Draped Bust Half Cents 1800-1808 Coin Guide
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The half cent was America's unwanted coin from its introduction in 1793
until its official demise in 1857. Over this 60-year span, few of the
coins circulated freely, and then mainly in the larger cities of the
rapidly expanding nation. Coin collectors long neglected the denomination.
Little sought and studied even less, the coins were aptly characterized by
numismatist Dr. Warren A. Lapp as the stepchildren of U.S. coinage, the
"little half sisters."
First issued in 1793 with the Flowing Hair design, they were replaced
the following year by Engraver Robert Scot's Liberty Cap motif. They went
through design, weight and edge-marking changes much like those of
contemporary cents. The last Liberty Cap and Pole half cents bore the date
1797 but were probably struck through 1799.
Half Cents dated 1800 were the first to bear Scot's Draped Bust design.
This amply proportioned Liberty was based on a drawing by the great artist
Gilbert Stuart and portrayed a ranking Philadelphia society leader and
beauty, Mrs. William Bingham. Stuart, perhaps the most famous American
portrait painter of his time, finished his sketch in 1795. Determined to
eliminate the existing Flowing Hair designs, Mint Director Henry William
DeSaussure promptly ordered John Eckstein to make bas-relief models from
Stuart's drawing. In Eckstein's hands, what started out as a beauty
emerged as a distinctly dowdy matron. The new Liberty appeared on the 1795
dollar and on minor silver coins and large cents in 1796.
Typically, it was placed on the half cents last in 1800, with Liberty
above and the date below. The new coins of 1800 continued the existing
reverse already in use, and plain edges were standard for the design. The
laurel wreath is a close copy of that appearing on 1797 cents, showing 16
leaves on the left branch and 19 on the right. Branches and leaves were
impressed into the dies with a single, prepared punch, with berries and
stem ends added by hand. Sometimes the stems were accidentally omitted by
overworked Mint coiners. With UNITED STATES OF AMERICA at the border, HALF
CENT at center and fraction 1/200 below, the design was complete.
Like the large cents, Draped Bust half cents boast many minor
varieties. The general collector following popular guide books will be
satisfied with the major "naked eye'' varieties. Coins of 1800 are
uncomplicated, though about 10% were struck on stock made from cut-down
large cents rolled out by the Mint's horse-powered mill, with the balance
made from England's Boulton and Watt Company planchets. Demand for this
denomination was light, and no half cents were struck dated 1801.
Between 14,000 and 20,000 coins were struck after the 1800 obverse die
was overdated to 1802 and combined with two different reverse dies. A very
small number show the 1797 reverse with its single leaves at top. A far
larger number show one leaf at left top, two at right. All 1802/0 half
cents were struck from rolled-down, spoiled cents.
The coins of 1803 show minor varieties of the fraction. 1804 is a far
busier date with either plain or crosslet 4's in the date and reverses
with or without stem ends. The infant U.S. Mint was still suffering from a
crippling shortage of high quality die steel, and half cents dated 1804
continued to be struck through 1806. Many of these backdated coins display
the boldly visible "Spiked Chin" with its sharp projections into
the field from chin and lips, the result of damage to the die. Half cents
of 1805 include the medium 5 obverse combined with a stemless reverse and
large or small 5 obverses with stems. Coins of 1806 show a small 6 with or
without stems and a large 6 with stems only. Just one variety exists for
1807, distinguished by a very tall 7 apparently intended for cent coinage.
In April, 1807, German-born John Reich joined the Mint staff after
escaping from indentured service with the generous aid of a Mint official.
He began work at once on wholly new designs for several denominations, but
the Scot Draped Bust half cent was inexplicably continued, with three
varieties dated 1808. Some 400,000 were struck, although there were
167,000 half cents already sitting idly in storage. Coinage of this final
date began with a bold 1808/7 overdate. Later coins were struck from a die
in storage bearing only the digits 180 and to which the final 8 was added
by overlapping two small 'o' punches to create the Tall 8 variety.
The hard-driving Reich worked his way around to half cents late in
1808, and his Classic Head made its first appearance on the denomination
in 1809. By then a total of 3,416,950 Draped Bust half cents had been
struck, all at the Philadelphia Mint. No proofs or presentation strikes
All dates of the Draped Bust series are rare in full, mint red. Type
collectors will most often find spotty, red examples of the 1800 and 1806
issues. Hoards surfaced of these two dates, the 1800s from one found in
Boston in the 1930s and the 1806s from dealer Henry Chapman's discovery
around 1906. Generally the most attractive pieces available today display
an even, glossy brown. Striking quality varies with die states, and dies
were often used far beyond their prime. Many surviving coins show varying
degrees of wear, and both mechanical damage and active corrosion readily
attack the soft copper. Wear first appears on the hair behind Liberty's
ear and on the drapery at her shoulder. On the reverse, check the leaves
near the S and the second T in STATES.
While large cents were heavily researched even in the 19th century, the
number of meaningful studies of half cents can be counted on the fingers
of one hand. The slow development of collector interest is mirrored by the
long years of service seen by Ebenezer Gilbert's 1916 handbook, The United
States Half Cents. Only in 1971 did a modern work appear, Roger S. Cohen's
American Half Cents, the Little Half Sisters. Walter Breen published his
Encyclopedia of U.S. Half Cents in 1983, the most thorough treatment of
this long-neglected series to date.
One positive result of this neglect is that Draped Bust half cents are
comparatively undervalued today, an interesting contrast to large cents or
early silver coins of the same era. The coins provide a window through
which today's collector can catch a glimpse of the country's exciting
years of early growth and development.
Diameter: 23.5 millimeters Weight: 5.44 grams Composition: Copper Edge:
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Alexander, David T., DeLorey, Thomas K.
and Reed, P. Bradley, Coin World Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of
United States Coins, World Almanac-Pharos Books, New York, 1990. Breen,
Walter, Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins,
F.C.I. Press/Doubleday, New York, 1988. Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's
Encyclopedia of United States Half Cents 1793-1857, American Institute of
Numismatic Research, South Gate, CA, 1983. Cohen, Roger S. Jr., American
Half Cents, the "Little Half Sisters," 2nd Edition, Wigglesworth
& Ghatt, Arlington, VA, 1982. Taxay, Don, The U.S. Mint and Coinage,
Arco Publishing Co., New York, 1966.
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC.