Half Cents (1793-1857)
The smallest denomination of U.S. coinage ever produced was the half cent, a coin with a surprisingly long and storied history. This coin was produced in many varieties over the years but the design always stuck to the same basic motif of Liberty’s face.
The face value of the coin may have been tiny, but this Copper halfpenny was the size of a quarter. It was sanctioned originally in the Coinage Act of 1792, and though it probably seems like a rather useless coin to us in modern times it enjoyed a wide circulation through the pre-Civil War United States.
Half Cent Design
The original design of the half cent in the 1793 first issue was the head of Liberty with her hair held with a cap or ribbon. These were designed by Henry Voigt, as was the reverse. The reverse was controversial at the time and changed mid-year, as it depicted a chain that ran around the edge with the face value in the center. Voigt said it was to symbolize unity, but critics maintained it was a symbol of slavery that stemmed from Voigt’s Southern heritage. It was replaced by a wreath.
These early half cents were made with handmade dies, and each die was unique. These issues had problems with the chain motif showing through on the other side as well as the problems that come with individually-made dies like parts of the design cutting off, lines in the strike and other errors.
Joseph Wright designed the next half cent for 1794, replacing the obverse with a different design of Lady Liberty with her hair pictured with a Phrygian cap. This is commonly called the Liberty Cap design. The reverse of the coin had a redesign of the wreath, making it clear that it was made of laurel. These coins were made for a few years until 1796.
The Draped Bust design was created by Robert Scot, the chief engraver of the U.S. Mint at the time. As part of a redesign of current circulating U.S. coinage, Scot changed the reverse wreath to an olive wreath symbolizing peace. He also updated Liberty’s design to remove the cap and replace it with a ribbon as well as adding a drape-like garment to the bust (which gives this design its name).
John Reich was asked to redesign the coin in 1808, creating what’s commonly called the Classic Head design. Liberty now faced the opposite direction and wore a type of crown called a “fillet”. This design ran until 1836.
In 1840, the design was changed again before half cents were added back to the coins being struck for circulation. Christian Gobrecht changed the Liberty head to a younger version and changed the hair to a braid, looking for a more modern interpretation of the traditional Lady Liberty. These are called the Braided Hair design. These coins were struck from 1840 until the final issue of the half cent in 1857.
These coins were circulated in large numbers, with the high water mark coming in the early 1800s when over a million were struck in some years. Later mintages were much smaller, particularly the Braided Hair towards the end of the series.
These coins were used for many small transactions in the early United States but the half cent eventually became less useful than it had been in earlier years as American coinage changed. Early half cents are hard to come by and are among the coveted issues of early U.S. coins.
Some half cents can be had for as little as $35, but these are in very low condition. Early half cents from the 1790s are generally worth more due to the low number surviving even if they grade lower on the Sheldon scale. Some of the more unique early variants have fetched close to a million dollars at auction.
Later half cents with higher populations and less unique variants are more available to the average collector. These have more high-condition examples available and can be had for a lower price than the older rare issues.
You need the most up-to-date pricing on your coin collection. That’s why APMEX has partnered with PCGS, the premier grading authority in the world of rare coins, to bring you constantly updated pricing on collectibles and rarities. PCGS has been grading coins since 1986, bringing consistent standards of quality to a fractured industry. In the years since, they have remained a source of reliable information on the current collectible and rare coin market.Shop Now