1792: Our First Federal Coinage

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
The Signal
Saturday, January 14, 2006

he Mint Act of 1792 provided for coinage of our first United States coinage. Since the new Philadelphia Mint was not fully operational in terms of equipment and personnel, the proposed coinage for 1792 was extremely limited. And due to a lack of coinage metal (bullion), the total production for 1792 was literally a handful of coins — many of which were presentation pieces, gifts, or specimens for reference purposes.
    The first coin issued under the act apparently was the 1792 half disme. The exact mintage is not recorded. Some 250 specimens are known to exist today, and one can estimate that a few thousand were minted. In Walter Breen's "Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins," he reports some 200 to 250 specimens known (as of 1980). Considering that many were well circulated, it is generally felt by most collectors that the 1792 half disme was our first national coinage.
    In the same year, a few other coins were struck, but in such small numbers that for most, only very few are known today. They include the silver-center cent. This half-cent-sized copper coin had a silver plug in the center. Only 13 are known, along with eight with no silver plug.
    The large cent designed by Robert Birch (very similar to the design eventually adopted for the issues to follow) includes a total of 11 pieces of three different varieties. One specimen in white metal is known.
    A silver disme was struck and three pieces are known. Fifteen others are known in copper. The spelling "disme" was changed to "dime" in 1793 since the French term "disme" was pronounced "deem" and often pronounced "dime." The word "dime" first appeared on our coins of 1837 (on the half-dime and dime). Before then, the denominations were "5c" and "10c."
    Of the coinage issued in 1792, only the half disme seemed to have made its way into general use. As a souvenir of the new nation, several were put into long-term care for future generations. Of those known to collectors, most have been circulated over the years (as five cents), until the mid-1800s.
    A well-used specimen today would bring about $7,500 and a Very Fine coin would bring about $30,000. However, due to their rarity and popularity, auction prices could well exceed these values.
    An interesting side story to the half disme is the fact that some of silver bullion — believed to be about $100 in 1792 dollars — was donated by the George Washington family to the Treasury, either in the form of silverware or foreign silver coinage. That amount of silver alone could account for almost 2,000 coins.
    In an address to Congress in November 1792, George Washington not only mentioned that the process of issuing national coinage had begun, but mentioned specifically the "half disme" coming into general commerce.
    Earlier-dated coinage such as Fugio cents were minted (in New Haven and elsewhere), but collectors agree that the 1792 issues mentioned here are the first national mintage coins.

    Dr. Sol Taylor of Sherman Oaks is president of the Society of Lincoln Cent Collectors and author of The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent. Click here for ordering information.