serving New Hampshire numismatists since 1960

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by Ken Camilleis

… a ha’penny will do.  Well, actually it was hardly even that.  I’m talking about the U.S. half cent, which was minted from 1793 to 1857. The half cent was essentially a flop in its role as a general circulation coin, having its ups and downs in its 64-year history, mostly downs.  
The half cent got off to a slow start in 1793 with a low mintage, and then picked up the pace in 1794 and ’95 with the Liberty Cap design. The year 1796 would prove to be a highly coveted and classic rarity, in two major varieties, With Pole and Without Pole, the Without boasting a mintage of a paltry 1,390. After a strong output in 1797, no half cents were coined in 1798 or ’99, and the Draped Bust design was introduced in 1800.
Up until 1804, no half cent mintage topped 1 million, and from then through 1809 (the only other 1-million-plus year for half cents and the first year of the Classic Head style) there was reasonable output to meet commercial demand for the half cent, which  was still closely associated with British counterparts.  By 1811 this demand dropped off, and for the next thirteen years no half cents were coined.  
In 1825 the half cent was reintroduced with the same design of 1809-11, and through 1829 was coined in the hundreds of thousands.  In the years 1831 and 1836, very rare issues were created which are recorded only as proofs, although a few circulation strikes of 1831 are known and certified as such. In 1832-35 half cents were again coined for general circulation. Although no half cents were minted in 1837, there was a half-cent-sized copper token that passed as a half cent during a financial panic that occurred that year, and this is listed in the “Redbook”. Although in these early years of the U.S. Mint it was common practice to reuse dies from prior years, no half cents bear dates of 1798, 1799, 1801, 1812-24, 1827, 1830, or 1837-39. On the other hand, the large cent was coined virtually uninterrupted since its inception at the same time as the half cent.
In 1840 the Coronet “Braided Hair” design was introduced, and throughout the 1840s this type of half cent was limited to very rare proof-only issues. The years 1831, 1836, 1840-48, 1849 Small Date and 1852 were coined as “originals (minted in that year) or “restrikes” (struck off during a clandestine operation in 1858-60). None of these half cents were intended for circulation, although some did escape. It was not until mid-1849 that the half cent was again coined for circulation, and, with the exception of 1852, business-strike Braided Hairs were struck from 1849 until 1857, when the half cent was dealt its death knell. At this time the large cent was also retired, as the coinage standard was changing since the U.S. would no longer be dependent on foreign currency as a circulating medium of exchange as in prior generations. Also, these copper coins had long since lost their clout with the general public.
In keeping with the consistency of the argument regarding the circulation status of the half cent, I have found more than 200 large cents with metal detectors over the years, yet only one half cent. Although I wish I’d find more half cents, every time I dig up a large cent I think of the history behind it and ponder over why the half cent was not as popular as its “big brother”. And today, I feel that the half cent is a highly collectible item, and believe that in the higher grades (especially the proof issues) the half cent has been a “sleeper”, and that perhaps it will “wake up” soon.

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 August 2013 02:24