USA Coin Album: Twilight of the Half Cent 1849-57

Posted on 5/12/2020

Production declined until Congress pulled the plug.

There aren't many pre-Civil War United States type coins that are readily available and affordable in Mint State grades. The Braided Hair half cent, however, is just such a coin. In fact, it's collectable not only by type but by date, as well.

Half cents have been labeled by collectors "the little half sisters" to the much larger copper cents of that period, and it was only natural that they would mimic the design of contemporaneous cents. The Braided Hair portrait of Liberty debuted on the cent late in 1839, and it became the most distinctive of several new head types adopted between 1835 and 1839.

The work of Christian Gobrecht, the Braided Hair series is divided into two editions. The Petite Head appeared on just a single obverse die dated 1839 but was used thereafter through 1842. During 1843 it was employed for just a few dies before being replaced by the Mature Head, which is simply the same portrait with straighter posture. Liberty no longer leaned forward, and in this form large cents were coined until terminated by the Act of February 21, 1857.

So then why were Braided Hair half cents not coined for circulation until 1849? Well, the large half cent production of 1832-35 bearing the Classic Head design fully met the need for additional pieces for many years to come, forestalling the appearance of Braided Hair pieces for a decade. Even then the number coined annually was far below the figures achieved in earlier years. Indeed, it was only during 1851 and 1853 that the Philadelphia Mint produced more than 60,000 half cents annually. The numbers struck were fewer than 150,000 pieces in each of those years, which is still too small a quantity to play much of a role in commerce. In fact, the only reason for this uptick was that silver coins weren't circulating at the time, due to an upset in the relative prices of silver and gold, and the Mint was struggling to make enough cents to fill the gap in small change. In desperation, it struck additional half cents, too.

In reality the half cent denomination was largely obsolete by 1840. Proof of that is found in the long time it took to distribute the 1832-35 pieces and by how many of these survive unused today. The 1849-57 Braided Hair half cents likewise are quite common in Mint State, though the number of 1849-50 coins found in such condition is lower than for the later dates.

There are Braided Hair half cents dated 1840-48, but all of these are rare proofs. Divided into "originals" and one or more series of "restrikes," it's curious that all of these proofs bear the Mature Head of Liberty not seen on the cents until mid-1843. Why do the earlier dates not display the Petite Head typical of cents dated 1840-42? Traditionally collectors have labeled some 1840-48 proof half cents as originals, yet there's little evidence to establish that any were coined in the years dated. Die-linking these various proofs reveals that many shared reverse dies, and this makes it tempting to believe that even the so-called originals were actually struck in batches some years later using back-dated dies. Numismatists have struggled over the chronology of proof half cents for more than a century.

1849 Large Date Half Cent
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Returning to the currency issues, a complete set of Braided Hair half cents consists of just eight coins: 1849-51 and 1853-57 (the 1852 emission was another proof-only date). All have very low mintages yet are fairly common, even at or near the Mint State level. In fact, I've never seen a heavily worn Braided Hair half cent. The 1849 issue has a quite oversized date that stands in stark contrast to the very small date used on the proofs of that year.

Looking at the 1849-57 series as a whole, it appears that the Philadelphia Mint was quite inconsistent when it came to the date size from year to year. Since just a single die pair was used for each date, however, this is entirely consistent within each year, other than for 1849. The currency strikes reveal small dates for 1850-51 and 1854-56, but they have much larger dates for 1849, 1851, 1853 and 1857. The cent date punch was used for those years, and it makes for a rather awkward appearance.

1853 Large Date Half Cent Detail
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1856 Small Date Half Cent Detail
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Though common in Mint State, Braided Hair half cents vary widely in striking sharpness. The 1855 and 1856 issues, in particular, seem to be quite poorly struck in most instances. It behooves collectors to shop around a bit in search of sharp examples from fresh dies for each date in the series. Several dates are obtainable with generous amounts of mint red color, but it's been my experience that this feature is retained mostly by the poorly struck coins. The well struck pieces are more likely to be fully brown or with accents of green or blue toning.

1855 Half Cent
Click images to enlarge.

Like the large copper cent, the half cent was terminated by law in 1857. The Philadelphia Mint actually set up a booth on its grounds for their redemption and exchange with the new Eagle cents made of copper-nickel. Thus were many Braided Hair half cents lost to numismatics, yet enough survive to make this a very satisfying series to collect.

1857 Half Cent
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David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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