Half Dimes

Half Dime Coinage History

Authorized by the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, the half dime was the smallest silver denomination among the values specified. Construction of a mint was planned in Philadelphia (the nation’s capital at the time), but in the meantime, in July 1792, 1,500 silver half dimes (called half dismes) were struck on the premises of John Harper, where certain equipment for the new Mint was being stored.

The Philadelphia Mint went into operation in the autumn of 1792 and produced pattern coins. In March 1793 the first coins made there for circulation—copper cents—were released. No silver coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint until autumn 1794 when dies were made for the first silver coins: the half dime, half dollar, and dollar. Half dimes dated 1794 and 1795 were made with the Flowing Hair design—Miss Liberty with tresses streaming behind her head. On the reverse was an eagle enclosed in an olive wreath.

The next half dimes were struck in 1796 and 1797 and were of a new Draped Bust design, said to be by artist Gilbert Stuart. The eagle on the reverse had been modified and made larger. In 1796 the half dimes had 15 stars on the obverse. It was planned that a star would be added for each state joining the Union, so 1797 half dimes had 16 stars, as Tennessee became a state in June of that year. Later in the same year it was realized that this would be impractical as the Union expanded. The standard reverted to 13 stars representing the original colonies as used ever afterward.

Half dime coinage was suspended after 1797, after which none were made until 1800 when the Draped Bust obverse was continued with a new Heraldic Eagle reverse, a design based on the Great Seal of the United States. Mintages were small from 1800 until 1805 and several dates became rarities, with the 1802 particularly famous as such.

After 1805 half dimes were not minted until years later on July 4, 1829, the occasion being the laying of the cornerstone for the new or second Philadelphia Mint. Accounts record that Mint employees began to strike these coins in the wee hours of the morning so they would be ready when dignitaries arrived. The Capped Bust design was used, and this motif was continued until 1837, when the era of early coinage from hand-made dies gave way to mechanical production.