Grading Reeded Edge Half Dollars (1836-1839)
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The Capped Bust half dollar, introduced in 1807, was minted with a reeded edge only from 1836 to 1839. This short-lived series represents a transition between the U. S. Mint's old methods of the hand-thrown screw press and open collar and its new technology of the steam-driven knuckle press and close collar. These advances prompted Mint Director Robert M. Patterson to commission new designs, and the matronly bust of Liberty was soon replaced by a classical seated figure in 1839.
Contrary to what many numismatic writers have written, the reeded edge half dollar of 1836 was not the first coin to be struck at the Philadelphia Mint using steam power. R. W. Julian and other researchers have established that this honor went to the copper cents. These were made utilizing the steam press starting in March, while the half dollars were first coined in November. The Mint's apparent desire to retain a lettered edge for the half dollar stalled the application of a close collar for this denomination until the arrival of the steam press finally forced its hand.
In addition to its reeded edge, this coin type is significantly different in style from the lettered edge type. It is the work of Christian Gobrecht, while the halves of 1807-36 feature John Reich's models. The grading of reeded edge halves is also different. Because they were coined within a close collar, they have more distinctly raised borders that offered better protection from wear. In actual practice, this raised rim was frequently less than fully formed, and the Mint experimented with several collar diameters in an attempt to bring about better strikes. The first subtype from 1836 to 1837, with the value written as 50 CENTS, is particularly subject to indistinct borders. When the reverse was modified in 1838 to read HALF DOL., it seems to have improved overall striking quality.
The only true rarity in this short series is the 1836 half dollar. Most catalogs list a mintage of 1200 pieces, but the number of extant specimens suggests that more were made. Otherwise, there are no rare dates, though the sole New Orleans Mint issue of 1839 is relatively scarce. The 1837 and 1838 halves are usually available in mint state, while the 1839 Philadelphia Mint issue is somewhat scarcer. Both 1836 and 1839-O are rare uncirculated.
The dies for Capped Bust reeded edge half dollars typically were used until they became quite worn, and most mint state coins thus have luster that is frosty and furrowed in texture. Die cracks are common, as are clash marks from the dies striking one another. Most pieces have only a few contact marks, and they're usually not deep. What most often prevents mint state examples of this type from attaining high grades is their typically indifferent luster. Another limiting factor is that many of these coins have unattractive toning or have been chemically dipped to remove their toning. If not done skillfully, this action can impair a coin's luster and reduce its grade.
The halves of 1836-39 circulated extensively, and they are found over a broad range of grades. Because the borders were frequently not fully struck, such coins are often unevenly worn. This is particularly true of the reverse, where some parts of the border may be complete while others have blended into the field. Again, the 1836 and 1837 halves are the ones most likely to suffer from weak borders and uneven wear.
Selecting a nice example of this coin type, whether circulated or mint state, requires a bit of discretion and common sense. Always preferable is a coin that has not been cleaned or, at least, doesn't look obviously cleaned. Experienced collectors develop an eye for originality in coins, and pieces that have an unnatural look are frequently orphans that sell at steep discounts.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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