Half Cents (1793-1857)

Half Cents (1793-1857)

One of the most interesting coins struck by the United States Mint is the Half Cent, first sanctioned through an act of Congress in 1792. Initially, the Half Cent was made of pure Copper and valued at 1/200th of a dollar, or one half-cent.

Despite the coin’s tiny face value, this coin was about the size of today’s quarter. Though in our contemporary minds that may seem unwieldy, it is clear by nearly a half century of production the Half-Cent was useful and widely circulated by the American people of the era.

Design History of the Half Cent

Though the Half Cent went through several iterations, it never strayed far from its original, simple design. However, the backstory of the design is anything but simple. The artwork on the Half Cent was continually tweaked and fiddled with, with new releases coming every few years due to pressure, difficulty and dissatisfaction.

A Half Cent was first produced in 1793 and the coin’s design, by Henry Voigt, depicted Lady Liberty with windblown hair loosely held by a disproportionately small cap or comically large bow – there are conflicting opinions as to which. Voigt also handled the initial engraving. Depending on what time of year a 1793 Half Cent was produced, the reverse side features either a ring of chain or a wreath, along with the face value. That chain element drew criticism at the time, for people associated it with the chains of slavery. There were also production issues with the chain motif, causing the relief to show on both sides of a struck coin. Officials and citizens were unhappy with this artwork. This style of Half Cent may not have been popular when it was released, but numismatists today will pay a high premium for one of those rare pieces.

Half Cents (1793-1857)

Half Cent Importance

After the 1793 release of the Half Cent proved to be a major misstep for the young mint, officials decided the next release should be altered a bit. After Voigt’s errors in 1793, Mint Director David Rittenhouse hired Joseph Wright to adapt the design the obverse of the 1794 Half Cent. Keeping with tradition, Wright also depicted Lady Liberty, but unlike the 1793 version, her hair was well maintained and adorned with a Phrygian cap – a historic symbol of freedom. The reverse would consistently feature a wreath, but the 1794 wreath was more ornate that the previous edition. The more extravagant wreath further differed from the original in that it could be identified as a laurel wreath. The type of wreath on the 1793 coin is unknown to this day. Wright’s 1794 iteration was generally well-received and remained in production for another few years before being replaced by the Draped Bust Half Cent. In 1796, Chief Engraver Robert Scot shook the U.S. Mint by completely redesigning a great deal of the nation’s coinage, including the Half Cent. Lady Liberty would still be found on the coin’s obverse, but she faced right and was lovelier, more mature and better composed than ever before. Lady Liberty now wore a pretty ribbon in her hair, but it was much more tasteful than the one depicted on the 1793 coin. Additionally, she wears a luxurious garment around her décolletage, hence the coin’s designation as the Draped Bust design. The reverse still bore a wreath, but it was changed to an olive wreath symbolic of peace.

After just a few years of production, the Half Cent was yet again tinkered with, this time by John Reich, who was tasked with designing the coin anew in 1808. That artwork is commonly referred to as the Classic Head design. It features a left-facing Lady Liberty sporting headgear not very dissimilar to a crown. This headgear is more properly called a fillet and is said to be modeled after the crown given to the best athletes of Ancient Greece. A new Copper alloy was introduced with the 1808 Half Cent and its high purity resulted in disappointing softness. The 1808 coins were particularly more vulnerable to wear than those of previous years. By 1840, a new chief engraver by the name of Christian Gobrecht was at the helm of the U.S. Mint and he yet again altered the design of the Half Cent coin. Dissatisfied with the mature Lady Liberty, Gobrecht wanted to present her as more vital and youthful. He fashioned her hair into a stylish tight braid. Subtle design shifts gave Lady Liberty a much younger, invigorated look. This design was esteemed by American citizens and remained on the coin, unchanged, until the Half Cent was discontinued in the late 1850s. The Half Cent is an important part of the history of U.S. coinage and numismatists are often eager to add Half Cents to their collections. With so many variations minted over such a long period of time, there are plenty on the market for collectors to acquire. Unfortunately, due to the extreme age of some of these coins, they can be difficult to find in a well-preserved state. Luckily, the thrill is in the hunt!


Value of a Half Cent

The key factor in valuing these precious coins is their age and those minted in the 1790s command the higher premiums. Because many surviving examples are in fairly poor condition, it is not a major drawback if a given Half Cent is not in absolutely perfect condition. That being said, condition is always on every collector’s mind. This especially applies to assessing the condition of later examples minted in the mid-1800s. For collectors, there are few challenges greater, or more satisfying, than compiling a complete collection of U.S. Half Cents. These coins were minted for over 60 years, many more than 200 years ago, in several iterations and a painfully limited number have survived. Still, coins are waiting to be discovered and as long as that is true dedicated collectors will not give up.

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