Don’t you just love a bargain? Don’t you love it even more when you can get beauty, history, artistry, variety and rarity at a low price? Yes, I do too and that is the subject of this article, an undiscovered and unloved coin series, U.S. Half Cents.
It was a few years ago, when I was slogging through the on-line auctions looking for bargains and something new to collect, that I discovered the Half Cent series. What an ideal set for collectors to assemble! The series starts shortly after the birth of our nation (1793) and continues to just prior to the start of the Civil War (1857) which almost divided our nation. What an historic period in our nation’s history!
The Old Coin Shop web site describes the half cent as follows:
"Although half cents were issued for more than 60 years, they remained America’s unwanted coins. They proved to be of little use, circulated grudgingly if at all, and were often kept in dead storage at the Mint waiting for infrequent orders from the infant nation’s banks. Production—sometimes for several years—was often interrupted by shortages of copper and lack of demand. This small denomination may have suffered from identification with the poorest classes: They were supposed to be its biggest users, at least according to Robert Morris, the Revolutionary War financier and one of the architects of the U. S. coinage system. Morris subscribed to the age-old but misguided view that smaller denominations brought lower prices, allowing the poor to purchase more with their money. Unfortunately, not only did the public have little use for half cents, but for generations, collectors also ignored the little copper coins. Only recently has a birth of interest been sparked, with the publication of new definitive works in the mid-1980s: American Half Cents, the "Little Half Sisters” by Roger Cohen and Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States Half Cents have attracted many new devotees to this long overlooked denomination.”
Benjamin Franklin was initially tasked with finding a design that depicted American Liberty. He was quite impressed with Augustin Dupre’s Libertas Americana Medal which depicted the spirit of Liberty as a young woman with streaming locks of hair flowing in the winds of freedom. Behind her head Dupre placed a pole supporting the pileus or ancient cap of liberty.
Franklin brought this design to David Rittenhouse, the first United States Mint Director, who chose it for the first half cent.
For a 64 year run of coins, this series is just packed with varieties. They obviously spent a great deal of time tinkering with the design in order to "get it right” and in so doing created a wonderland for future variety enthusiasts.
There were five "types” of half cents made during their sixty-four year history, with varieties as follows:
An examination of the reported mintages, according to the 2004 issue of A Guide Book of United States Coins by R. S. Yeoman, shows mintages ranging from a low of 1,390 for the 1796 issue to a high of 1,154,572 for the 1809 issue. The remainder of the mintages generally reside in the 50,000 range. This alone would make the coins of any other series incredibly rare! These mintage figures must be tempered, however, by knowledge of the 1857 Great Copper Melt in which literally millions of these unwanted and unloved gems met their demise in the melting pot, to be reborn as Small Cents. No one kept track of which dates and varieties of half cents were destroyed so no one yet knows the true survival rate of this low mintage series. It is safe to say, however, that this is a very scarce series for the date/variety collector.
As I search at coin shows for these dates/varieties, I frequently hear comments from the dealers that they do not stock these coins because, "Nobody collects them.” This was the action call for me to start a collection as the mintages were small, interest was minimal and the prices were reasonable. Since I have been asking for them at shows (4 years now) I have noticed that some dealers have put up signs indicating an interest in purchasing Half Cents (probably to sell to me).
Let’s compare the "key” date Half Cents with key dates from other series.
An examination of Table 2 shows what a bargain the Half Cent series is. Taking a look at the reported mintages alone tells us that some of these half cents are close to extinct but sell at a price (if you can find them) that almost anyone can afford! Owning a U.S. coin with a mintage of only 20,000 is beyond most collectors dreams, but in the above table we can see that this is, in fact, very possible for a mere $600. Imagine being able to buy a coin with a mintage 4.8 times less than the 1909 svdb Lincoln cent at a price of approximately $100 less than the 1909 svdb! Or a coin with a mintage almost 8 times less than the 1916d Mercury dime for only $40! Only in the Half Cent series folks! Where have the collectors been? The half cents are not hiding folks, I bid on at least a dozen every week on the on-line auctions! They are a screaming bargain!
Most Half Cents that you come across will have some problems, but that is ok for this series. As reported earlier in this article, half cents were unloved and unwanted and mostly resided in bank vaults. When the great copper melt began, where do you think that they got all those half cents to melt? That’s right, they cleaned out the bank vaults of all those Mint State half cents that had been sitting idle for years and melted them. The few that survived were lost in the dirt or sitting in someone’s canning jars in very worn condition. The few that survived in Mint State condition are generally offered between $1,000 and $3,000 with the later dates commanding between $500 and $1,000. This is a little rich for my blood, but not completely out of line for some folks.
When the rest of us think of owning a coin that has a reported mintage of 20,000 to 50,000 specimens, how choosey can we afford to be when it comes to condition? Most half cents that we collect for a date/variety set will show some slight porosity (found with a metal detector) or will be somewhat worn due to excessive handling from people using them to purchase goods. This is fine and a very nice set CAN be put together of circulated half cents. The key is patience!
SOURCES OF HALF CENTS
While not giving away ALL of my secrets, I think it is safe to say that the best place to find Half Cents is at the on-line auctions (at least for me it is). You may find them at the big coin shows, if you can afford to go to FUN or some other big shows, but I would rather spend my money on the coins themselves than on travel expenses and hotel rooms.
Dealers are also a good source. If you establish a good relationship with a reputable dealer, he can be on the lookout for these coins for you while he is on the road. Dealers always buy at the right price so they can often give you a deal.
Coin shops and flea markets have provided me with some nice specimens as I always visit these places when I am on vacation or visiting friends who live out of state. You never know what you will find when folks clean out their house and throw the odd coins in a "junk box.”
Lastly, don’t neglect your coin clubs whether on-line or local. Other collectors frequently have that odd half cent or two in their collections that they will happily sell or trade for something that they want.
If you want a series to collect that won’t break the bank and that will bring you pleasure for years, this is it. As Rodney Dangerfield would say, "Half Cents don’t get no respect.” There is no good reason that collectors should snub this series as it is as collectable as any other series, as I am quickly finding out. I will soon have completed a nearly 200 year old series on a retired person’s budget. When assembling YOUR collection of half cents, keep in mind that the total number of complete sets that can be assembled is limited only by the lowest mintage coin in the set. Since we do not know what dates of half cents survived the great copper melt and in what numbers all we can say is that the maximum number of sets possible must be based on mintage figures. You MUST put your set together while it is still possible to find them!