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Collectible Half Dimes
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
October 30, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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Silver half dimes predated five-cent “nickels” and coexisted with them for several years. The Mint struck half dimes from 1794 to 1873.

Half dime mintages were low and intermittent before 1829. When the cornerstone of the second Philadelphia Mint was laid on the Fourth of July 1829, several coins were placed inside. Among them was “a half dime coined on the morning of the 4th, being the first of a new emission of that coin, of which denomination none have been issued since the year 1805,” wrote Samuel Hazard in his 1829 Registry of Pennsylvania. Another half dime was placed in the cornerstone of the Washington Monument on July 4, 1848.

The half dime was the smallest silver coin before the arrival of the three-cent piece. Describing operations at the Philadelphia Mint in 1849, The Banker’s Magazine said:

“The coining presses are of various sizes, to suit the different denominations of coins. Those for the dollar and the half dime, compared together, are as a ponderous machine by the side of a plaything.”

Half dime production soared in the 1830s, but circulation was another matter. In 1835, Mint Director Samuel Moore wrote to Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury:

“Within the last six years, the number of dimes and half dimes issued from the Mint would suffice to have placed about four pieces of each in every family in the United States, and yet it seems obvious that there is not one of each, on the average, in every family.”

Moore’s comments were made in support of the need for branch mints. The New Orleans Mint opened in 1838 and began striking half dimes.

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The same year, The Farmer’s Guide advised tobacco growers to plant seeds in early May, and in mid-month to “rake through the superabundance of plants when they are the size of a half dime.”

Half dimes continued to be struck during the Civil War, although they vanished from circulation as quickly as they were minted.

Postage Currency, Fractional Currency and private “shinplasters” were used as substitutes for coins, but they weren’t popular. A correspondent wrote in the Dec. 18, 1862, issue of the Cedar Valley Times:

“We were greatly annoyed while on our recent visit to the East by having shinplasters of every form and description thrust upon us for change in every town and village in which we stopped.

“We had supposed that there was a sufficient amount of postage currency in circulation in the East to meet the ordinary demands of business. But in this we found ourselves mistaken.

“It was as difficult to obtain as silver, and blessed is the man in these days who sees any silver coin.”

The first nickels were released in 1866 and proved so popular that the Coinage Act of 1873 abolished the half dime.

The situation in the West was different. Cents and nickels were struck exclusively at the Philadelphia Mint, leaving the half dime the smallest coin circulating in the West.

It was no wonder that in 1878 the San Francisco Bulletin issued “A Call For Silver Half Dimes.” In 1879 the San Francisco Call said, “The scarcity of silver five-cent pieces has been marked for some time.”

Attempts to revive the half dime were unsuccessful, but don’t despair. You can add a Fine-12 Seated Liberty half dime to your collection for less than $30.

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