The Last Half Dimes
Posted on 9/1/2005
The future of the silver half dime looked bright in 1860, when the U. S. Mint debuted a new version of the familiar Seated Liberty design. Nearly two million examples were coined through the combined efforts of the Philadelphia and New Orleans Mints, the latter never coining half dimes again. All of these pieces had the national legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA placed prominently around the figure of Liberty, the Mint seemingly oblivious to the Act of January 18, 1837 requiring that this legend appear on the coin's reverse.
Another feature that distinguished the new half dimes was an elaborate wreath of American agricultural products. This was substituted for the plain olive wreath of earlier Seated Liberty half dimes. The coin's date and value remained in the same locations, though the mintmark was relocated below the wreath's bow. Formerly, it had been above the bow. When the San Francisco Mint experienced difficulty in striking half dimes with a clear mintmark, this feature was briefly returned to its former location for a single batch of dies used in 1870-72. There was no noticeable improvement, so the 'S' mintmark was returned to its 1860 position below the bow for the remainder of the 1872 coinage. The 1873-S half dimes likewise had their mintmark below the bow, and coinage of this denomination ceased forever after that year.
The original version of the Seated Liberty half dime had been created by Christian Gobrecht, but his models were used only for the coinage of 1837-40. Stars were added by hand to each individual obverse die beginning in 1838, but it was not until a complete remodeling of this type was performed by Robert B. Hughes in mid-1840 that the stars were incorporated into the obverse model. In this form, the half dime was coined through 1859, with arrowheads being added to the coins of 1853-55 to proclaim a weight reduction. The 1859-O half dimes retained Hughes' version of the Seated Liberty figure, while those coined at Philadelphia that year featured a new figure by Anthony C. Paquet, as well as hollow-center stars unique to this date.
An assistant engraver at the U. S. Mint from 1857 to 1864, Paquet was largely unsuccessful in getting his designs approved for circulating coinage. In the case of the half dime, his somewhat stiff figure of Liberty was dropped after its single usage in 1859. When the national legend was transferred to the obverse in 1860, the Hughes' rendition of Liberty returned. Paquet, however, was successful in securing his artwork for the coin's reverse. The elaborate wreath of cotton, corn, wheat and tobacco, though attributed to James B. Longacre by Cornelius Vermeule and other researchers, is almost certainly the work of Paquet. This attribution is reinforced by the style of lettering used on the half dimes of 1860-73. Tall and narrow, this font was a hallmark of Paquet's work, and it appears on both the obverse and reverse of the “Legend Obverse” half dimes.
No sooner had coinage of this final half dime design commenced than the nation's economy was turned upside down. The onset of America's Civil War in April of 1861 soon led to the introduction of paper currency by both sides as a means of financing the war. While the first issue of United States currency was redeemable in coin, most of the notes that followed were not, and banks soon suspended all payments of specie (gold and silver coins). That caused widespread hoarding and/or exporting of coins, the little half dime included.
From the late spring of 1862 onward, no gold or silver coins were circulating in most of the nation. Americans had to made do with fractional paper currency and an assortment of tokens. Only in the Far West did a coin economy survive, but here the humble half dime was a pariah. In the inflated economy of the West, the lowest value coin in circulation was the dime. Mark Twain provided an amusing account of his attempt in the mid-1860s to spend a half dime in California, with the recipient gazing upon it with a blend of amazement and contempt.
Given this situation, it's surprising to discover that the greater part of half dime coinage in the years 1862-69 was effected at the San Francisco Mint. What purpose did these shunned coins serve? Well, it seems that their greatest utility there was as items of jewelry. A popular fad of the time was to drill holes into half dimes for suspension as charms. Countless thousands suffered this fate, while relatively few circulated domestically. Many others were exported to Canada and Latin America, where their usefulness as money was better appreciated.
The half dime denomination was terminated by the Act of February 12, 1873, by which time its place had been taken quite successfully by the copper-nickel five-cent piece. Half dimes were withdrawn from circulation by the Treasury and melted for decades afterward, leaving only a portion of the original mintage in the hands of collectors.
And what became of the thousands of half dimes holed for suspension? After the fad for such pieces had come and gone, these mutilated coins, ineligible for redemption, were shipped to the West Indies in vast numbers. There they circulated for years afterward at the value of 2-1/2 cents, according to a 1900 account in the Havana Post.
David W. Lange's column "USA Coin Album" appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.