result in varieties. The 1800 “LIKERTY” half dime resulted from a broken “R” punch. The 1803 “large 8” half dime was a crude improvisation—a worker joined two rough circles to make an “8.”

The most famous Draped Bust half dime, however, is the 1802, which had a mintage of only 3,060. Unbelievably, Ernest Gambs of St. Louis found one in pocket change more than 75 years after it was struck.

“Another 1802 Half Dime Discovered,” said the headline in the September 1879 issue of Mason’s Coin Collectors’ Journal. The story did not mention Gambs’ name but said the coin had been found in St. Louis.

Gambs was a prominent stamp and coin dealer. His biography in the February 1888 issue of The Badger State Philatelist, published in Delavan, Wis., included information about his 1802 half dime.

“One of the finest and most valuable American pieces,” it said, “which Mr. Gambs was the fortunate possessor of, was a very fine 1802 half dime, which he secured by chance in an old grocery store on Elm Street, in change. It was sold for $50 to William P. Brown, the pioneer coin and stamp dealer of New York.

“Mr. Brown refused $200 for it, but later sold it at auction, only bringing $147.50, being much less than he had anticipated.

“The third time, however, it was advertised at auction and pronounced the finest of 1802 half dimes ever discovered in this or any other country. It brought $176, and was knocked down to a Philadelphia numismatic speculator, who sold it afterward for $225, nearly 5,000 times its face value.”

In a poem published in The Numismatist in the 1890s, A.G. Heaton referred to the 1802 half dime as one of the “silver barons,” meaning it ranked among the nobility of numismatic rarities.

At the sale of the James B. Wilson Collection in 1908, an About Uncirculated 1802 half dime realized $715. Ninety years later, the same coin brought $84,000.

No half dimes were struck in 1804. Only 15,600 were minted in 1805. From 1806-1828, there was another lapse in production, which must have led people to wonder if the half dime would ever return.

In 1829, it did make a comeback in grand style. The new half dime had a Capped Bust obverse design by engraver William Kneass. An eagle and shield appeared on the reverse, and below it the inscription “5 C.” for “five cents.” It was the first time the denomination was indicated on the half dime.

Even more significant than the new design was the increased production of half dimes. In 1829, more than 1.2 million were struck. Production jumped to nearly 3 million in 1836, including “small 5 C.,” “large 5 C.” and “3 over inverted 3” varieties.

In 1837, the final year of the Capped Bust half dime, “small 5 C.” and “large 5C.” varieties were again struck.

The half dime changed to the seated Liberty design during 1837. Engraved by Christian Gobrecht, the seated Liberty obverse was designed by Thomas Sully, a painter of portraits and historical scenes. The seated Liberty figure was inspired by the rendition of Britannia on some British coins.

The lack of stars on the obverse of early Seated Liberty half dimes gives them the appearance of medalets instead of coins, in my opinion. Of all the early Seated Liberty coins, only the early dimes share the half dime’s uncluttered look.

On the reverse, the eagle and shield gave way to a wreath around the inscription “HALF DIME.” The legend “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” formed a border.

The Philadelphia Mint struck more than 1.5 million Seated Liberty half dimes in 1837. Collectors later distinguished “small date” and “large date” varieties.

Seated Liberty half dimes struck from 1837 to 1840 did not have drapery from Liberty’s elbow. It was added during 1840 and reflected an artistic obsession with the placement, number of folds and their arrangement in works derived from classical forms.

It was considered such a vital matter that an outside artist was commissioned to modify the seated Liberty figure. Sculptor Robert Ball Hughes, known to his friends simply as “Ball,” was paid $75 for his efforts, although it took some time for the payment to be approved.

The changes to the half dime were so slight that a casual observer wouldn’t have noticed them. Thirteen stars were added to the half dime’s obverse during 1838. The same year, the New Orleans Mint struck the first branch-mint half dimes, distinguished by an “O” below the wreath. The 1838-O half dime had a mintage of 70,000.

Long ago, collectors believed in the existence of 1837-O half dimes. “We have two worn specimens of 1837,” Heaton wrote in 1893, “without stars and sufficient traces of a small ‘o’ in the proper place to convince us that some half dimes were coined experimentally in New Orleans that year with a die similar to the one used in Philadelphia, although the New Orleans Mint was not regularly organized until 1838. As the coinage of half dimes at New Orleans in the latter year was not recorded, though well known, we are the more assured of the authenticity of our ’37 ‘O’ Mint pieces which were found in New Orleans, and we consider them excessively rare.”

There were not many numismatists in the United States in the 1830s, and collecting coins by mintmark did not catch on in a big way until the early 1900s.

In the case of the general public, there was a modest degree of interest in the work of the branch mints. Four years after it began, New Orleans’ half dime production was in the news. The April 6, 1842, issue of the Wellsboro, Pa., Tioga Eagle reported, “The United States branch Mint at New Orleans coined half dimes during the month of February.” Total production of 1842-O half dimes amounted to 350,000.

The rarest New Orleans half dimes of the 1840s are the 1840 “medium O,” 1841 “large O,” 1844 “large O” and 1848 “small O” varieties.

At the Philadelphia Mint, only 27,000 half dimes were struck in 1846, the lowest mintage of the 1840s.

To indicate a weight reduction specified by the Act of Feb. 21, 1853, arrows were added at the sides of the date on half dimes struck from 1853-1855. Many 1853 Philadelphia and 1853-O half dimes were melted after the new standard went into effect.

In 1858, there was a run on an Indiana bank. When someone presented $1,000 of its paper money for redemption, the notes were paid with half dimes—20,000 to be exact. Even so, they hardly would have made a dent in the Philadelphia Mint’s output of 3.5 million 1858 half dimes.

At that time the silver three-cent piece had been in production for seven years. Known as the “trime,” it robbed the half dime of the distinction of being the smallest silver coin in size and denomination. The three-cent piece was also useful for many of the transactions for which a half dime would have been convenient.

In 1859, the Philadelphia Mint used a new die to strike half dimes with hollow-center stars and a Liberty figure with thinner arms.

The legend “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” was transferred from the reverse to the obverse in 1860. Fantasy half dimes dated 1859 and 1860 were struck without “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” on either side.

The half dime received a thicker wreath beginning in 1860, sometimes referred to as a “wreath of cereals.”

A curious aspect of the half dime involved the placement of the mintmark. It appeared below the bow tying the wreath branches from 1860 through 1869; above the bow in 1870 and 1871; above or below the bow in 1872; and below the bow in 1873. The location seems to have been a matter of personal preference and was not considered of major importance.

Like all silver and gold coins, half dimes disappeared from circulation during the Civil War. According to an 1862 newspaper item, half dimes were as rare in New York City as they were in Richmond, Va.

The San Francisco Mint began striking half dimes in 1863, turning out 100,000.

Construction of the second San Francisco Mint, known as “The Granite Lady,” started in 1870. No 1870-S half dimes were struck for circulation, but a single example may have been struck for placement in the cornerstone of the new Mint.

In 1978, an 1870-S half dime surfaced in a box of old coins taken to an Illinois dealer. It might be a duplicate of the purported cornerstone coin, or possibly it was intended for the cornerstone but never made it.

At a Superior Galleries auction in 1986, the 1870-S half dime brought $253,000.

Half dimes were popular in California. In 1879, however, the San Francisco Call said, “The scarcity of silver five-cent pieces has been marked for some time.”

It was an interesting report because the Coinage Act of 1873 had eliminated the half dime. The main reason for its demise was the introduction of the five-cent “nickel” in 1866. It was easier to handle than the tiny half dime and was not subject to hoarding.

However, nickels were struck only at the Philadelphia Mint before 1912, and they did not circulate in the West. As Heaton put it, the half dime was “peculiarly the coin of the people, for in the extreme South and West no smaller denomination has ever been in use.”

In the 1880s, Californians petitioned the government to revive the silver half dime, but it was to no avail.

Elsewhere, it took around 20 years for half dimes to fade away.

“Since the half dime was abolished in 1873,” Heaton wrote, “the inconvenience of the small piece has resulted in the annual remittance to the Treasury and the Mints of hundreds of dollars worth which streetcar companies, etc., are glad to have destroyed. Consequently, very few half dimes now exist in circulation. Their general scarcity and rarity is augmenting, and the small space a collection occupies will assure them ever-increasing favor.”

Many obsolete half dimes were holed for use on bracelets and other jewelry. Others were mounted on stickpins or made into clothing buttons. As a result, some surviving half dimes have a damaged reverse.

Damaged half dimes were so common they were a nuisance. The Aug. 10, 1881, issue of the Decatur Daily Review reported, “The number of defaced coins—silver half dimes worn smooth and having holes bored in them—which are in circulation in New Orleans, causes the Democrat of that city to make an investigation.”

By the turn of the century, holed U.S. half dimes were circulating in Cuba with a value of 2.5 cents, according to an item in The Numismatist.

Many half dimes that were still intact were melted to provide silver for the 1892-93 Columbian Exposition commemorative half dollars. An 1892 law authorized the coinage of millions of “souvenir” half dollars “to be manufactured from uncurrent subsidiary silver coins now in the Treasury.”

For years the half dime’s size and denomination had set it apart from other U.S. coins. But its small size was also a negative factor, and the release of the five-cent “nickel” diminished the half dime’s function.

Yet the story didn’t end there. Once considered an important part of the monetary system—the first coin struck by the government—the half dime found new roles as an adornment for jewelry and treasure for coin collectors.

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