The diminutive half dime was one of the original ten denominations authorized in the original Mint Act of 1792, and along with half dollars and dollars was a part of the first silver coin issue in 1794. In fact, some numismatists today feel that the 1792 “half disme” was the first circulating coin struck by the United States, though the Guidebook of United States Coins (aka the Redbook) continues to list them in their “Contract Issues and Patterns” section. Whatever your feelings on the matter, it cannot be denied that the half dime is one of the most historic denominations struck by the United States.
Coinage of half dimes, while having had an early start, was sporadic in the early years, and none were made between 1805 and 1829. Once production was resumed in 1829, they were struck continually through the end of production in 1873. Designs mirrored the larger denominations, with the Seated Liberty design following the Capped Bust design in 1837.
The fate of the half dime was sealed during the Civil War when the hoarding of gold and silver resulted in nearly all these coins vanishing from circulation and their replacement with bronze and copper-nickel coinage. Mintages after 1862 were generally low, often a mere fraction of their five-cent nickel counterparts.
Comments from a Half Dime Collector — Dr. W. E. Cladwell
It is appropriate to close my discussion of half dimes with some remarks made by a connoisseur of the series, Dr. W.E. Caldwell of Baldwyn, Mississippi. In November 1973 I had the pleasure of cataloguing his outstanding collection and presenting it for auction sale. In connection with this, Dr. Caldwell sent a few paragraphs concerning his coins and the enthusiasm with which he collected them. I quote from his notes:
"It has been a pleasure to collect the half dimes which you will be selling in your November auction. My collecting of this series began quite by accident. I was convalescing from a heart attack when my maid brought in some old coins to see if they were valuable. I laid my paintbrushes (my hobby to this point) aside, thank goodness, and borrowed a friend's Guide Book of United States Coins.
"I evaluated the small group of miscellaneous coins and bought them. Among these pieces was a well-worn 1837 Liberty Seated half dime which had been holed and plugged. This tiny coin brought back memories of an elderly uncle who gave me a nickel for the local Saturday Opera House movies each week when I was a child. I remember that many of these 'nickels' were half dimes. Why not collect half dimes and see how many different dates I could find? An interesting ideal
"Soon I was off and running – buying half dimes wherever I could find them. One can 'buy in haste and repent in leisure,' and after a few months of fast spending I was many dollars wiser! I found it was desirable to buy from reputable dealers, large auction houses, and at major conventions. It seemed that by this method I could be more sure of getting a quality coin even though a premium price might be required. The ‘you get what you pay for’ adage is certainly true, and I found this out!
"My collection begins with a 1792 half disme, a coin which certainly is one of the most romantic issues in American numismatics. At one time I had a specimen of each and every half dime variety from 1792 to 1873, but later I traded or sold some of the very worn pieces in the hope that I would be able to get top grade pieces later. It turned out that I was able to do this in some instances but not in others. It is very, very difficult to obtain true Uncirculated examples of the 1794-1805 years, and had this been an absolute requirement there would have been many dates which I would never have acquired. I feel that all Uncirculated half dimes of this era are grossly undervalued, and that examples in grades close to this grade are of extreme rarity in many instances.
"Among the 1829-1837 Capped Bust half dimes you might find it interesting to know that the 1836 Small 5c and the 1837 Small 5c varieties are much, much rarer in Uncirculated grades than catalogues indicate. The1838-O of the Liberty Seated without-stars type is also very undervalued. The specimen that you will be auctioning is the finest I have been able to buy in five years of searching. [Note: I graded the coin AU in the catalogue.]
"Among later Liberty Seated half dimes there are many rarities, particularly in the New Orleans pieces. Many if not most New Orleans half dimes are very weakly struck on the reverse, and to find a sharp strike, if indeed this is possible at all, many specimens must be examined. The most underrated seem to be the 1840-O without drapery, the 1842-O, and the 1844-O. The 1846 Philadelphia Mint half dime is exceedingly rare in higher grades. Another sleeper is the 1848 Large Date in mint condition. Major rarities are 1849-O, 1852-O, and 1853-O without arrows in better grades.
"A very interesting issue is the 1858. You will note that I purchased several examples of this date in order to study them. There is the 'regular' date, the inverted date, and the doubled date-and I suspect that some of these may be different states of the same original die.
"The 1859 transitional issue with the reverse of 1860 must rate as one of the most important of all American coin rarities. During the period I formed my collection, the present specimen, the one you will be auctioning, is the only one I was able to buy, and no others were offered for sale in price lists or auctions.
"Finally, the 1869-S is an overlooked regular issue. I was only able to find a few Uncirculated pieces offered for sale, despite the fact that the catalogues treat this as a 'common date.'
"All pattern half dimes are scarce, and most are rare. The 1794 copper half dime has been the highlight of my patterns.
"I can close my eyes and see all of the half dimes in my collection. I hope that the successful bidders on the individual lots will experience the same pleasure I did from these beautiful pieces. While a monetary profit will undoubtedly be realized on the collection, I have profited in what is perhaps an even better way: five years of enjoyable collecting."