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Half Cents a Series Worth Examining
By Ginger Rapsus, Numismatic News
September 12, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Early copper coins hold a certain fascination for many collectors. Large cent specialists have their own organizations, reference books and even auction catalogs devoted to large cent collections.

Half cents, considered to be “little half-sisters” to large cents, make up a series with a history and challenges all its own. While never the most popular coins, half cents can provide a numismatist with a special experience.

All half cents were minted at Philadelphia in copper. The basic designs of half cents consisted of a Liberty head on the obverse and a wreath on the reverse.

The first half cents were struck in 1793. This is a famous one-year type coin; many type collectors start their sets with a 1793 half cent. The obverse shows Liberty with flowing hair, facing the viewer’s left, with a Liberty cap on a pole. This obverse design bears a strong resemblance to the Libertas Americana medal. The reverse shows a wreath and berries. Many 1793 half cents are well worn. Yes, early half cents did circulate, and did the job they were created to do.

In 1794, the design was changed to a more matronly-looking Liberty head, facing right, with a different appearing wreath on the reverse. Further changes came in 1795, with Liberty’s head becoming much smaller.

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The 1796 half cent is a major rarity, one of the scarcest coins in the American series. Only 1,390 were minted, and the survival rate is low. There are two distinct varieties, one showing a pole to the Liberty cap, and one without the pole.

1797 half cents were struck in the same design, then coinage stopped until 1800. The famous Draped Bust design was used on all coins of this era, and the half cents were included, in 1800 and 1802-1808.

Collectors of early coinage often study the many varieties available, and there are plenty to pick from. The edge devices alone can provide a specialist with a good want list. A lettered edge (“two hundred for a dollar”) can be found on half cents of 1793 and 1794. A plain edge appeared thereafter, but some 1797 half cents have a lettered edge. Some have a “gripped edge,” with widely spaced reeding. The gripped edge coins are quite scarce.

One variety that is obvious to the naked eye is the “spiked chin” of 1804. Other varieties of the Draped Bust years include differences in the “4” in 1804, small and large dates, stems in the wreath, and even an overdate – 1808/7.

The Classic Head design was used from 1809-1811, when mintage stopped. When mintage resumed in 1825, the Classic Head was used until 1836. There are many varieties known in the Classic Head series, including 1811 wide and close dates, coins with 12 or 13 stars on the obverse, and coins featuring small “0” inside a large “0” in the 1809-dated coins.

Proofs are known of the 1831 and 1836 coins; restrikes of these coins were also struck after coinage of half cents stopped completely.

The Liberty with braided hair design, familiar to large cent collectors, was used during the last years of half cents, from 1840-1857. As in the earlier type, proofs were minted, with both originals and restrikes. The restrikes can be identified by the smaller berries in the reverse wreath.

Highest mintage of half cents came in 1835, with 398,000 struck in 1835 – not even half a million. Next highest mintages came in 1851 and 1853. The final year of coinage, 1857, saw only 35,180 struck.

A half cent token was struck in 1837. The obverse shows an eagle and the words, “standard weight & value” with the 1837 date. The reverse shows a wreath with the inscription “half cent worth of pure copper.” This token is listed in the Red Book and would make a good addition to a set of half cents.

Type collectors need a basic set of half cents, with five basic designs (or six, if you include 1794 and 1795 coins – distinctly different). Collectors who appreciate odd denominations may want a half cent or two in their sets.

Numismatists who wish to pursue a set of half cents can find one of each date. Finding one of each circulation issue is a challenge in itself, and the challenge becomes more demanding when the proof issues are included. Indeed, a set of the proof half cents alone would make a beautiful and scarce set in itself.

Collecting half cents by varieties is a worthwhile pursuit. A collector seeking the many varieties of this early copper coin needs a good eye for detail, and the patience to build his set slowly. Some varieties are quite scarce, and may not come up for sale for years. A collector desiring a set of half cents has to be willing to go against the crowd. Half cents are small copper coins, not large and flashy and made of precious metal. Many show heavy circulation. The general public is not aware that half cents were ever coined by the United States.

Remember, these small coins were made in copper. This metal can discolor, and dies not take cleaning well. Look at the colors of your half cents. Coins can be lovely mint red, red and brown, rich shades of brown, or unattractive orange, black, or even green.

Some years ago, a dealer I know offered a date set of half cents for sale. This was a basic set of circulation issues that included a well-worn 1793, but no 1796. The purchase of this set could have been a great introduction to the series, for a collector who decided he wanted to take the plunge and specialize in half cents. Close study could result in finding a variety or two. Such a set can always be upgraded or expanded.

Half cents have a lot to offer the collector. Those who want something different, collectors who appreciate odd and obsolete denominations, type collectors, history lovers, and the numismatist who just likes to go against the crowd, can all find so much to enjoy in half cents.

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