Seated Liberty/Arrows Half Dimes 1853-1855Coin Guide
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Seated Liberty/Arrows Half Dimes 1853-1855
When John Marshall discovered a few nuggets of gold on the American
River in northern California in 1848 no one could have predicted just how
much precious metal lay waiting to be found and how widespread the effects
of his discovery really would be. But gold soon flooded the monetary
markets of the world, and this overabundance of the metal caused its price
to fall, which in turn had the effect of raising the price of silver as
reckoned in gold dollars. As the price of silver rose relative to gold,
the intrinsic value of United States silver coins increased above their
face value. Soon, U.S. silver coins were melted when found, and by 1851
they were no longer found.
This lack of fractional silver coinage created chaos among merchants
and bankers who were forced to make change with silver three-cent pieces,
heavily worn dimes and half dimes and the ubiquitous Spanish silver
pieces. As the voice of the people, Congress quickly responded to the
complaints of the merchant class, and bills were introduced and fiercely
debated for two years before action was finally taken to solve the
Many in Congress were genuinely concerned about debasement of the
country's silver coinage, the solution most commonly suggested to remedy
the situation. The idea of a fiduciary coinage was a new concept at the
time, and it was several decades until most Congressmen were comfortable
with the idea that a coin need not contain a full measure of precious
metal to be a valid circulating medium. In the 1850s many inside and
outside of Congress considered the idea of fiduciary coinage to be
basically dishonest. Perhaps the most ill-informed opponent of fiduciary
coinage was future President Andrew Johnson, who called the bill
introduced to reduce the silver content of the half dime, dime, quarter
and half dollar "the merest quackery" and
"charlatanism." However, after two years of postponements and
three consecutive days of debate, the bill authorizing a weight reduction
of 6.9% in these silver coins was signed into law February 21, 1853.
Much depended on the new coins entering the channels of commerce as
quickly as possible. Officials agreed that the new, lower weight coins
should have some distinctive design or mark that would enable the general
populace to easily distinguish them from the earlier coinage that
contained a greater amount of silver. Even Congress recognized the need
for the new coins to have a modified design, and the following month a law
was passed that authorized the Mint to temporarily employ such artists as
would be needed to alter the dies for the coins affected.
But Chief Engraver James B. Longacre knew that the press of time would
not allow any drastic redesigning or the hiring and training of outside
artisans. All there was time to do was hand punch arrowheads on either
side of the date and add a "glory" of rays on the reverse dies
of the quarter and half dollar. Longacre added arrows to 78 new obverse
dies for 1853 half dimes, eighteen for the New Orleans Mint and just two
for San Francisco. The San Francisco dies were shipped there just in case
they could be used, but the branch mint failed to begin coining operations
until the next year.
More than 13 million Arrows half dimes were struck in Philadelphia in
1853, more than half the total output of 25,060,020 for the three years
that arrows were used. Only Philadelphia and New Orleans produced this
subtype, and the New Orleans pieces are significantly scarcer than their
Philadelphia counterparts. Proofs were struck in all three years but are
of the utmost rarity.
Arrows half dimes are easily collected in all but the highest grades.
There are no real "stoppers" in the three-year set, but the New
Orleans coins are considerably more elusive and expensive than those from
the Philadelphia Mint. For decades coin dealers would not stock low grade
Arrows half dimes because they were considered so common. This disdain
carried over to higher grade coins as well, and it has only been in recent
years that type collectors have elevated this series to respectability due
to the need for gem coins for type sets.
As one might expect, the wholesale removal of all pre-1853 silver coins
did create several rarities, and in the half dime series the 1853-O No
Arrows issue is a significant rarity that has sometimes been counterfeited
by altering an 1858-O coin. The italic numeral 5 typical of the 1853
logotype makes this alteration an easy one to detect.
In 1856, after three years with arrows on either side of the date, the
half dime was returned to its pre-1853 design. The weight reduction
effected in 1853 was continued, and this coin type remained unchanged
With only this minor change in design, the grading parameters for
Arrows half dimes remain the same as for the earlier issues. On the
obverse, check the high points of the breast and knee for wear; on the
reverse, the ribbon bow and tips of the leaves.
The Mint Act of 1853 achieved what Congress and the Mint set out to do;
it reduced the amount of silver in the subsidiary coinage to a level where
it was not profitable to melt, hoard or export these denominations, and
small change circulated once again. The Act also established a fiduciary
coinage in the United States for the first time. However, the profit the
Mint made on the production of these coins (or seignorage as it is known)
was minimal, and rising silver prices through the remainder of the 1850s
made the Mint's profits less and less.
By the time of the Civil War, so little was made on the production of
silver coins that it looked as if melting and exporting would resume if
the silver price continued to climb. Hoarding did indeed occur, but not
because of rising silver prices. Rather, all silver coins were hoarded
during the Civil War simply because the coins had precious metal in them,
irrespective of the amount or its value. This is how great the public's
uncertainty was regarding the outcome of the War.
The issue of fiduciary coinage would be debated for the next century,
but it was the Arrows coinage of 1853-55 that fired the opening shot in
the controversy that was not fully resolved until all precious metal was
finally removed from circulating coinage in 1970.
Diameter: 15.5 millimeters Weight: 1.24 grams Composition: .900 silver,
.100 copper Edge: Reeded Net Weight: .035 ounce pure silver
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Blythe, Al, The Complete Guide to Liberty
Seated Half Dimes, DLRC Press, Virginia Beach, VA, 1992. Breen, Walter,
Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I.
Press/Doubleday, New York, 1988. Carothers, Neil, Fractional Money. A
History of the Small Coins and Fractional Paper Currencv of the United
States, John Wiley & Sons, London, 1930. Taxay, Don, The U.S. Mint and
Coinage, Arco Publishing, New York, 1966.
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC.