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Reeded-edge halves coming into vogue
By R.W. Julian
September 19, 2017

Although Bust half dollars of 1807-1836 have long been a favorite of collectors, the same has not been true, until relatively recently, for the reeded-edge half dollars of 1836-1839. These later Bust half dollars, from dies by Christian Gobrecht, have become more popular of late with prices reflecting this interest.

The reeded-edge half dollars of 1836-1839 actually mark the start of an important technical revolution for silver coins at the Philadelphia Mint. Coins were now struck in a new way and are superb mementos of the changes that took place in that decade.

Half dollars had first been struck at the Philadelphia Mint in November 1794 and had been turned out by the millions during the 1820s and 1830s. It was by far the most popular silver coin and was used everywhere in this country, even on the frontier. They were also heavily used by banks as backing for their issues of paper money.

The arrival of Dr. Samuel Moore as Mint director in the summer of 1824 was to signal great improvements in the way coins were struck. In those days, strongly-muscled men turned the great iron bars that drove the screw presses. Moore was determined to change all of this and planned to replace this archaic system with machines driven by steam power.

Moore had considerable influence with Congress and persuaded the national legislators that the United States needed a new mint building. In July 1829 the cornerstone was laid and work was completed in January 1833. The old mint buildings were then unceremoniously sold for a trifling sum.

At the same time that the new structure was completed, Moore obtained an appropriation to send a skilled artisan to Europe to examine the latest minting techniques. In 1833 Franklin Peale left the port of New York for London and spent the next two years examining public and private institutions in England and France. Not only was he allowed access to all parts of the work, but he was also given permission to make drawings of key machines and other equipment that were used in the mints and assay offices.

Peale returned to Philadelphia in 1835, full of plans and thoughts for future improvements at the Mint. One of these ideas was the use of a steam coining press, which had long been dreamed of by Moore and other officers. As early as 1827 Moore had anticipated the use of a steam press by changing the way certain coins were struck in the screw press.

Prior to that date all coins had been minted in an open (loose) collar, which merely meant that a circular device kept the planchet roughly centered between the upper and lower dies. Virtually every coin was thus very slightly off-center, but this was not noticed by the public.

Beginning in 1827 Moore instructed chief coiner Adam Eckfeldt and chief engraver William Kneass to work together to change the open collar to a closed one. In this way the planchet would drop directly into a grooved steel ring only slightly larger than the blank. When it was struck, the coin would be forced outward against the solid collar and pick up the reeding on the edge. The first coin to get the new treatment was the dime in mid-1828.

The major problem with this new technique was that it worked best on the smaller coins, although by 1831 the technique had been extended to the quarter dollar (as well as others in the meantime). The new style of coining meant that each coin was now perfectly round and had a mathematical precision to it unlike all previous coinage in this country.

In particular Moore had hoped to extend this arrangement to the half dollar, then being struck in very large quantities, but this could not be achieved. It may simply have been that larger coins were more difficult to eject from a closed collar.

There was another facet to this work that is not generally realized at present. The director had long felt that the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM” (“One Out of Many”) had no place on the coinage. He believed, as did others at the time, that it had been wrongly added to the reverse of the gold and silver coinage in 1807.

Moore thought that this motto, which appears on the Great Seal of the United States as it was adopted in 1783, is in reality nothing more than an alternate way of saying “United States of America” in Latin. It was certainly appropriate on the Great Seal, but why the regular coinage? (The motto had appeared on most of the gold and silver coinage struck from 1796 through 1807, but only as part of the Great Seal, not something required by law.)

In 1831 Moore took the opportunity to drop the motto from the quarter dollar when new dies were made to accommodate the closed collar. Some years ago a numismatic writer and researcher claimed that Moore was forced to make several trips to Washington to persuade the government to drop the motto, but the truth is a little more mundane. He simply sent a specimen of the new coin to the Treasury and asked for comments. There was none and the change was made without protest of any kind.

Moore resigned his post as director in June 1835 and was replaced by his brother-in-law, Dr. Robert Maskell Patterson. The new director agreed with everything that Moore had done and planned on doing him one better by introducing new designs to the silver and gold coinage. One fruit of this labor was the famous Gobrecht dollar of 1836.

During the latter part of 1835, under Peale’s careful direction, the new steam coining press was being prepared. Patterson was enthusiastic about the new technique and even set a special date, Feb. 22, 1836, as the time when all would come together. That date was of course chosen to honor the birthday of President George Washington, who was well known for his interest in the early Mint.

In late August 1835 chief engraver Kneass suffered a massive stroke and Patterson persuaded skilled engraver Gobrecht to join the engraving department as a “second” (i.e., not an assistant) engraver. By early 1836 Gobrecht had prepared new cent dies for use in the steam coining press but just at this time something went wrong—probably something to do with the coins being ejected from the press properly—and the ceremony was by necessity postponed, until March 23.

Gobrecht had even made some special cent-sized dies to strike medals on the steam press for the distinguished visitors. These were overdated to the March 23 date and were duly used at that time. The delayed ceremony was a success and within a few weeks the new press was turning out 40,000 cents a day, far above what was done in the old days with “blood power,” as it was called by Patterson.

With the cent coinage well underway by steam power, Patterson and the other officers now turned their attention to the half dollar. The original timetable scheduled the beginning of the new-style half dollar coinage for the end of September or early in October. By mid-September Gobrecht appears to have finished the first pair of half dollar dies, dated 1836.

The artwork was a reasonably close copy of the old John Reich design from 1807 except that it was tightened up and the motto dropped.

The old lettered-edge half dollar coinage temporarily ended during September 1836 while officers made ready for the new half dollar with reeded edge. However, something again went wrong with the new press and there was no half dollar coinage at all in October.

Finally, on Nov. 8 Patterson reported to the Treasury that a successful steam coinage of half dollars had been carried out and forwarded several pieces as samples of the work. (Some numismatists have assumed that these were proof pieces but this is not the case as proofs of this era were always struck on the large screw press and continued to be prepared in this way until the early 1890s.)

Patterson was clearly too optimistic because the whole business came crashing to earth within a short time and a resumption of lettered-edge half dollar coinage was ordered. Some reeded-edge pieces were coined over the next several weeks but the number was rather small compared to the regular half dollar mintage, which continued through the end of the year. Most of the new 1836 reeded-edge half dollars appear to have been struck in the latter part of December.

It has long been a puzzle just how many 1836 reeded-edge half dollars were struck. The figure of 1,200 is sometimes seen but this merely a guess, made by Walter Breen in the 1950s, based on the odd number (1,034,200) of half dollars delivered in December 1836. The correct number could just as easily have been 2,200, 3,200, or 4,200. It is this writer’s opinion that the correct number is closer to 5,000 than 1,000. Some researchers think it might well be higher.

For some years it was thought that this 1836 special half dollar coinage was actually in the pattern status because they were struck on the new weight standard of 1837, 900/1,000 fine and 206.25 grains. It is now known, however, that the 1836 issue was made on the standard of 1792 (.8924+ and 208 grains) so the pieces are absolutely legal issues for circulation. Moreover, it is the only reeded-edge half dollar struck on the weight standard of 1792 and is thus of special importance for those having complete type or variety sets.

Those wishing to obtain this coin will not find it without a reasonable outlay of money. According to the price guide appearing in Coins, in Fine-12 the book value is $1,600 while in Extremely Fine-40, usually the least grade acceptable for a good type collection, the tab is a much higher $3,250. Still, for a piece with this kind of history and importance, the prices are not all that bad. Proofs exist, but bring very high prices.

Some indication of the increased interest in the 1836 reeded-edge half dollar may be seen in prices from 1990. Coin Prices shows a value of $900 in Fine-12 while EF–40 weighs in at $1,875.

The 1836 reeded-edge halves would likely be worth considerably more, as an important variety, except that the standard reference, the Red Book, mistakenly catalogs these coins as being struck on the fineness of 1837 (.900) and therefore identical in all respects to the 1837 half dollar coinage.

Angered by the machinery failure of November 1836, Patterson ordered that urgent efforts be made to coin nothing but reeded-edge half dollars in the new year of 1837. It took several weeks of feverish work but finally in February 1837 this was done. These new coins were of course struck under the mint act of Jan. 18, 1837, which specified a new fineness and weight. The amount of pure silver in each piece did not change, however.

For those specializing in the very best type and variety collections, the 1837 half dollar, even though fairly common and easily obtained, is still necessary for the set because it is the only year with this exact design to be struck under the new 1837 standards. In EF-40 the tab is a reasonable $175, well within the reach of most serious collectors.

The half dollars of 1837 have some interesting characteristics. Even though the steam coinage was clearly working, there were some minor technical problems involved with ejecting the coins from the closed collar. For this reason there was some experimentation with the collar size, resulting in coins of slightly different diameters for this year.

At the end of 1837, for reasons that are presently obscure, Patterson ordered the engraver to change the reverse die to read “HALF DOL” rather than “50 CENTS” as had appeared on the reeded-edge half dollars of 1836-1837. This, of course, created another change of design, necessary for the best type or variety sets. The 1838 Philadelphia issue is readily obtainable for about $175 in EF-40 but the 1839 is somewhat higher at about $235.

The Philadelphia issues of this type for these two years (1838-1839) total nearly 5 million half dollars, well accounting for the relatively low prices, but the first coinage at the recently opened New Orleans Mint is another matter entirely. Although half dollar dies were sent to New Orleans in 1838 none was actually minted in that calendar year and it was not until early 1839 that a small number, said to be less than 20, were struck to test the dies and press. The dies were then defaced and the coins kept as souvenirs by Mint officials and perhaps a few important residents of that area.

The 1838-O half dollar brings very strong prices whenever it is offered for sale. The book price on this coin in MS-60 is $375,000 but in reality the value will depend on how much a wealthy collector will pay to own one. It is believed that all specimens were struck in proof-like condition. Some consider them proofs, however.

The 1839-O coinage was about 180,000 pieces and is scarce, but not overly so. In EF-40 the cost to the collector is about $1,850, which is not all that bad considering that it is the only readily collectible New Orleans half dollar of this design. Many of these coins seem to come with die breaks and a perfect coin is rather more difficult to find. (Some of the perfect die pieces were struck with a rotated reverse.)

During August 1839 it was decided, by Patterson and the Treasury, to use the Seated Liberty design on the half dollar. The 1807 work by Reich, except for the reverse, was no more and only the dedicated collector was left to appreciate this long-ago design.

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