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1802 Half Cent a Rarity
By R.W. Julian, Coins Magazine
August 28, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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When numismatics became a national hobby, in the late 1850s, the first coins to be sought after were those of copper, especially the cent but the half cent was not far behind. The reason for this interest in copper is not hard to find because these coins were of little value and it was expensive to collect the silver and gold coins.

As early as 1860 it was realized that the 1802 half cent was one of the scarcest regular issues for this series, eclipsed only by 1796 and 1831. (The proof-only pieces of the 1840s were another matter entirely.) In 1861, for example, writer W.C. Prime assigned the 1802 half cent a rarity rating of 5, 1 being common and 6 being of the highest rarity.

In the early days of the Mint the half cent was, at best, a coin far less important than the cent. Coinage of the smaller copper coin was usually at the whim of the coiner and only when the cent was not being made.

As early as 1796 the fragile state of the rolling mills, which flattened ingots of copper to the proper thickness for preparing blanks, meant that most copper coins were now made from imported sheet copper. In 1797 half cents were struck in quantity for the first time, using sheet copper of the proper thickness as well as cut-down Talbot, Allum & Lee tokens.

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In the late 1790s Mint Director Elias Boudinot was able to make arrangements with famed English private coiner Matthew Boulton to prepare ready-made planchets for cent coinage. These proved a great help in 1798 and 1799 and in the latter year Boulton also prepared half cent planchets for shipment to America.

The Boulton half cent planchets were all struck in the fall of 1800, once the cent planchets were out of the way. Unfortunately Boulton was unable to ship any fresh copper planchets until late in 1801 and in the meantime the Philadelphia Mint was unable to strike any cents or half cents.

At length, in the latter part of 1801 a fresh shipment of planchets arrived but only of cents. These were soon struck and distributed but there was still a demand for half cents from the public and no Boulton planchets were on hand for this denomination.

With the 1797 use of the Talbot, Allum & Lee tokens still fresh in everyone’s mind, it was decided to use the misstruck cents that had been laid aside. Most of the misstruck cents resulted from the Boulton planchets occasionally being too thin and, when struck, the design was barely to be seen. Sometimes the cents were also struck off center and could not be issued for this reason as well.

By the summer of 1802 several thousand misstruck cents had been laid aside, waiting to be flattened to the thickness of a half cent. The rollers were used reluctantly but because not all that many pieces were involved it was felt safe to do so. About 8,300 misstruck cents were rolled down in early August 1802 and the half cent planchets punched out.

In the meantime chief engraver Robert Scot prepared an obverse die for the 1802 half cent coinage. He used a die originally dated 1800 and simply punched the figure 2 over the last digit in the date, creating an overdated die, 1802/0. Some 8,200 good half cents were then made and delivered on Aug. 7.

The 1802/0 obverse die was combined with two different reverses for this coinage. One of the reverses had actually been used in 1800 and was no longer in the best of condition. Only a relatively few coins, perhaps less than 1,000 pieces, were struck before this old reverse die failed. Today coins from this die combination are extremely rare and seldom seen at auction. The rest of the coins were produced with a different reverse die, probably freshly made.

The 8,200 half cents of early August were of little help in meeting public demands for such coins. To remedy the situation, at least in a small way, another 6,300 misstruck cents were sent to the rollers in November 1802, with 6,166 good pieces delivered within a few days.

No half cent planchets were received from Boulton in all of 1802 and most of 1803 so in August 1803, using the 1802/0 obverse die once more, another 5,900 half cents were made using the cut-down large cents that had accumulated in the meantime. In all 20,266 half cents dated 1802/0 had been struck and put into circulation.

In November 1803 the Mint received a shipment of cent and half cent planchets and never again would misstruck cents be used for half cent coinage. The 1802/0 half cents proved, however, to be an interesting milestone in the history of the Mint and today all such pieces are highly prized by their owners.

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