Of the various denominations of silver coins, half dimes are among the smallest series in terms of different dates; they are also the most varied. Over the years, several numismatists have fallen in love with these coins, beginning with Harold P. Newlin, who in 1883 wrote a monograph on the series, complete with a good deal of sentiment—especially toward the rare 1802, obviously his pet silver coin of all time.
The first coinage of this denomination was the 1792 half disme, a “story coin” if there ever was one (this was another Newlin favorite in his 1883 text), followed by the 1794 to 1795 Flowing Hair half dimes, the production of which began in 1795 (including those from the 1794-dated dies). In 1796 and 1797 the Draped Bust obverse, Small Eagle reverse half dimes were minted, followed by a gap, then the employment of the new Heraldic Eagle reverse in 1800. This style continued until 1805, after which there was a gap until 1829, from which point Capped Bust half dimes were made through 1837. The Liberty Seated half dimes in various types were coined through 1873, after which the denomination was discontinued.
Design Types of Half Dimes
- 1792 Half Disme: Struck with Mint equipment, but before the Mint opened. One of America’s most historical coins.
- 1794 and 1795, Flowing Hair: Scarce in all grades, rare in Mint State.
- 1796 and 1797, Draped Bust, Small Eagle: The most elusive type after 1792.
- 1800 to 1805, Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle: Scarce in all grades. Usually weakly struck, except for 1800.
- 1829 to 1837, Capped Bust: Usually seen well struck and attractive.
- 1837 and 1838, Liberty Seated, No Stars: A cameo design that was popular when it was released and continues as a collectors’ favorite today.
- 1838 to 1840, Liberty Seated, No Drapery, With Stars: A short-lived type that is usually seen well struck and with good eye appeal.
- 1840 to 1859, Liberty Seated, With Drapery, With Stars: Available in nearly any grade desired.
- 1853 to 1855, Arrows at Date: A short-lived but plentiful type.
- 1860 to 1873, Legend Obverse: Usually seen in higher grades. Proofs are available of all dates.
Today, most numismatists collect half dimes by type, which is easy enough to do, although certain early issues range from scarce to impossible in higher grades. Circulated examples are available for nearly all dates in the half dime series, although the earlier issues are scarce. Later varieties from 1829 onward form a pleasing collecting experience. Of course, in any given instance a Mint State coin is preferable to one showing wear, but few can afford to assemble a full collection at this level.
Liberty Seated half dimes are interesting to collect by date and mint sequence, together with scattered varieties as listed in the Red Book and elsewhere. With the exception of the 1870-S, which is unique, all are readily collectible, although some are rare. Specialists in half dimes of this design often enjoy belonging to the Liberty Seated Collectors Club (LSCC), which publishes an informative magazine, the Gobrecht Journal. Emphasis is on interesting die varieties, historical aspects, and the like.
1. In mid-July 1792, at a private shop not far from where the Mint would be built, 1,500 silver half dismes were struck. The engraver was a Mr. Birch, who also made dies for certain 1792 patterns. For many years numismatists called this the Martha Washington half disme, but the depiction does not resemble any contemporary portrait of her.
2. The 1800 half dime, the first and most plentiful issue of the 1800 to 1805 type, is occasionally found in Mint State. In all grades it is likely to be much better struck than those of later dates.
3. A lustrous gem Mint State half dime of 1835, the Capped Bust style used from 1829 continuously through 1837. By 1829, this motif, by John Reich, had been used on the dime, quarter dollar, and half dollar for many years.
4. The final type in the half dime series, with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA on the obverse and a “cereal” wreath on the reverse, was made from 1860 to 1873.
Key to Collecting Half Dimes
- Mint State coins: Mint State examples are very rare for the 1792 half disme, rare for the 1794 to 1795 Flowing Hair and the 1796 to 1797 types, and very rare for 1800 to 1805 (except for the solitary date 1800; of all other dates of this type combined, only about a half dozen true Mint State coins are known). Capped Bust and Liberty Seated half dimes are readily obtainable in Mint State, but certain varieties are scarce, with the 1846 being almost unobtainable.
- Circulated coins: The vast majority of later half dimes, 1829 to 1873, are available and inexpensive in such grades as Very Fine and Extremely Fine, furnishing an interesting opportunity.
- Strike quality: Early issues of 1792 to 1805 are apt to be lightly struck in areas, even on pieces of the finest grades. This is to be expected, and a compromise has to be made. Later types are generally available sharp, but not all dates and varieties within those types are. Cherrypicking is the order of the day, with Full Date pieces being available for many issues.
- Proof coins: Although scattered earlier Proofs were made, the first generally available date is 1858, in which year an estimated 210 were made. Proofs from then through 1873 can be acquired with some patience, as hundreds exist of each. Quality tends to be better on the small half dimes than on larger Liberty Seated coins, perhaps as the surface was not as liable to be damaged. Still, care is needed.
- Key issues: All issues of 1792 to 1805 range from scarce to rare, with the key issue being 1802. Among later half dimes, all are readily collectible except the 1870-S. Transitional half dimes of 1859 are major rarities, and of the 1860, Director James Ross Snowden stated that just 100 were struck; these delicacies were made for sale to collectors.
- Advice to smart buyers: The usual suggestions apply—cherrypick for sharp strike (Full Details) and eye appeal. If you go beyond collecting a type set, read as much as you can on the series. There are a lot of interesting situations. For example, an MS-63 1865 half dime, mintage just 13,000 pieces, is priced at $1,250 in the Red Book, while in the same grade an 1844-O, mintage 220,000, is valued at $13,000. The answer lies in availability: in 1865, half dimes didn’t circulate, and many were saved. In 1844, all were paid out into the channels of commerce, where they became worn.
Text and images excerpted from The Expert’s Guide to Collecting and Investing in Rare Coins by Q. David Bowers.