The following Q&A is excerpted from Clifford Mishler’s Coins: Questions & Answers:
Q: Why are there so many varieties of halves listed in catalogs for the years 1805 to 1836?
A: There are four basic reasons. First, the half-dollar was the highest denomination silver coin in production at the Philadelphia Mint. Second, the quantities produced annually vastly exceeded the quantities for half-dimes, dimes, and quarters. Third, the die preparation process during this era was a highly manual, as opposed to mechanized process. Fourth, early on collectors undertook to extensively collect the series by varieties.
The reason halves were produced in large numbers over that 30-year period is that President Thomas Jefferson had suspended the minting of silver dollars in 1804. During 1800 to 1803 the production of silver dollars had exceeded that of half-dollars by roughly two to one. That step was taken because the newly minted coins, which were heavier in weight than the worn Spanish milled dollars alongside which they circulated on a part value basis, tended to flow out of the country to cover the purchase of imported goods, or were melted down for bullion.
With the absence of silver dollars for use in large transactions within the country—$10 gold pieces were also discontinued from 1804 to 1838, though half-eagles remained in production throughout the period, and quarter-eagles were minted only sporadically in very small quantities—half-dollars became the desirable coin for the settlement of substantial transactions, bank reserves, and foreign payments. As the halves seldom circulated in the traditional sense, but were principally transferred from bank to bank, they survived in relatively large quantities in better than average condition for coins of the period.