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Seated Liberty Half Dimes (1837-1873)

No Stars Obverse (1837-1838)

1835 started off with a bang. On January 30th, an assailant fired two shots at President Andrew Jackson as he was leaving the House chamber. The shots missed. Ironically, a short time later, Samuel Colt patented his revolver. In early spring, Georgia passed the death penalty for anyone publishing anything that could incite slave rebellions. Abolitionists ranted, while most of the South approved. Lots of tension, lots of change.

Changes also led to the Mint becoming a very busy place. For the first time ever, there was a large amount of silver and gold available for use. New steam technology brought the introduction of modern, state of the art coining presses which could strike coins quickly and efficiently in a close collar. These factors were instrumental in the Mint’s entering the modern era.

Newly appointed Mint Director Robert M. Patterson had strong feelings about his own vision of the emblematic Liberty, and it didn’t include portraits, as on the coinage to date. He favored the rendition of Britannia on the English copper coins and immediately assigned Chief Engraver William Kneass to do a sketch using a similar concept. Kneass’ simple sketch was taken several steps further by the artists Titian Peale and Thomas Sully.

Enter Christian Gobrecht. By 1835 the talented engraver and medallist had worked for the Mint for over a decade, but without an official, permanent position. Among other assignments, he was responsible for many of the device punches that were used on the earlier Capped Bust coins. Finally appointed second engraver after Chief Engraver William Kneass’ debilitating stroke in the summer of ‘35, Gobrecht immediately set to work on bringing Patterson’s ideas and Sully’s painting to life. The result was to grace the coinage for over half a century.

The Sully/Gobrecht Seated Liberty design was adapted for use on half dimes and dimes in 1837. It depicted a robed Liberty seated on a rock, holding in her right hand the Union Shield inscribed with LIBERTY and a staff topped with a Liberty cap in her left. Except for the date, the figure sits alone in clear fields. The reverse features a laurel wreath enclosing the denomination HALF DIME, with the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA encircling the periphery. As opposed to the later coins issued with obverse stars, the cleanness of the fields gave the coin a powerful, aesthetic impact, often presenting a cameo appearance on higher grade pieces.

On July 25, 1837 the first new half dimes were issued. About 20 or so proofs were struck for presentation to dignitaries and VIP’s. Approximately 12-14 of these are known today, and they can be distinguished from business strikes by particularly bold detail and fully reflective surfaces. Additionally, all true proofs show very clear triple punching on the 8 in the date (this should not be regarded as diagnostic criteria for all proofs, though, since this feature is also seen on early die states of the business strikes).

A total of 1,405,000 Seated Liberty half dimes were struck in 1837. Two distinct varieties are known. The first has a large date with the date in a curved line and a tall peak to the 1 in the date. The second variety has a small date with the date in a straight line and a flat top to the 1 in the date. The Small Date is considerably scarcer than the Large Date, but virtually no premium is accorded to this variety. These 1837 No Stars half dimes, in comparison to other issues of the same era, are much more available in uncirculated grades than one might expect. Apparently, many pieces were saved as first-year-of-issue souvenirs.

In 1838, and for that year only, No Stars half dimes were coined in New Orleans. Some 70,000 pieces were struck, and these represent (along with the similarly dated dimes) the first regular issue silver coins struck at a United States branch mint. The 1838-O half dimes saw heavy circulation and are much rarer than the Philadelphia coins of 1837. Unlike many first-year-of-issue coins, virtually no one saved any pieces as souvenirs. As a result, Mint State 1838-O half dimes are extremely rare and almost non-existent in grades higher than Mint State-63.

No Stars half dimes are very popular. Although very few collectors are still attempting to complete Seated Liberty date sets, higher grade No Stars examples have great eye appeal and are highly coveted by type collectors. From an artistic standpoint this coin is one of the most uncluttered coins ever struck in the United States. Due to the rarity of 1838-O, the 1837 issue is the one typically included in type sets.

When grading coins of this type, check the high points of the breast and knees on the obverse and the ribbon bow and tips of the leaves on the reverse. The 1838-O half dime is more difficult to grade. Many pieces were struck from heavily rusted dies. In addition to this die rust, the overall quality of strike was poor. These coins looked worn as soon as they left the die, and even a short stint in circulation left them with a wretched appearance. It is possible to find an 1838-O with minimal die rust and a reasonably decent impression, but they will never compare in overall appearance to the 1837 Philadelphia issues.

In 1838 an arc of thirteen stars (arranged seven to the left and six to the right) was added to the obverse of the half dime. The original hub of 1837 was retained, and the individual stars were hand-punched into each working die. This was done to quell criticism from those who took issue with the lack of the traditional stars signifying the original states.

Although a case could be made for the aesthetic appeal of the No Stars design, the issue was moot after the release of the 1838 Seated Liberty quarter dollar with stars on its obverse. Both the half dime and dime design were then changed to conform to the Mint’s policy of similar designs on all coins of the same metal. Christian Gobrecht’s majestic depiction of Liberty, however, would continue on the half dime until 1873, when Congress stopped production of the tiny silver five-cent piece in favor of the increasingly popular copper-nickel five-cent piece.

Stars Obverse (1838-59)

During the first third of the 19th century, the average American saw few of his country’s gold or silver coins, if any at all. Strangely enough, in relation to the size of the rapidly expanding nation, not many coins were made. A combination of factors, including Congress’ ill-founded 15-to-1 silver/gold ratio, questionable Mint procedures, fluctuating gold prices and the large domestic supply of Spanish silver pieces, all served to limit the number of U.S. coins in circulation.

By the early 1830s, with Latin-American revolutionary chaos subsiding, Mexican silver exports jumped. This fact, combined with Congress’ new 16-to-1 silver/gold ratio, U.S. coinage flourished. Mintages ballooned dramatically, and the introduction of steam powered coining presses in 1836 only enhanced the Mint’s production capacity. While the ratio change—which favored silver—should have driven those coins from circulation, what actually occurred was an increase in the number of silver coins struck, particularly the smaller issues. Apparently Mexican mine owners found it profitable enough to sell their ore to the convenient and silver-hungry American market, despite the lower price. The U.S. was only too happy to turn their bullion into coins.

Changes were also taking place among Mint personnel: the new director, Robert M. Patterson, hired the exceptionally talented Christian Gobrecht as second engraver to Chief Engraver William Kneass. Gobrecht, a follower of the neoclassical style, was instructed to completely redesign the coinage using the English figure of Britannia as a model. Working from sketches made by Titian Peale and Thomas Sully, Gobrecht fashioned a majestic image of Liberty. In 1836 his Seated Liberty design was first used on silver dollars, the quasi-pattern “Gobrecht” issues. By the next year, working dies were ready, and production of the new half dimes began.

Only the No Stars half dimes (and dimes) of 1837-38 accurately reflect Gobrecht’s original concept. Liberty is seated on a large rock, holding a staff topped with a Liberty cap. The figure sits alone in the field with only the date below, imparting a cameo, medal-like appearance to the coin. The reverse—essentially the same on all half dimes from 1837 to 1859—features the denomination HALF DIME encircled by a laurel wreath, in turn surrounded by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

In 1838 thirteen stars were arranged around the image of Liberty, creating the Stars Obverse type, with each star hand-punched into a previous No Stars die. Collectors refer to the coins of 1838-1840—slightly different in appearance than later issues—as the “No Drapery” variety, and these are often included in type sets as a separate design.

In 1840 Robert Ball Hughes made the first of many modifications to come. He added an extra fold of drapery behind Liberty’s elbow and, unfortunately, “fattened” the overall design. Thirteen years later, to combat widespread melting of silver coins following the California Gold Rush, Chief Engraver James B. Longacre added arrowheads on either side of the date, denoting a slight weight reduction. The Stars obverse design, without arrows, resumed in 1856 and continued until 1860, when the Legend Obverse design debuted. The last changes were made in 1859, when engraver Anthony Paquet slimmed Liberty’s arms, reduced the size of her cap and enlarged her head. But the most notable difference of Paquet’s revision is the hollow center of each peripheral star. Some type collectors include this minor variety in their sets.

As one of the five major design types of the popular Seated Liberty series, Stars Obverse half dimes are collected by date and mintmark as well as by type. Scarce dates abound, and some are nearly impossible to find, particularly in high grade—most notably 1844-O, 1846, 1849-O and 1853-O No Arrows. Type collectors searching for gem specimens will most frequently encounter the Philadelphia coins of 1857 and 1858.

The series includes two well known oddities, the 1859 and 1860 “transitional” issues. Both were creations of Mint Director James Ross Snowden, whose driving ambition during his tenure was to fill the conspicuous gaps in the Mint’s collection of U.S. coins. He authorized the striking of several “fantasy” pieces, including the Class III 1804 dollars, certain Gobrecht dollar restrikes and the so-called “transitional” half dimes and dimes. These half dimes have the Stars Obverse paired with Anthony Paquet’s Cereal Wreath reverse of 1860. These “coins without a country” (they lack the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA) were traded to local collectors for coins missing from the Mint collection. The 1859 is a proof striking and very rare, with only 12-15 pieces known. The 1860 pieces, however, are business strikes, and with an original mintage of 100 coins they occasionally appear for sale.

A tiny number of proofs—totaling fewer than 1,000 pieces—were struck from 1838 through 1859, with 880 issued in 1858 and 1859 alone. Proof specimens before 1856 are rarely seen. Conversely, with a total of 42.7 million pieces minted, business strikes are quite plentiful, at least in lower grades. Only the Philadelphia (no mintmark) and New Orleans (O) Mints produced this design, with the southern branch mint producing fewer coins but ones that saw immediate and heavy use. For that reason Philadelphia issues appear more frequently, especially in the higher grades. New Orleans mintmarks are above the bow knot of the wreath.

Many weak strikes exist within the series, making those issues more difficult to grade. Unfortunately, the addition of peripheral stars in 1838 only added to striking problems. Coins from New Orleans are usually seen with weak strikes, and Philadelphia issues between 1856 and 1858 are often weakly defined on the central drapery and head of Liberty. Higher grade pieces will first show friction on the obverse on Liberty’s knees and bust. On the reverse, wear first appears on the ribbon bow.

By the time Stars Obverse half dimes ended their run, America stood on the brink of civil war. The coming conflagration would see many of the little coins disappear into hoards and melting pots. Production ended in 1859 to make way for the new Legend Obverse design with the Cereal Wreath reverse. However, Christian Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty lived on until Congress ended the denomination 24 years later with legislation that detractors would call the “Crime of ‘73.”

With Arrows (1853-55)

When James Marshall discovered a few nuggets of gold on the American River in northern California in 1848 no one could have predicted just how much precious metal lay waiting to be found and how widespread the effects of his discovery really would be. But gold soon flooded the monetary markets of the world, and this overabundance of the metal caused its price to fall, which in turn had the effect of raising the price of silver as reckoned in gold dollars. As the price of silver rose relative to gold, the intrinsic value of United States silver coins increased above their face value. Soon, U.S. silver coins were melted when found, and by 1851 they were no longer found.

This lack of fractional silver coinage created chaos among merchants and bankers who were forced to make change with-silver three-cent pieces, heavily worn dimes and half dimes and the ubiquitous Spanish silver pieces. As the voice of the people, Congress quickly responded to the complaints of the merchant class, and bills were introduced and fiercely debated for two years before action was finally taken to solve the problem.

Many in Congress were genuinely concerned about debasement of the country’s silver coinage, the solution most commonly suggested to remedy the situation. The idea of a fiduciary coinage was a new concept at the time, and it was several decades until most Congressmen were comfortable with the idea that a coin need not contain a full measure of precious metal to be a valid circulating medium.

In the 1850s many inside and outside of Congress considered the idea of fiduciary coinage to be basically dishonest. Perhaps the most ill-informed opponent of fiduciary coinage was future President Andrew Johnson, who called the bill introduced to reduce the silver content of the half dime, dime, quarter and half dollar “the merest quackery” and “charlatanism.” However, after two years of postponements and three consecutive days of debate, the bill authorizing a weight reduction of 6.9% in these silver coins was signed into law February 21, 1853.

Much depended on the new coins entering the channels of commerce as quickly as possible. Officials agreed that the new, lower weight coins should have some distinctive design or mark that would enable the general populace to easily distinguish them from the earlier coinage that contained a greater amount of silver. Even Congress recognized the need for the new coins to have a modified design, and the following month a law was passed that authorized the Mint to temporarily employ such artists as would be needed to alter the dies for the coins affected.

But Chief Engraver James B. Longacre knew that the press of time would not allow any drastic redesigning or the hiring and training of outside artisans. All there was time to do was hand punch arrowheads on either side of the date and add a “glory” of rays on the reverse dies of the quarter and half dollar. Longacre added arrows to 78 new obverse dies for 1853 half dimes, eighteen for the New Orleans Mint and just two for San Francisco. The San Francisco dies were shipped there just in case they could be used, but the branch mint failed to begin coining operations until the next year.

More than 13 million Arrows half dimes were struck in Philadelphia in 1853, more than half the total output of 25,060,020 for the three years that arrows were used. Only Philadelphia and New Orleans produced this subtype, and the New Orleans pieces are significantly scarcer than their Philadelphia counterparts. Proofs were struck in all three years but are of the utmost rarity.

Arrows half dimes are easily collected in all but the highest grades. There are no real “stoppers” in the three-year set, but the New Orleans coins are considerably more elusive and expensive than those from the Philadelphia Mint. For decades coin dealers would not stock low grade Arrows half dimes because they were considered so common. This disdain carried over to higher grade coins as well, and it has only been in recent years that type collectors have elevated this series to respectability due to the need for gem coins for type sets.

As one might expect, the wholesale removal of all pre-1853 silver coins did create several rarities, and in the half dime series the 1853-O No Arrows issue is a significant rarity that has sometimes been counterfeited by altering an 1858-O coin. The italic numeral 5 typical of the 1853 logotype makes this alteration an easy one to detect.

In 1856, after three years with arrows on either side of the date, the half dime was returned to its pre-1853 design. The weight reduction effected in 1853 was continued, and this coin type remained unchanged until 1860.

With only this minor change in design, the grading parameters for Arrows half dimes remain the same as for the earlier issues. On the obverse, check the high points of the breast and knee for wear; on the reverse, the ribbon bow and tips of the leaves.

The Mint Act of 1853 achieved what Congress and the Mint set out to do; it reduced the amount of silver in the subsidiary coinage to a level where it was not profitable to melt, hoard or export these denominations, and small change circulated once again. The Act also established a fiduciary coinage in the United States for the first time. However, the profit the Mint made on the production of these coins (or seignorage as it is known) was minimal, and rising silver prices through the remainder of the 1850s made the Mint’s profits less and less.

By the time of the Civil War, so little was made on the production of silver coins that it looked as if melting and exporting would resume if the silver price continued to climb. Hoarding did indeed occur, but not because of rising silver prices. Rather, all silver coins were hoarded during the Civil War simply because the coins had precious metal in them, irrespective of the amount or its value. This is how great the public’s uncertainty was regarding the outcome of the War.

The issue of fiduciary coinage would be debated for the next century, but it was the Arrows coinage of 1853-55 that fired the opening shot in the controversy that was not fully resolved until all precious metal was finally removed from circulating coinage in 1970.

Legend Obverse (1860-1873)

The half dime was the first denomination struck when the United States Mint was established in 1792. It was a lynchpin of the decimal coinage system envisioned by Jefferson and Hamilton, a system based on a method invented in Europe two centuries earlier. Decimal coinage was revolutionary, a departure from all other currencies then in use. The new U.S. dollar, unlike the familiar Spanish dollar with its eight parts, or bits, was divided into tenths and hundredths. Above the copper cents and half cents, the half dime was the smallest denomination. It was also the smallest silver coin minted until the introduction of the silver three-cent piece in 1851.

Prior to the Civil War, half dimes circulated alongside many odd foreign coins. Spanish coins in particular were square pegs trying to fit in the round holes of the decimal system. The Spanish real (bit) and half real (half bit) circulated as twelve and six cents, respectively. Very worn pieces were colloquially called the levy, a corruption of “eleven pence” and fip (“five-and-a-half pence”)—terms dating back to colonial times. When sold for bullion at the mint, these worn pieces were discounted, valued only at a dime and half dime, respectively.

Technology, primarily the steam press, made coins easier to manufacture beginning in the 1830s. In 1837 the portrait and eagle designs used on the earlier half dimes, including the preceding Capped Bust type, gave way to the beautiful and scientifically constructed Seated Liberty and wreath design by Christian Gobrecht. The eagle never again appeared on the half dime.

When the Seated Liberty quarter was introduced in 1838, with its thirteen stars surrounding Liberty, the tradition of design uniformity among coins of the same metal won out over art, and the clean, uncluttered half dime and dime received the stars. In 1840 artist Robert Ball Hughes reworked the figure of Liberty. He added drapery at the elbow, placed the shield in an upright position and made other minor alterations. Many observers feel the sum of his efforts only succeeded in “fattening and flattening” Gobrecht’s sleek design.

The California Gold Rush spawned the discovery of huge amounts of the precious metal, causing the value of silver to rise in terms of gold and resulting in widespread exporting and melting of silver coins. By 1853 the government was forced to reduce the amount of silver in coins to prevent them from being melted. Arrowheads pointing outward were added to either side of the date on the half dimes from 1853 through ‘55, signifying the change in weight. They were removed for the coinage of 1856 and subsequent years.

The design was again tampered with in 1859, when Engraver James B. Longacre’s assistant, Anthony C. Paquet, created a new version notable for its hollow stars surrounding the Liberty figure. Some pieces were made in 1859 and 1860 combining this obverse with the new reverse wreath of later issues. Lacking the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, these “coins without a country” are really fantasy pieces, being neither patterns nor coins intended for circulation.

In 1860 Longacre redesigned the Seated Liberty half dime for the last time. Known as the Legend Obverse type, it retained the seated Liberty figure holding a staff topped with a Liberty cap. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA replaced the thirteen stars that had surrounded Liberty on previous versions. The simple reverse wreath was discarded and replaced by an elaborate one made up of sprigs of corn, wheat, oak and maple and tied with a bow at the bottom (this Cereal Wreath motif by Paquet was also used on the Seated Liberty and Barber dimes). The denomination HALF DIME appears within the wreath.

Besides the Philadelphia Mint (no mintmark), this coin type was minted in New Orleans in 1860 (O) and in San Francisco (S) from 1863 through 1873. The mintmark is found below the bow, except on the San Francisco issues of 1870 through early 1872, where it appears within the wreath.

Although 15,573,280 Legend half dimes (including 10,040 proofs) were minted in the fourteen years that this type was current, the effects of civil war, bullion melts and use as jewelry items ravaged the issues from the 1860s. Still, several small hoards have been uncovered that yielded a few uncirculated specimens from this period. Other uncirculated specimens have surfaced in original Mint-assembled proof sets. Whether this occurred due to indifference or carelessness by Mint employees remains unclear. The dates found most frequently in uncirculated condition are the Philadelphia Mint issues from 1860 through 1862 and both the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mint half dimes from 1871 through the end of the series in 1873.

Unquestionably, 1870-S is the rarest and most fascinating Legend half dime. When construction started on the second San Francisco Mint in 1870, coins minted specifically to commemorate the occasion were placed inside the cornerstone. Only one 1870-S half dime was supposed to exist (and the mint building still stands), but in 1978 a duplicate specimen surfaced. The coin’s display at the 1978 convention of the American Numismatic Association caused quite a stir. It subsequently sold for a six-figure price.

When grading this design, look carefully at the surfaces of the fields to check for hairlines, evidence of cleaning, removal of solder or retooling of the design elements. Half dimes were heavily used in jewelry during the 1870s and ‘80s and were popular as tie tacks, cuff links, buttons and pins. The obverse will first show wear on Liberty’s kneecap and breast. On the reverse, check the bow of the ribbon and the leaves in the wreath.

Although it is possible to assemble a complete uncirculated set of Legend half dimes by date and mintmark (sans the 1870-S), few collectors try. This design is more popularly collected as part of a type set of 19th century issues that might include the major varieties of the Gobrecht design. A small but interesting collection could be a Legend half dime from each mint. This would include the only New Orleans coin, 1860-O, a Philadelphia issue and one from San Francisco. The set could be expanded by including examples of both mintmark positions of the San Francisco coins.

The Coinage Act of 1873 changed the weights of the dime, quarter dollar and half dollar to conform to metric standards. The new law, which went into effect April 1, also ended the production of several denominations, including the half dime, as these were no longer listed among the authorized issues. The need for a five-cent coin was filled by the copper-nickel piece, which had been in production since 1866 and remains current even today.

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NGC Auction Central Disclaimer

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