Littleton Coin Company’s Collector’s Corner
[photo: 1804 Draped Bust Half Cent]

Half Cents Making for Years of Fun

BY PAUL GREEN

Most Americans are surprised to learn that the United States until 1857 was producing copper half cents. This fact can even surprise collectors, but what is even more remarkable is that half cents can make a very interesting collection, and one which can provide years of fun.

As it would work out, the half cent which was authorized in April of 1792 was a denomination that would never really prove itself as an important part of circulation. Certainly, back in the 1790s there were some people using denominations like half cents, but there was plenty of evidence that the large cent was much more important in commerce. In fact, the large cent almost always had higher mintages. That speaks volumes, as the early Mint was not a place which had the luxury of producing coins which were not going to be used. The supplies of copper, silver and gold were too limited to issue coins that would not help the national coin shortage. Moreover, it was not just the basic metals that were in limited supply. The equipment had limited production capacity, and other resources also were in modest supply. If a half cent was produced, there was likely to be good reason in terms of demand.

In fact, the half cent appears to have never been terribly popular with the public, even though the commerce of the time would seemingly have encouraged the use of the denomination. Simply changing Spanish "bits" which were in circulation would have called for half cents, and there were certainly items you could buy back in the 1790s that were not priced at one cent. That said, by the time of Abraham Lincoln, the half cent was no longer in production.

Half cents make for a fascinating collection, because they make it possible to really see the trials and tribulations of the growing nation, and especially the first United States Mint. While the denomination has been gone from circulation for a long time, it is truly a unique window into our past and the sometimes dark and uncertain early days of the nation. The half cent, however, can be a real challenge to collect, due to limited mintages and the fact that few were saved during its time. In addition, when the half cent was discontinued in 1857, many were turned in to be destroyed, meaning the survival of many dates is probably well below what the mintage totals might suggest.

With the circumstances and their age, you cannot expect a half cent collection to be assembled in the same way you might build a set of Roosevelt dimes. Half cents are not a collection you can expect to complete in MS-60 or MS-65, even if you have unlimited funds. What you can do, however, is really enjoy and study each coin, as the ones you obtain are not only scarce in some cases, but in every case can be terrifically interesting.

The factors influencing the decision to make the first half cents were many. The idea of two coppers had been seen before, and making change was an adventure, as coins of many countries were in circulation at the time. The presence of many Spanish "bits" valued at 12 and one-half cents would continue to be a major influence in keeping the half cent as a denomination which might see some use. While mintages were not regular, it appears that there was at least some reason to have half cents in circulation for decades.

Getting the half cent right was something of a problem. Officials were concerned with having the face value of all coins be close to the value of the metal from which they were made. That might have been in part a response to the fact that the public was not terribly happy with the results of the paper issues used during the Revolution, as they had become basically worthless, meaning anyone who accepted them lost money. Additionally, with commerce being conducted with coins of many nations, to many at the time, it was the metal in the coin and not the country which issued it that determined its value and use. If the United States wanted to have its coins used by its people, the coins had to be on a par with the issues of other nations, if not better. That saw the half cent authorized at 104 grains (6.76 grams), which would be too large. The Plain Edge coins of 1796 saw a reduction to 84 grains (5.44 grams).

Half cents would historically have very mixed results when it came to seeing regular use in commerce. We know, for example, that after 1836 only Proof examples were issued until 1849. Yet, during that same time, some merchants would issue tokens, including ones for a half cent, suggesting at least some use of the denomination.

One problem of the period was that officials were caught in a bind of their own making. A proclamation had been prepared calling for the withdrawal of all foreign, private and state coppers, all of which were potentially in circulation. That would have increased demand for legitimate half cents, but the proclamation was never issued, simply because there was concern that supplies were not adequate, which was logical, as only Proofs were being struck. There was another problem, which was that the legal tender status of half cents was not being enforced, making it a denomination that was in some cases being rejected.

The half cent was always in a perilous position, as the Mint needed to set production priorities, and those priorities rarely saw the half cent receive significant attention. The large cent was seen as more important, and copper supplies were short, meaning the half cent was usually struck only in small numbers and sometimes suspect quality.

The low priority given the half cent is seen in the coins themselves. The half cents in some cases show clearly that they were made basically from scrap which sometimes was cut-down Talbot, Allum & Lee tokens, while other times, half cents were produced on defective large cents. Eventually, quality planchets were purchased from Boulton & Watt of Birmingham, England, but that situation was clouded by the sometimes less than pleasant situation which existed with England. Later, an American supplier, Crocker Brothers of Taunton, Massachusetts, was found, but realistically, the uncertain supplies did nothing to help produce large supplies of half cents for many years.

Although the mintages were not large, the half cent was able to become one of the first denominations produced at the new U.S. Mint in 1793. It was not really by design, but rather was a function of the fact that the law required the posting of a bond before the minting of any silver or gold coins. Officials were unwilling or unable to post the bond, and while that situation was being settled, only copper coins could be produced. Large cents were first, but there was a 1793 half cent with a Liberty Cap obverse facing left, produced with a lettered edge. The reported mintage was 35,334, making the coin both historic and scarce.

The following year, the design was changed to have the head facing right. The substantial mintages of the head facing right were in 1795 when 25,600 were produced with a lettered edge and a pole, along with 109,000 with a plain edge and no pole, and in 1797 when the total mintage was placed at 119,215.

In many cases, the head-facing-right dates show evidence of the situation, as the 1795 is frequently found made from cut-down Talbot, Allum & Lee tokens, along with a few made from defective large cents, suggesting much of the mintage was made from whatever copper was available. The same is true of the 1797, where the Plain Edge coins were frequently made from tokens, while the Lettered Edge variety was sometimes made from cut-down large cents.

One interesting 1797 is called the "gripped edge." It has raised and indented lines which have caused some to speculate that it was possibly gripped by pliers at the time. The "gripped edge" is rarely found in any grade, but literally never in upper circulated grades.

A more regular significant rarity came in the form of the 1796, which saw some coins with a pole and others without one. The official mintage is placed at 1,390, although some feel that is just for the No Pole variety, while the With Pole variety, which is more available, is placed by some at a mintage of 5,090. In either case, the 1796 is scarce.

The half cent was not produced after 1797 until 1800, although it cannot be ruled out that some with a 1797 or earlier date were produced during the period, as using dies after their date was very common at the early Mint. The next date that was produced, the 1800, saw a design change to a Draped Bust obverse which would last until 1808.

One of the better dates is the 1802, which is really an 1802/0, and which comes with a reverse of 1802 where the wreath ends in three leaves, or a reverse of 1800 where it ends in a single leaf. Neither is common.

If you seriously enjoy examining the products of the first Mint, the half cents of 1804 are a collection by themselves. The 1804 had a large mintage for a half cent of over 1 million, and in that million there were Plain and Crosslet "4" dates, while the wreath in some cases was with a stem and in others without the stem. There were other varieties as well, and more can be found in other dates, like the 1805 which sometimes had a small "5", while the 1806 had a small "6", and the list of others is long enough to keep some busy collecting for years.

Things did not really change in 1809 when a new John Reich design made its debut. A type example of the Classic Head half cent is available, although it must be remembered that after 1811, the next half cent was not produced until 1825, and that means that any coins in circulation from just prior to 1811 were likely to receive very heavy wear, as they would be in circulation well over a decade before the next half cent was produced.

The 1811 was recognized by early collectors as tough, which helps to explain the restrike of the 1811, which is believed to be the work of Joseph J. Mickley, who was active at the time buying old dies as scrap and then using them to make restrikes. The problem was the obverse and reverse did not match. In this case, the obverse is 1811, but the reverse is of 1802. The restrikes, however, are desirable and scarce.

The half cent returned in 1825 with a 63,000 mintage, but apparently a decent survival. A few years later, however, there was a real rarity in the form of the 1831, which had a listed mintage of just 4,000 pieces. The 1831 remains a lesser known scarce date today.

Like the 1811, there were 1831 restrikes, and in the case of the 1831, there were two with originals having large berries and the highest leaf point under the right side of the last "S" in STATES, while on the first restrike, which has a reverse of 1836, the leaf tip is under the left side of the "S". In the case of the second restrike, they have broad rims and small berries typical of post-1840 issues. Like the originals, the restrikes are desirable, and in the case of the second restrike, probably as scarce as the original.

[photo: 1851 Braided Hair Half Cent]

The 1836 half cent was a turning point, as it was issued only as a Proof, and from that year until 1849, the only half cents produced were Proofs. The Proofs starting in 1840 had the new Christian Gobrecht Braided Hair design, and like the 1836 and other better dates, they have restrikes with the Proofs and restrikes from the 1840-49 period generally selling for similar prices.

With no business strike production during the period from 1835-49, the thought would be that when normal production resumed, the half cent would see large mintages, but that was not the case. The highest total during the final years of production was the 1851, which had a mintage of 147,672, with only the 1853 topping the 100,000 mark as well. By the 1850s, the half cent was really on its way out, as officials had decided that such fractional issues had no future. The only thing holding up their end was finding small-size alternatives for the cent, and that happened in 1857, marking the end of both the large cent and half cent. The half cent probably continued to circulate for a number of years, but the hoarding of even copper coins during the Civil War was probably the final time most would have seen a half cent in circulation. For today’s collector, a collection of half cents in any grade makes for a fascinating look into the past and a collection everyone enjoys, as half cents really make America’s historic early days come to life.