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THE HALF DIME: AMERICA’S ORIGINAL FIVE-CENT PIECE

THE HALF DIME: AMERICA’S ORIGINAL FIVE-CENT PIECE

By Ed Reiter

George Washington is identified with several different forms of U.S. coins and currency. His likeness has appeared since 1932 on the 25-cent piece, and even longer than that on the $1 bill – and it also can he found on a number of commemorative coins.

No form of money had a more direct link with Washington, however, than the long-ago half disme of 1792. In that very special instance, the nation’s first president provided something more than inspiration: He furnished the raw material for the coin.

An oft-repeated story, apparently rooted in fact, has it that President Washington provided his own silverware for use in minting examples of that small silver coin. Even it the story were apocryphal, it still would represent a pleasant introduction to one of the least publicized chapters in the nation’s coinage history: the one concerning the humble half dime.

Few Americans realize that the now-familiar nickel wasn’t in the picture when U.S. coinage began in the 1790s. What’s more, our first five-cent piece wasn’t nickel at all, but a small silver coin, which – as its name suggests – was half a dime in terms of not only value but also weight.

The use of nickel in coinage was decades away at the time; its hardness would have made it impractical in any case, given the limitations of the less-than-advanced equipment at the early U.S. Mint. Beyond that, however, a silver coin was natural – even when the amount involved was small – because the Founding Fathers wanted U.S. coinage to possess intrinsic value equal to what it was worth as money.

It should be noted, too, that five cents was not an inconsequential sum during the earliest years of U.S. history. Indeed, it amounted to half an hour’s pay – and often even more – for many working Americans throughout the period when the half dime was produced.

The half dime was one of the 10 basic coins authorized by Congress in the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, which established the U.S. Mint and set forth ground rules on how it should operate, including details of the coins it should produce.

The Mint Act referred to the 10-cent piece and its smaller companion as the “disme” and “half disme,” respectively – disme being the French word for “decimal.” This term had been widely used since 1585, when Dutch mathematician Simon Stevin wrote a pamphlet titled “La Disme” which helped to popularize the use of decimal numbers as alternatives to fractions in day-to-day math calculations.

The law notwithstanding, the word “disme” never appeared on a regular-issue coin of the U.S. Mint. By the time production began, the word (pronounced the same) had been anglicized to “dime.” It did appear, however, on those fascinating coins struck from George Washington’s melted silverware, as well as on a handful of 10-cent pieces made at about the same time.

The half dismes were struck on July 13, 1792 – more than three months after passage of the Mint Act – in the cellar of a coach house on Sixth Street in Philadelphia, a few blocks from the site of the yet-to-be-erected federal mint. The owner of the house, saw-maker and mechanic John Harper, let the government use it as a temporary mint, since the regular facilities weren’t ready.

The coins were produced under Mint supervision from dies that had been prepared with an eye to possible use on regular U.S. coinage. They bore a design by engraver William R. Birch, who also is credited with designing a one-cent piece from the same period that has long been known to collectors as the “Birch cent.”

The half disme’s obverse features the left-facing bust of a rather mature Miss Liberty, while the reverse depicts a rudimentary eagle in flight. In all, the makeshift mint made 1,500 examples.

Some consider those coins the very first federal issues; they enjoyed legal-tender status, and a few found their way into circulation. Generally, however, they’re viewed as provisional issues predating the actual start of regular U.S. coinage. Regular production didn’t get under way until 1794, and by then the Mint had given the coin a new design: the Flowing Hair portrait of Liberty that also was appearing on the larger silver coins in that year.

Flowing Hair half dimes were minted for only two years, giving way in 1796 to the Draped Bust type – again in a parallel to what was taking place with the larger coins. The small-eagle reverse was retained, with modifications, from the Flowing Hair coinage – but this new combination, like its predecessor, enjoyed just a two-year run.

Half dimes got a breather in 1798 and 1799, foreshadowing a much longer layoff dead ahead. When they returned in 1800, the Draped Bust obverse was mated with a heraldic eagle reverse – a miniature version of the very same design that appears on the storied 1804 silver dollar.

Like the silver dollar, the half dime wasn’t minted in 1804. Unlike the dollar, it wasn’t produced with that date decades later. With that one exception, the Draped Bust/Heraldic Eagle half dime trickled out each year in very small quantities from 1800 to 1805, touching bottom in 1802, when mintage totaled a minuscule 3,060. At that point, public demand was at very low ebb, so the Mint suspended production.

The nap proved to be longer than Rip Van Winkle’s: The coin wouldn’t reappear until 1829, not quite a quarter-century later. Half-reales coins from Latin American mints were readily available during that time, and these small silver coins – worth six-and-a-quarter cents each – found ready acceptance among the American public, obviating the need for home-grown coins in that value range.

Half dimes awoke from their nap with newfound vigor: In 1829, their first year back in production, the Mint cranked out more than 1.2 million pieces – more than four times the total combined mintage of all previous half dimes issued to that point. Mintages would remain relatively high, with just a few exceptions, from then through the end of the small coin’s lifetime in 1873.

From 1829 to 1837, the half dime carried the Capped Bust portrait of Liberty – once again in unison with its larger silver cousins. Partway through production in 1837, it got another makeover, this time emerging with the Liberty Seated design. Again, this was part of an overall redesign of all the silver coinage.

Several important varieties exist among the Liberty Seated half dimes. These are common to all the silver coinage of that type.

 

  • From 1837 to 1840, no drapery can be seen extending from Liberty’s elbow; from 1840 onward, it is there (though coins dated 1840 come in both varieties).
    Coins dated 1837 and some dated 1838 have no stars on the obverse; 13 stars were placed on the obverse in 1838 and remained until 1859, when they gave way to the legend “United States of America.”
  • From 1853 through 1855, arrows were placed alongside the date to signify a reduction in the coin’s weight. The arrows were removed in 1856, but the weight remained at the lower level (1.24 grams, compared with 1.34 grams on pre-1853 issues).
    The half dime had undergone several subtle changes in content and size even before that, though none had been marked by arrows.
  • From 1794 through 1805, it had been 16.5 millimeters in diameter. This was reduced to 15.5 millimeters in 1829, when the Capped Bust variety made its debut.
  • From 1794 through the end of the Capped Bust series in 1837, it had been made from an alloy of .8924 silver and .1076 copper. This was changed to .900 silver and .100 copper with the start of the Liberty Seated series.
  • Also with the start of the Liberty Seated coinage, its weight was trimmed from 1.35 grams to 1.34. This, of course, was further reduced in 1853.

 

Throughout its eight-decade lifespan, the half dime was struck with a reeded edge – a feature no doubt adopted to discourage the unscrupulous from shaving off slices of silver. All of its production took place in Philadelphia prior to the start of the Liberty Seated series, whereupon the mother mint was joined by the New Orleans branch in 1838. The San Francisco Mint began striking half dimes in 1863.

As foreign silver coinage subsided in importance, the half dime established an ever-increasing presence in the marketplace – and in Americans’ pockets. Its small size worked against it, though, just as the large cent’s bulkiness served to limit that coin’s usage. This was, after all, the third-smallest coin ever issued by Uncle Sam; only the silver three-cent piece and the gold dollar were more petite (and the dollar had greater heft, since gold is much heavier than silver).

Mintage figures remained quite respectable up until the early 1860s, cresting in 1853, when the Philadelphia Mint produced more than 13.2 million half dimes with arrows beside the date plus 135,000 without them.

The tide turned against the half dime during the Civil War, when all U.S. coinage – but particularly coins with precious-metal content – vanished from circulation, ending up either abroad or in hoarders’ hands. In 1866, as part of its effort to re-seed U.S. commerce with federal coinage, the Mint introduced a new five-cent piece made from an alloy of 75-percent copper and 25-percent nickel – the coin now known as the “Shield nickel.” Despite its bland design and its lack of intrinsic value relative to the half dime, this new coin won immediate public acceptance.

The half dime remained in production through 1873, but the handwriting on the wall was clearly a parting message: “So long, old girl, it’s been good to know you all these years!”

The closing years witnessed some of the lowest mintages since the very earliest years of the half dime’s run. These included outputs of 10,725 in 1866 and 8,625 in 1867 at the Philadelphia Mint and – in the biggest show-stopper of all – just one specimen in 1870 at San Francisco.

Except for the 1871 and 1872 Philadelphia issues, no half dime had a mintage of more than a million during the series’ final 10 years. Seven, in fact, had outputs under 100,000. By contrast, the Shield nickel was pouring out of the Philadelphia Mint by the tens of millions. In 1873, Congress put the half dime out of its misery, passing legislation which, among other things, halted further production of the coin.

The half dime was a victim of changing times. Its high intrinsic value, a point of such significance in 1792, carried far less weight by the late 19th century. In the wake of the massive coin shortage during the Civil War, Americans were grateful for any coinage at all – and speaking of carrying weight, the emphasis was now on convenient size, rather than high metal value.

While it lasted, however, the half dime served the nation well. The overwhelming majority of the small silver coins saw extensive circulation, as attested by the wear on surviving examples and the relative scarcity of mint-state specimens. They witnessed the nation’s expansion from sea to shining sea and lived through a turbulent time when fratricidal fighting threatened to tear apart America’s fabric.

In the end, the nation survived – and so does the humble half dime. American consumers have a new five-cent piece now, but the Founding Fathers’ original version still holds a place of honor as a collectible.

Some pieces even hold George Washington’ silver.