America's Half Cent, 1793-1857

Half Cents
Miss Liberty faced to the right for awhile, as seen on this 1808 half cent, before switching back to face left, as seen on this "Classic Head" type of 1825. (Photo: Leon Worden)

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
The Signal
Saturday, December 24, 2005

ne our very first coins was the pure copper half cent, issued in 1793. It was about the size of the English half penny of the era, and similar in size and weight to other copper coins circulating in the colonies with a value of one-half cent.
    The original design is attributed to Joseph Wright. It weighed 6.74 grams and was 22 millimeters in diameter. Inscribed in the edge was, "TWO HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR."
    In 1793, only 35,334 pieces were minted. These coins are very valuable today. Even low-grade pieces, barely identifiable, can bring several hundred dollars, while Extra Fine specimens catalogue well into the five-figure range.
    The design of this issue and other coinage of the same period featured a female figurehead symbolic of liberty. In 1793, Miss Liberty had flowing hair and a cap behind her head, symbolic of a freeperson. The reverse featured a wreath around the words, "HALF CENT," with "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" around the edge. At the bottom was the fraction "1/200," indicating one-200th of a dollar.
    In 1794 the design switched Liberty's head to face right. This design, with minor variations, lasted until 1805. None was made in 1798, 1799 or 1801.
    Many of these coins were made from the metal of other copper coins and tokens that were circulating at the time.
    In 1809, the Liberty head was shifted to face left, and a more robust figure replaced the earlier Miss Liberty. Her hairdo was accented with a ribbon with the word, "LIBERTY," on it. Thirteen stars were added to the design. The wreath was changed and the fraction removed. These are known as the "Classic Head" types. This style was minted from 1809 to 1836. None was minted from 1812 to 1824, and none in 1830.
    These coins are still available to collectors, because many were hoarded. In used condition, the more common dates catalogue for $35.
    The last run of half cents was minted from 1849 to 1857. The Liberty head was again modified; this is known as the "Coronet" type. Since many were hoarded, common-date, low-grade coins catalogue for $35 to $50. In higher grades, prices run well into the hundreds.
    It was evident by the mid-1800s that the price of copper was greater than the content of these coins, and in the last year of issue, only 35,180 were minted. Many of the last issue were hoarded.
    Many small businesses of the era still priced items in the 1/2-cent range, such as a pound of potatoes at 1-1/2 cents. The denomination was accepted for a few years later, but the Civil War period essentially ended the circulation of large cents, half cents, and most copper (and bronze coins, U.S. and foreign). Small bronze cents did not come into wide use until Reconstruction. Many tokens filled the gap of coin shortages in that period of our history.
    Several books have been written exclusively on the half-cent series. Authors include Walter Breen, Q. David Bowers, Roger Cohen and Ronald P. Manley.

    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.