Capped Bust Half Dimes 1829-1837 Coin Guide
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Capped Bust Half Dimes 1829-1837
In the United States of 1829, people's living conditions varied widely.
The typical workingman made less than eighty cents for a day's work, and
at least 75,000 Americans were languishing in debtors' prisons-most of
them for debts of less than twenty dollars. Meanwhile, in Boston the newly
opened Tremont Hotel, said to be the nation's first modern hostelry,
offered guests a private room with a key, four square meals and a free
cake of soap-all for the modest sum of two dollars a day. But rich or
poor, at least no one had to long wistfully for a good five-cent cigar.
Five cents would have bought several good cigars in that long-ago year.
People buying five cents' worth of any item in 1829 could have given
merchants exact change for their purchases in a number of different ways.
Large copper cents and half cents, for example, both saw regular use in
everyday commerce. The "nickel," however, did not yet come into
being; it would not be issued until 1866. Prior to that, the only
five-cent coin was a small silver piece known as the half dime. Unlike the
present-day nickel, it contained very close to five cents' worth of metal,
for at that time Americans insisted on coinage with high intrinsic value.
The half dime was one of the very first coins produced by the United
States Mint. Workmen employed by the Mint struck 1,500 half dismes in a
Philadelphia cellar on July 13, 1792, before the federal government had
even acquired the site for the nation's first mint building. Part of the
silver bullion used to make these coins reportedly consisted of tableware
provided by President George Washington himself. These coins were official
Mint issues, even though they're categorized as pattern or provisional
The Philadelphia Mint struck its first regular-issue half dimes in
1794; they featured the so-called Flowing Hair portrait of Liberty. A
Draped Bust portrait replaced this design in 1796 and remained in
production through 1805-first in combination with the Small Eagle reverse
and then, from 1800 onward, with the Heraldic Eagle.
At that point, however, the half dime made an unexplained exit from the
nation's coinage lineup, not to reappear for more than two decades. The
late Walter Breen, a renowned numismatic scholar, theorized that banks may
have preferred the more readily available Mexican half-real coin, worth
one-sixteenth of a dollar, which circulated side by side with U.S. federal
coins and, like them, had legal-tender status.
Not until 1829, the year of Andrew Jackson's arrival at the White
House, did the half dime finally emerge from hibernation. When it did, the
coin had a different look. For one thing it was slightly smaller in
diameter (although its weight was the same). More noticeably, it had
undergone a face lift: The Draped Bust design was gone, and in its place
was a left-facing portrait of Liberty with curly hair tucked inside a
mobcap (a cap with a high, puffy crown)-a likeness sometimes called the
Turban Head but more commonly referred to as the Capped Bust. Gone, as
well, was the old Heraldic Eagle; instead, the reverse depicted a
naturalistic eagle with a shield superimposed on its breast.
These were not entirely new designs: Portraits very much like them had
graced some of the nation's larger silver coins (the half dollar, quarter
and dime) as far back as 1807, when the basic designs were fashioned by
German-born Mint engraver John Reich. They were new to the half dime,
though-and in any case William Kneass, the Mint's chief engraver in 1829,
had modified Reich's portraits sufficiently to be credited as designer of
the later Capped Bust issues.
Thirteen stars encircle the portrait of Liberty, and the date appears
below her. On the reverse, E PLURIBUS UNUM is inscribed on a ribbon just
above the eagle, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA hugs the upper rim and the
statement of value is shown below the eagle as 5 C.
The Capped Bust half dime's lifespan coincided almost exactly with
Andrew Jackson's tenure in the White House. It was issued annually from
1829 through 1837-the year "Old Hickory" returned to Tennessee
after finishing two terms as the nation's seventh president. Production
took place entirely at the Philadelphia Mint; the first branch mints
didn't start issuing coins until 1838, by which time the Capped Bust half
dime had been replaced by the Seated Liberty type (both types having been
struck in 1837).
By the standards of the time, mintage levels were relatively high
throughout the series' brief life. Annual output fell below a million
pieces in only two of the nine different years in which the coin was made;
on both of those occasions it didn't miss the million mark by much.
Mintages ranged from a high of 2.76 million in 1835 to a low of 871,000 in
1837 and totaled just over 13 million for the series' entire run.
There are a number of interesting die varieties, but only one of
them-an 1837 with a small "5 C."- commands a significant
premium. The "5 C." exists in large and small varieties not only
for 1837 but also for 1835 and 1836, and the 1835 half dimes come with
large and small dates, as well as combinations of date and denomination
sizes. These varieties were cataloged by Daniel Valentine in his 1931
monograph, which remained the standard reference until a new book by
Russell Logan and John McCloskey was published more than sixty years
Walter Breen reported that very small numbers of proofs are known for
some dates, as many as 20 or more in 1829 and 1831. The Mint wasn't
selling proof coins routinely at the time, so these were most likely
presentation pieces or coins struck to order for the few
"insider" collectors of the day.
Capped Bust half dimes are relatively plentiful in grade levels up to
Mint State-64 and fairly abundant even in MS-65. The supply drops off
sharply, however, in grades of MS-66 and above. Points to check for wear
include the drapery at the tip of Liberty's bust, the hair above her eye
and the edges of the eagle's wings.
Given the brevity of the series and the absence of any major rarities,
collectors would face no formidable obstacles in putting together a
complete date set of Capped Bust half dimes. In practice, however, many
are content to treat it as a type coin and acquire just a single
high-grade piece to represent the series as a whole.
Diameter: approximately 15.5 millimeters Weight: 1.35 grams
Composition: .8924 silver, .1076 copper Edge: Reeded Net Weight: .03873
ounce pure silver
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Complete
Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I. Press/Doubleday, New York,
1988. Morris, Richard B., Encyclopedia of American History, 5th Edition,
Harper & Row, New York, 1976. Taxay, Don, The U.S. Mint and Coinage,
Arco Publishing Co., New York, 1966. Valentine, Daniel W., The United
States Half Dimes, Quarterman Publications, Inc., Lawrence, MA, 1975.
Yeoman, R.S., A Guide Book of United States Coins, 47th Edition, Western
Publishing Co., Racine, WI, 1993.
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC.