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Flowing Hair Half Dollars (1794-1795)
Flowing Hair (1794-1795)
In recent years, the half dollar has all but disappeared from the channels of American commerce, becoming almost irrelevant to the nation’s coinage system. That’s a far cry from the role it played in America’s formative years, when it had a significant function and carried exceptional weight. Its importance was underscored by the fact that in 1794, when United States silver coinage began, the half dollar was one of the first three denominations to be issued in that metal, along with the silver dollar and half dime.
Coinage in general was slow to get under way at the nation’s first mint in Philadelphia. Congress passed the law authorizing the U.S. Mint and spelling out coin denominations and specifications on April 2, 1792—but the first copper coins didn’t go into production until 1793, and more than two full years went by before the first silver coins emerged.
Part of the delay resulted from complications inherent in setting up a new mint. But, to a great extent, precious metal coinage was stymied by red tape of the government’s own devising. In establishing the Mint, Congress had decreed that two key technical officers—the chief coiner and assayer—would have to post bonds of $10,000 apiece before they could work with gold and silver. The intent of this was laudable: to protect the American people from malfeasance. The effect, however, was crippling: the designated officers couldn’t come up with the money, an enormous sum by 18th Century standards, so only copper coinage could proceed.
Congress relented eventually, lowering these bonds to more manageable levels of $5,000 for the chief coiner and $1,000 for the assayer. This was only after Mint Director David Rittenhouse secured the intervention of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the Cabinet officer then in charge of the Mint. Rittenhouse himself posted bond for Chief Coiner Henry Voigt, while Charles Gilchrist furnished security for Assayer Albion Cox. Precious metal coinage then finally got underway.
The dollar was the first silver coin to be produced; being the largest and having the highest face value, it was looked upon as possessing the most prestige—something the infant nation sorely needed. But while the silver dollar may have burnished America’s image, it did little to provide an immediate solution to the nation’s coinage needs: the coining press couldn’t cope with its size and heft and broke down after fewer than 1,800 satisfactory pieces had been struck.
Rittenhouse decided to suspend dollar coinage until a better press could be installed, a delay that would prove to be more than six months long. Meanwhile, however, pressure built from depositors who had left silver bullion with the government, expecting silver coinage in return. To meet this demand, the Mint began producing half dollars, delivering the first shipment of approximately 5,300 pieces on December 1, 1794. Thus the two largest U.S. silver coins assumed at the very outset the relative roles they would play for over a century: the dollar as a showpiece and the half dollar as a workhorse.
While their roles may have been different, the 1794 dollar and half dollar—and, for that matter, the first half dime—were identical in design. Congress had specified that the silver coins should carry a design “emblematic of Liberty,” and Chief Engraver Robert Scot had implemented this mandate with a right-facing portrait of a youthful female figure whose hair flowed freely behind her—hence the descriptive term “Flowing Hair.” It’s said the flowing hair was meant to signify freedom. LIBERTY appears above the portrait, with the date below and 15 stars along the sides, denoting the number of states in the Union at that time. The coin’s reverse depicts a small, spread-winged eagle perched upon a rock and surrounded by laurel branches. Along the border is the motto UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The half dollar’s edge bears the inscription FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR, with decorations between the words.
After completing the first production run of Flowing Hair half dollars, the Mint was poised to make more. But its rolling equipment broke down, so it couldn’t flatten ingots to the proper thickness for coin blanks. Repairs took several weeks, and as 1794 drew to a close the Mint had at least six obverse dies on hand with that date. Rather than scrap them, it kept making 1794 half dollars in 1795. Only when all the 1794 dies became unusable did it start using dies dated 1795.
The Mint produced 23,464 half dollars dated 1794 and 299,680 dated 1795. It replaced the obverse in 1796 with the Draped Bust portrait of Liberty, making the Flowing Hair version a two-year type coin. Some 1795 half dollars have a recut date, but these are not unduly elusive. Some 1795 pieces have three leaves under each of the eagle’s wings, instead of the normal two, and these are scarce. No proofs are known for this series, which is widely collected by type.
Flowing Hair half dollars are slightly larger and heavier than their modern counterparts. Their authorized fineness is marginally lower, but their actual fineness is virtually the same—and thereby hangs a tale. Congress had specified an unusual alloy of 1485/1664 silver and 179/1664 copper, for a fineness of .8924+. But Assayer Cox complained that this was unworkable, and he made the bizarre claim that silver coins would blacken in ordinary use unless they were at least .900 fine. He induced Director Rittenhouse to let him use the higher standard, even though Congress hadn’t sanctioned it—meaning the Mint was breaking the law of the land. This led to substantial losses for people who deposited bullion with the Mint and took silver coins in return, for they had to give more silver per coin than the law required. This irregularity wasn’t corrected until the administration of Mint Director Elias Boudinot, which began late in 1795. A number of depositors subsequently sued for compensation and won, but only after years of congressional wrangling.
Apparently, most Flowing Hair half dollars went right into commercial use. While readily available in circulated condition, they are virtually unobtainable in high Mint State grades. Coins of this type can be challenging to grade, due to irregularities in their quality of strike. It is not unusual for Flowing Hair half dollars to wear quite unevenly. Points to check for wear are the hair above and beside Liberty’s forehead and the center of the eagle’s breast.
Draped Bust, Small Eagle (1796-1797)
United States coin designs underwent rapid and sometimes radical change during the first few years of federal coinage. The fledgling U.S. Mint was keenly sensitive to criticism and seemed to be experimenting constantly in an effort to find just the right monetary image for the brand new nation.
The early silver coinage reflected this restlessness. Before the Mint was even ten years old, it had produced silver coins with three different designs. They weren’t entirely dissimilar; in fact, there was a great deal of overlap in their features as one type gave way to the next. Still, they have long been recognized by collectors as three distinct series, although admittedly short ones.
Not all the silver coins went through the entire progression; the dime and quarter were struck in only two types during that very first decade. The half dollar, however, was one silver coin that did touch all three bases. The importance of this denomination at the time made it inevitable that each successive design would immediately be translated to the half dollar.
The first half dollar was of the so-called Flowing Hair design. Its obverse featured a portrait of a youthful female figure whose hair flowed freely behind her; its reverse bore a small, spread-winged eagle surrounded by laurel branches.
After just two years of production, 1794 and 1795, the Mint replaced the youthful Miss Liberty with a more mature and more sedate portrait, one that has come to be known as the Draped Bust type. To a great extent, this resulted from a change in leadership at the Mint. The first director, David Rittenhouse, had resigned at the end of June, 1795, and his successor, Henry William DeSaussure, set out at once to improve the designs of all denominations, especially the silver pieces.
DeSaussure’s jaundiced view of existing coin designs may have been formed, in part, by comments he heard from some of their vocal critics. Consider, for example, the following putdown of the Flowing Hair and Small Eagle devices, which appeared in a letter from one Carlile Pollock to a certain General Williams of Salem, New York: “Nothing can be more wretched: an unmeaning fool’s head on one side, and something that resembles a turkey cock on the other. Oh, shame, shame, shame! The Eagle of America mantling the arms of the United States, as we see it on the City Hall, would have been a dignified impression, and on the other side, if the President’s head should be too aristocratic, a plough and a sheaf of wheat would be better than an Idiot’s head with flowing hair, which was meant to denote Liberty, but which the world will suppose was intended to designate the head of an Indian squaw.”
Pollock’s letter was dated January 25, 1796, well after the Flowing Hair portrait was replaced, so it couldn’t have figured in DeSaussure’s decision. In fact, DeSaussure himself was gone by then. He resigned on October 27, 1795, after less than five months on the job, due to illness and disaffection with the position. His successor was a former president of the Continental Congress, Elias Boudinot of New Jersey. By that time, however, the new design was already in place on the silver dollar, and arrangements had been made to use it on the other silver coinage. It made its debut on the half dollar in 1796.
While some might disagree with the critics of the Flowing Hair design (many collectors today, in fact, consider it quite appealing), there can be no quarrel with the choice of an artist to fashion its replacement. Reportedly at the urging of President George Washington himself, Director DeSaussure turned to famed artist Gilbert Stuart, who is today better remembered for his portrait of Washington employed on our current one-dollar note. Stuart is said to have used as his model a Philadelphia socialite widely considered to be the most beautiful woman of her day: Mrs. William Bingham (nee Ann Willing). Contemplating the Flowing Hair motif in 1795, Stuart is said to have remarked that Liberty had “run mad,” adding: “We will bind it up and thus render her a steady matron.”
Gilbert Stuart’s drawing was transferred to plaster by a Providence, Rhode Island artist named John Eckstein, and Mint Chief Engraver Robert Scot then executed the coinage dies. Stuart, disappointed with Scot’s interpretation, disavowed the work entirely, and it was not generations later that his connection to it was rediscovered.
Like her more youthful predecessor, this matronly Liberty had stars alongside her. Curiously, though, the number of stars increased from fifteen to sixteen partway through the 1796 production year, after Tennessee was admitted to the Union as the 16th state. It then dropped back to fifteen in 1797, evidence that dies were mostly prepared in advance and then dated only as they were needed for coining.
The reverse was similar to that of the Flowing Hair design, but slightly modified. The eagle became more graceful, less ungainly, and its perch was moved from a rock to a cloud. Additionally, the branches were reworked and refined, with a palm branch now on the right and an olive branch on the left. As on the previous coinage, the inscription LIBERTY and the date appear on the obverse, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA on the reverse. Lettering on the edge proclaims the statement of value: FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR. For emphasis, the fraction 1/2 was added below the wreath.
Draped Bust half dollars with the Small Eagle reverse were struck with only two dates—1796 and 1797—and in minuscule quantities, at that. The combined total for both years is just 3,918 pieces (the Mint didn’t break down the figures). The Mint was concentrating on silver dollars and smaller silver coins at the time. No half dollars at all were made from 1798 through 1800 and, when production resumed in 1801, the Draped Bust was mated with a new reverse featuring a heraldic eagle.
No proofs are known for this series, but prooflike specimen pieces exist. Even though the series lasted just two years, it is almost always collected by type rather than date, because so few were made. This half dollar is, in fact, one of the pivotal keys and crowning glories of any type set.
Draped Bust/Small eagle half dollars are extremely scarce in all grades and virtually nonexistent in high mint state grades. Points to check for wear are the hair above Liberty’s forehead and the crest of the eagle’s breast.
Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle (1801-1807)
The start of the 19th Century also marked a new beginning for the United States half dollar. After a three-year hiatus, this large silver coin returned in 1801 with a new design: the Draped Bust/Heraldic Eagle type.
The United States Mint wasn’t yet ten years old at the time, but this was already the third different design to appear on the fifty-cent piece, the two earlier series having lasted just two years apiece. Clearly, federal officials were casting about for just the right combination of symbolism and artistry to showcase on the young nation’s coinage.
The first half dollar, introduced in 1794, had been of the so-called Flowing Hair design. Its obverse bore the portrait of a youthful female figure whose hair flowed freely behind her; its reverse depicted a small, spread-winged eagle surrounded by laurel branches. After just two years of production, the Mint replaced the youthful likeness of Liberty with a more mature, almost matronly portrait, one commonly known as the Draped Bust type. Initially, however, it retained the small eagle, with subtle modifications, on the reverse. This design appeared on half dollars for only two dates: 1796 and 1797.
When the series resumed after the turn of the century, the naturalistic bird had given way to a larger, more formal eagle with a shield superimposed upon its breast: the now-familiar heraldic eagle design. This new series, too, was destined to be short-lived, lasting just six years. But, during that time, the Mint’s total output greatly exceeded the levels of previous years and, for the first time, the half dollar came to enjoy widespread use.
The Draped Bust portrait of Liberty may have resulted from the intercession of President George Washington himself. Its designer, painter Gilbert Stuart, is best known today for his portrait of Washington still used on the one-dollar note. Numismatic researcher R.W. Julian speculated that the president, being keenly interested in upgrading United States coinage, may have arranged for Stuart (whose work he much admired) to prepare this design.
It’s said that Stuart’s model was Mrs. William Bingham (nee Ann Willing), a Philadelphia socialite viewed by many contemporaries as the most beautiful woman of her day. Stuart’s drawing was transferred to plaster by sculptor John Eckstein of Providence, Rhode Island. Robert Scot, the Mint’s chief engraver, executed the coinage dies.
In his highly acclaimed book Numismatic Art in America, Cornelius Vermeule characterized the Draped Bust version of Liberty as “a buxom Roman matron” and observed that “her full face has been endowed with a Roman dignity that recalls some massive marble bust of Minerva or Dea Roma, goddess of Rome and her empire ...” Gilbert Stuart, however, was not satisfied with Scot’s interpretation of his work, and he disavowed all responsibility for it. Only years later was his association with this coinage rediscovered.
On half dollars of the Draped Bust type, the word LIBERTY appears above the portrait and the date below. 13 stars surround Miss Liberty on all coins of this series having the Heraldic Eagle reverse. This represents a refinement of the earlier Draped Bust coinage, on which the number of stars varied from 15 to 16, depending on the number of states in the Union at the time. Rather than subject this element of the design to continual change, Mint officials settled on a number reflecting the thirteen original colonies.
Thirteen stars also appear on the coin’s reverse, arrayed above the eagle. Chief Engraver Scot modeled the heraldic eagle after the one on the nation’s Great Seal. Unaccountably, however, he reversed the positions of the arrows and olive branch held in the eagle’s claws, placing the warlike arrows in the symbolically more important dexter (or right) claw and the olive branch of peace in the sinister (or left) claw, thereby contravening the Founding Fathers. A ribbon bearing the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM hangs from the beak, with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA around the upper rim. On the edge of each coins is the statement of value: FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR.
Draped Bust/Small Eagle half dollars had been struck in minuscule quantities, with a total two-year mintage of fewer than 4,000 pieces. By contrast, more than 1.6 million Draped Bust/Heraldic Eagle half dollars were minted over the years, with 1806 alone accounting for more than half that total: 839,576.
The 1806 halves come in seven major varieties, including two overdates (6-over-5 and 6-over-inverted-6), three with a knobbed 6 in the date and two with a pointed 6. By far the rarest is the knobbed-6 variety on which the stem of the olive branch doesn’t extend through the eagle’s claw. There also are two 1803 varieties: with a small and large 3. The Mint made no half dollars dated 1804, but evidently dies had been prepared for that year, for some 1805 pieces are 5-over-4 overdates.
Despite their relatively high mintages, few Draped Bust/Heraldic Eagle half dollars were preserved in pristine mint condition. There just weren’t many collectors around in those early days. In any event, fifty cents was a lot of money to set aside, representing a day’s pay for many working class Americans. Large numbers of these coins survive in the higher circulated grades, because banks routinely held them for use in inter-institutional transactions.
Grading this type can be challenging. Weak strikes were common, reducing the number of choice examples. Points to check for wear are the hair above Liberty’s forehead and the eagle’s breast feathers. Proofs were not struck for this series.
Draped Bust and Capped Bust half dollars both are widely collected by Overton die varieties. These are listed in the standard reference book Early Half Dollar Die Varieties 1794-1836 by Al C. Overton.
In 1807, Draped Bust halves gave way to a new version designed by Scot’s assistant, John Reich. This was the Capped Bust type, on which Miss Liberty turned from facing right to facing left and tucked her newly curled hair inside a cap.
Capped Bust, Lettered Edge (1807-1836)
Some coins are admired by collectors. Many are coveted. Only a precious few are truly beloved. Early United States coppers (large cents and half cents) fall into this special category, and so do Capped Bust/lettered edge half dollars or, as they’re widely known with warm affection, “Bust halves.”
Bust half dollars with lettered edges have undeniable charm, much like the copper coinage of early America. They were struck with screw presses, and each working die was prepared individually, the date, stars and lettering being punched in by hand. These elements resulted in a myriad of varieties. They’ve also enabled specialists to pinpoint just which die struck any given coin. And this marvelous diversity is the yeast that keeps interest rising in these coins. The term “Bust halves” actually applies to both Capped Bust half dollars and the Draped Bust coins that preceded them. Draped Bust halves, in turn, come in two types: one with a small eagle on the reverse, the other with a larger, heraldic eagle. For a short time at the end of the Capped Bust coinage in the late 1830s, half dollars of that design were made with reeded edges, after the introduction of steam power at the U.S. Mint made that technology possible. The Bust halves most collectors view with the warmest affection, though, are the Capped Bust/lettered edge pieces issued by the Mint from 1807 to 1836. These are the real heart of this fondly remembered era in U.S. silver coinage.
Design changes occurred with great frequency during the early years of United States coinage, and often they were triggered by a change in leadership at the Mint. So it was that Robert Patterson’s arrival as the Mint’s fourth director in 1806 set the stage for a shake-up in designs across the board. Patterson not only saw the need for new designs but also had a man in mind to create them. His handpicked choice was a talented, young, German-born engraver named John Reich. The mint director appealed for authorization to hire Reich as a staff engraver, maintaining that “the beauty of our coins would be greatly improved by his masterly hand.” His argument carried the day and, in 1807, Reich was hired for the less-than-princely salary of $600 per year, not much more than common laborers made at that time. Then again, Reich had little leverage: he had come to the United States as an indentured servant in order to escape the Napoleonic Wars. Reich’s redesign was truly comprehensive, encompassing every coin from the half cent through the half eagle, the lowest and highest denominations then being produced. His basic obverse design was a left-facing portrait of Liberty with curly hair tucked into a mobcap, a bit of fashion featuring a high, puffy crown. As a consequence, this likeness is often referred to as the “Turban Head” portrait. Liberty wears a headband inscribed with her name, and she is surrounded by a circle of thirteen stars, with the date below. The reverse shows a naturalistic eagle with a shield superimposed upon its breast. The eagle clutches an olive branch, as well as a bundle of three arrows. Above the bird is a banner inscribed with the Latin motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA appears in an arc around the periphery. On the Capped Bust/lettered edge half dollar, the edge bears the statement of value: FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR. For good measure, the inscription 50 C. also appears below the eagle.
Reich was widely accused of basing the buxom Liberty on his “fat mistress,” though no confirmation of any specific model has ever been found. Whoever she may have been (if indeed there was such a model), the Capped Bust coinage was clearly an improvement over the Draped Bust style. During the 30-year lifespan of the series, Capped Bust/ lettered edge halves were issued every year with the single exception of 1816, when a major fire destroyed the Mint’s rolling mills and forced it to suspend all silver coinage. Mintages routinely exceeded one million pieces a year, reaching a peak of more than 6.5 million in 1836, the final year. The low point occurred in 1815, when just 47,150 examples were struck. Proofs of this type are known, but they are extremely rare. For almost every date, though, the total mintage is broken down into multiple major varieties, and these are what give the series its rich flavor and broad appeal. Overdates, deviations in the size of numbers and letters, shifts in the style of numbers—these and other varieties have captivated and challenged collectors for generations. The rarest of these varieties is the 1817-over-14. Only about a half dozen examples are known. Its rarity is underscored by the fact that the late Al C. Overton chose it as the cover coin for his popular book Early Half Dollar Die Varieties 1794-1836, which serves as the standard reference work on the series. Overton’s book, which identifies and codifies the many die varieties, greatly spurred interest in Bust halves. Collectors have paid homage to the author, in turn, by using “Overton numbers” as shorthand for the coins.
In the first edition of his book, published in 1967, Overton put into words the affection he felt for his favorite coinage series. In the process, he summed up the reasons so many other hobbyists also find them so appealing: “The collection and study of our first series of United States half dollars ... has intrigued me almost since I began collecting in the late nineteen twenties. These early U.S. silver coins are not only beautiful and fascinating, but due to the large numbers made and minting methods of the earlier years, there exists a myriad of die varieties and sub varieties, that seem to be unequaled by any other U.S. series, not even the large cents. This offers an almost unlimited challenge to the collector who wishes to become a numismatic student of the early half dollars [and] at the same time, most are within reach of the average collector.” Capped Bust/lettered edge half dollars are plentiful in high circulated grades. They’re also readily available in mint state grades up to MS-64. Above that level, however, their numbers drop sharply. The overwhelming majority saw use in daily commerce, though their high face value (nearly half a day’s pay for many workers) limited that use drastically. Points to check for wear include the drapery at the front of the bust and the edges of the eagle’s wings.
Capped Bust, Reeded Edge (1836-1839)
Across the Atlantic, the Victorian Age was about to dawn in England. Out west, the Alamo fell to a Mexican army led by General Santa Ana. Then, less than seven weeks later, the Mexican commander himself was vanquished at the Battle of San Jacinto, leading to the establishment of the new Republic of Texas. The year was 1836, and though world events moved at a slower pace than they do today, it was nonetheless a time of major developments both globally and domestically.
Significant change was likewise in the air at the United States Mint, where steam power made its debut that year. This technological innovation ushered in an era that would witness great improvement in the technical quality of U.S. coinage but, at the same time, a sharp reduction in the individual coins’ distinctiveness—the characteristic that many collectors find most appealing in the nation’s earliest coins.
The Mint struck 1,200+ half dollars on its new steam press in 1836, and these are among the first U.S. coins made for circulation in this fashion. These half dollars, plus an additional 8,747,792 minted from 1837 to 1839, carried a modified version of the Capped Bust design used on the fifty-cent piece since 1807. However, they are distinguishable at once, for whereas the earlier issues had lettering on the edges bearing their statement of value, the new coins had reeded edges like the smaller silver coins.
In point of fact, the switch from lettered to reeded edges reflected not the capabilities of steam-powered coinage, but rather its limitations. Steam power enabled the Mint to produce coins more efficiently and with far greater uniformity, but these technical advances came at an aesthetic cost—including a severe limitation on edge ornamentation. With a steam press, each coin blank had to be held in a single-piece restraining metal collar (in effect, a third die) at the moment the obverse and reverse dies imparted their images. Lettered-edge coins, by contrast, were made in open collars; this permitted the planchets to spread out slightly when they were struck and thus kept the lettering intact. In close collars, the lettering would have been squashed by the high compression. From that point on, the edges of coins would have to be either plain or vertically reeded, and the quaint edge lettering of early U.S. coinage was consigned to history’s scrap heap.
Had it not been for economic and geographic factors, steam power might have gained a foothold at Uncle Sam’s Mint decades sooner. U.S. Mint Directors had been interested in the technology ever since 1797, when Matthew Boulton demonstrated its value by coining more than 34 million pennies in this manner for the government of Britain’s King George III. Those coins were more nearly identical (and thus more frustrating to would-be counterfeiters) than any similar quantity ever made previously by any other method. For various reasons, however, no foundry in the United States had the capability to build a steam coinage press until the mid-1830s.
Up until 1836, U.S. coins were made on screw presses. Workmen and animals, rather than steam, provided the power. During the nation’s very early years, oxen and horses played a role; thereafter, the power came from men alone. It took five men to operate a typical screw press—two on each end of a weighted iron bar and a fifth man seated in a recess in front of the press. The seated man would insert planchets and remove finished coins; meanwhile, his four co-workers would tug on leather straps attached to the iron bar. The bar, in turn, was attached to a heavy iron screw which drove an upper die down toward a lower one when the men on one side of the bar pulled it toward them. Then, when the men on the other side tugged on the bar, the screw and upper die were raised, and the seated man would remove the finished coin and insert a new planchet. Though primitive, this method was surprisingly productive: A good team of coiners could turn out several dozen small-size pieces per minute.
The first reeded edge half dollars were very close in appearance to the Capped Bust halves that preceded them. The portrait of Liberty on the obverse and the eagle figure on the reverse were basically the same as those fashioned three decades earlier by engraver John Reich, but both sides also revealed subtle refinements by a new Mint engraver, Christian Gobrecht. Among other things, the thirteen stars on the obverse were reduced in size, Liberty was slenderized, E PLURIBUS UNUM was removed, and the statement of value was modified: Instead of saying 50 C. like its predecessor, the new coin read 50 CENTS in 1836 and 1837 and HALF DOL. thereafter. In 1838, Gobrecht made other changes, using larger and heavier lettering and tinkering with details like the eagle’s talons and feathers.
The 1836 reeded edge halves were coined under the old, awkward standard adopted under the original Mint Act of 1792. As of January 18, 1837, however, the half dollar had its fineness revised to a more workable figure of .900 silver. No visible distinction was made to the new coins, and both the 1836 and 1837-39 issues circulated interchangeably. Shortly after adoption of the reeded edge, the very first branch-mint half dollars came into being at New Orleans and promptly joined the roster of great U.S. rarities. Just twenty pieces, all proofs, were struck early in 1839 bearing the date 1838; they carry an “O” mintmark above the date. These are the only proofs in this short series. New Orleans made halves again dated 1839, this time in numbers approaching 179,000. Output at the main mint in Philadelphia was in the millions annually from 1837 through 1839.
Capped Bust/reeded edge half dollars are readily available in mint state grades, but relatively few have survived in levels of MS-65 and above. Although generally collected in the higher grades as type coins, some date and variety specialists assemble sets in circulated condition, often as part of the larger Capped Bust series. Points to check for wear on the obverse include the drapery at the front of the bust, the shoulder clasp and the cap and hair above the eye. On the reverse, wear will first show on the eagle’s wing-edges and talons.
In 1839, Capped Bust halves gave way to Christian Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty design. The following year, this coin type enjoyed a revival of sorts when, at the New Orleans Mint, a Capped Bust reverse die was mulled to a Seated Liberty obverse dated 1840, creating the scarce Medium Letters variety.
Coins in Category
1794 50C MS
1795 50C MS
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