serving New Hampshire numismatists since 1960

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by Ken Camilleis

In 1792, when the United States Mint opened at Philadelphia, our young country was heavily dependent on foreign currency and coinage (chiefly British and from countries under Spanish rule). The dollar that would become the U.S. currency unit had evolved from the Spanish Milled Dollar, commonly known as the “Piece of Eight”. Each reale (or “bit”) was valued at 12.5 cents, and silver coins of various denominations circulated during Colonial times. But there soon came a time when the U.S. would have a coinage all its own, which would coexist with the Spanish dollar and its fractions as legal tender of the United States. The four-reale coin would be equalled in value by … the U.S. half dollar.
The half dollar was a pivotal coin throughout most of its history, until recent times. In the first half of the 19th century, the half was transacted in bulk for land purchases and foreign trade. Although they were not used on a large scale in everyday commercial transactions (as were large cents, half dimes, dimes and Spanish silver), halves were minted in what was at the time considered enormous production, relative to other silver denominations. Many halves were shipped overseas and later melted. After the Civil War, to the best of my knowledge, the half dollar was a general circulation coin, and the half held this status for a long time.
Until about 25 years ago, the half was a freely circulating coin, quite useful in commerce. But with the advent of the assassination of President Kennedy coupled with the rising costs of mining silver which culminated in the disappearance of 90% silver coins after 1964, the half seems to have vanished from general circulation. And this despite the fact that halves coined after 1970 contain no silver. Here in the northeast region of the country, there are very few industries (other than banks) that have a demand for the half. In fact, halves will not fit most vending machines today.
How “collectible” is the half dollar? It is noteworthy that only during two years in the nation’s history, 1807 and 1839, has more than one half dollar design been employed in the same year or bearing the same date. The Mint coined its first halves in 1794, of the “Flowing Hair” design. In 1796 the Draped Bust with a “Small Eagle” reverse was used, and for two years this design was coined in very limited quantity. After a 3-year lapse in production, the half dollar reappeared in 1801 with the Heraldic Eagle reverse, which was coined into 1807.
Midway through 1807 the popular Capped Bust half was introduced by John Reich, and halves were coined without interruption (except for a fire at the Mint in 1816) and with the design unchanged through 1836. These coins and their 1794-1807 predecessors were made with a lettered edge that reads “FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR”. There is a devoted group of researchers known as the John Reich Collectors Society, who study literally hundreds of varieties (within a date) of Bust halves, which are attributed to the late specialist Al Overton. Many of these so-called “Bust Half Nuts” are constantly on the lookout for a new, rare or as-yet unattributed variety of a particular date.
Late in 1836 the Capped Bust design was modified to a traditional reeded edge and the denomination was spelled out “50 CENTS” (changed to “HALF DOL.” in 1838). This change was brought about by a change in coining process and equipment from a hand-powered screw press to a new steam-driven press. The Bust half was retired in 1839 when the design was changed to Liberty Seated.
Several variations of the design are known in the early Seated halves (1839-42), from both the Philadelphia and the New Orleans Mint (and, amazingly, just a few years ago the only known 1842 Philly specimen with Small Letters was discovered!). Other modifications are known, such as the arrows in 1853 to denote a slight weight reduction, and placement of the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” in 1866. The last year of the Seated half was 1891. The years 1892-1915 gave us a Liberty half designed by Charles Barber and named after him. The Walking Liberty style, designed by Adolph Weinman, was produced from 1916-47. The Franklin (“Liberty Bell”) half of 1948-63 was designed by John R. Sinnock, and immediately upon Kennedy’s assassination the half bearing Kennedy’s portrait was authorized. In 1964 only, Kennedy halves are 90% silver, and 40% silver from 1965-70, with the 1970 limited to mint (D) and proof (S) sets. From 1971 to the present, all halves are of cupronickel composition and there have been no major changes except for the Bicentennial coins issued during 1975-76 bearing the date “1776-1976”. There are no halves dated 1975, and those dated 1987 were a limited issue like 1970. Silver proofs (90%) were introduced in the San Francisco Mint in 1992.
Over the last 20 years or so, half dollar production has dropped precipitiously, supporting the contention that there is little commercial demand for the half. But, as you see, the half has quite a history behind it.
I’m hoping someday that there will be a circulating 50-cent coin and that the zinc penny can finally, mercifully, rest in peace.

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 August 2013 02:23