The 1792 Half Disme (pronounced deem, which later evolved into the modern pronunciation of dime as we know it) has the honor of being the very first coin officially struck by the United States government. While coins had been struck on American soil since the mid 17th century, and continued to be struck after the colonies declared independence in 1776, no coins had been officially struck and released by the newly found country. A small coinage of half dismes, along with various pattern denominations struck in 1792, marked the beginning of coinage by the United States Mint.
However, in 1792, there was no Mint, and in fact, no building had been designated as a Mint at the time. This, and the first coinage of the young country, would come after the coinage act of 1792 had been authorized. The coinage act, the first which still has its influence over two centuries later, not only authorized coins ranging in value from half a cent to ten dollars, it also authorized the the first Mint building to be constructed. The cornerstone was laid in Philadelphia on July 31 of the same year, little over two months after President George Washington signed the law into effect.
The half disme denomination (being five cents) was the only denomination which would be struck in a reasonable number the year the Coinage act was signed into law. Other denominations, such as the disme (ten cents) were only produced in extremely limited numbers, and are considered to be patterns. Production of copper coinage, being half cents and cents, would not commence until the next year. The other silver denominations were not introduced until 1794 (including half dimes with a different design) while gold coins were first struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1795.
The design of the 1792 Half Disme is believed to have originated from the so-called Birch cent, one of the pattern issues of 1792. The name appears on a very limited of survivors of that issue, one of the very first patterns for a proposed coinage, although it is unknown who he was. According to the Judd reference on United States patterns, it could either be William Birch or Robert Birch, both citizens of Philadelphia at the time, although this is unconfirmed. The obverse featured a head of Liberty, as the Birch cents, while the reverse shows an eagle in flight (much different from later versions used on United States coinage). The most prominent lettering is on the obverse, being “LIB. PAR. OF SCIENCE & INDUSTRY” (Liberty Parent of Science and Industry), which appears to have originated from Benjamin Franklin.
Mintage of the 1792 Half Disme
Despite the fact that it has been traditionally listed in pattern references, it is believed that the 1792 Half Disme is the first regular issue coin struck according to the Mint act of 1792. However, there is some dispute regarding this statement, and some numismatic researchers still consider the 1792 Half Dismes to have been patterns for a later coinage. There are some facts that do not appear to fit in this context and they were made by George Washington himself. There have also been stories, perhaps correctly classified as numismatic folklore, that go along with the 1792 Half Dismes.
First of all, for a pattern issue there was a relatively high mintage, believed to have been around 1500 to 2000 pieces in total. While one of the most famous pattern issues (the 1856 Flying Eagle cent) is sometimes incorrectly classified as a regular issue due to its high mintage, the late 18th century was a different time, and interests were different as well. Many of the 1856 Flying Eagle cents that are known to exist are believed to have been restrikes, while no restrikes are believed to have been made of the 1792 Half Dismes.
Another point that can be made in favor of the “circulation-issue” standpoint is that a relative high number of survivors (approximately 10% of the mintage) is found in lower grades such as Good or Fine. If they were only given out as presentation pieces (as some have suggested) it seems unlikely that such an extraordinary amount of coins ended up in circulation. A few would have been possible, but not on such a large scale, and perhaps we would have known even more survivors if they had not been meant for circulation. The other 1792 issues (all considered patterns) are known in various grades, but were struck in extremely limited quantities, and almost certainly were not meant for circulation. The most conclusive fact, however, is a comment made by President George Washington in an address to congress of late (November) 1792:
“There has been a small beginning in the coinage of half dimes, the want of a small coin in circulation calling the first attention to them.”
There are also two stories that have commonly been linked to the 1792 Half Dismes, although neither of the two appears to be correct, as per modern research. First of all, it is said that the silver that was used to strike the 1792 Half Dismes was personally provided by George Washington, who, according to the story supplied part of his own tableware to have a supply of silver to start the coinage in the basement of a Philadelphia saw maker. Modern research has revealed that this story very likely is incorrect, and that the U.S. Government supplied the silver, in the form of bullion. Secondly, it is also said that the inspiration for Lady Liberty on the obverse of the coin came from Washington’s wife, Martha Washington. When comparing the few contemporary images that are known of her with the design of the coin this also appears incorrect, as the images do not share any similarities.
Finest Known and Values
Despite the low mintage, primitive circumstances in which it was struck, and apparent circulation of this issue, a relatively high number of uncirculated specimens are known to exist. “High” is certainly relative in the case of the 1792 Half Disme, as high grade examples only compose the distinct minority of an already low number of survivors. A recent auction description for the finest known example estimated that between 250 and 400 of the original mintage are known to exist in all grades. Judging by the number of auction appearances of this historic issue, the latter seems a bit high, and the true number probably lies closer to 250 than to 400.
The finest known 1792 Half Disme graded by PCGS has been graded as a Specimen strike SP-67. While PCGS classifies this issue as a regular issue meant for circulation, versus a pattern as some other specialists do, it is without doubt that the SP-67 coin is something special. Its status as a specimen striking is disputed, and it does not appear to be the first coin struck from the dies, as some sources claim. This is attested by the fact that some faint die cracks are visible on the reverse of this coin, which are not present on some other examples, preserved in lower grades. However, the coin is very special, with a needle-sharp strike and prooflike surfaces.
The finest known graded by NGC is an MS-68, which is known to have sold in a private transaction for $1,500,000. The price record for any 1792 Half Disme at public auction was for the PCGS SP-67 specimen, which sold for $ 1,322,500 in April of 2006.
Uncirculated and About Uncirculated 1792 Half Dismes easily sell for six figure sums, while circulated and damaged pieces often trade for sums near that level. Only barely recognizable and heavily impaired examples can be found for less than $ 10,000, but thanks to the historic status of this issue, even in those grades the coins are in much demand.