1836 Reeded-Edge Half Dollar|
October 17, 2013
In the early days of the Philadelphia Mint coins were struck on a screw press, powered by strongly muscled men. The coiners could produce up to about 25 pieces per minute but it was tiring work and difficult for the men to keep up at full speed.
It was the dream of the early Mint directors to harness the coining presses to steam as had been accomplished by the English private coiner, Matthew Boulton, before 1790. Boulton’s press was not like the modern mechanical press, however, and was actually a screw press ingeniously connected to a steam engine.
There were negotiations with Boulton in the early 1800s to obtain his coining system for the United States but in the end the project floundered over the high price required by Boulton. As a result the screw press remained the staple of coinage at the Philadelphia Mint until the mid-1830s.
All of this was to change when Mint Director Samuel Moore arranged for a skilled mechanic, Franklin Peale, to visit major European mints from 1833 to 1835. He was graciously allowed to make careful drawings of the mint machinery used at these mints, especially that of Paris, considered the most advanced in the world.
Upon Peale’s return to the United States in the summer of 1835, he had a meeting with a new Mint director, Dr. Robert M. Patterson. The latter saw the advantages of using the knowledge gained by Peale and ordered the construction of a steam-operated coining press along the lines of the Paris machines but with improvements added by Peale.
By early in 1836 the Philadelphia firm of Merrick, Agnew & Tyler had completed the first working steam coining press, using the drawings brought back by Peale. With an eye toward history and the involvement of President George Washington with the early U.S. coinage, Mint Director Patterson chose Washington’s birthday, Feb. 22, for the ceremonial beginning of coinage with the new press.
Unfortunately for the best laid plans, something went wrong and the press was not ready to begin coinage on Feb. 22. It is likely that the feeding or ejecting mechanism did not operate perfectly, forcing Mint technicians to iron out the problems.
In due course the repairs were successful and the ceremony was rescheduled for March 23. On that day all was a great success with the press flawlessly striking the large copper cents for several hours without the slightest problem.
There were two mainstays of coinage production at Philadelphia in those days, the large cent and the half dollar. The cent, because of its plain edge, was chosen as the first denomination on the new press but Patterson was clearly interested in getting the half dollar there as well.
To this end he instructed engraver Christian Gobrecht to create entirely new dies for the half dollar, ones better suited for the new press. The design was much the same as the lettered-edge half dollars struck in 1836 but there were significant differences. The diameter was slightly smaller and there was to be a reeded edge, as on modern half dollars.
One change little noticed then or now, was the removal of the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM” from above the eagle on the reverse. It had been systematically eliminated from the coinage, beginning in 1831 with the quarter dollar. Mint Director Samuel Moore had considered the Latin motto as simply another way of saying “United States” and he felt that there was no need to have the name of the country twice on a coin.
During the early fall of 1836 preparations were underway to begin the coinage of reeded-edge half dollars. Gobrecht appears to have completed the new dies in the latter part of October and Patterson ordered that the new half dollar coinage on the steam press begin on Nov. 8.
On the first day of coining, Patterson sent 10 specimens to Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury. Some of these were intended for President Andrew Jackson.
The steam coining press, unfortunately, was slightly underpowered for half dollars and developed periods of intense shaking. The new coinage was soon stopped while mechanics strengthened the press. In the meantime half dollar coinage resumed using the old lettered-edge planchets.
From time to time in November and December small quantities of reeded-edge half dollars were struck but it was not until the last week of December that a better rate of coining was achieved. Unfortunately Mint records do not show a breakdown between reeded-edge and lettered-edge coins.
We do not know how many of the reeded-edge half dollars were struck but an estimate of 5,000 pieces is perhaps close to the mark. However, higher estimates have been seen. The old figure of 1,200 pieces, suggested by Walter Breen in the 1950s, is much too low.
The 1836 reeded-edge half dollar is more important than it appears. These rare coins were struck on the old standard of 1792, 208 grains and .8924 fine, whereas the half dollars of 1837—with the same design but struck under a new law adopted in January 1837—were .900 fine and weighed 206.25 grains.
The 1836 reeded-edge piece is either a type coin or an important variety, depending upon one’s viewpoint, and is a necessary piece for any complete type set. It also marks an important milestone in our numismatic history.
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