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Introduction to U.S. Half Cents
The copper half cents are the smallest denomination U.S. coin ever struck for general circulation by the United States Mint. The first half cents were struck in the summer of 1793. Initially, the Mint production was excessive as it was believed by officials that the coin would be very popular. Actual demand was not as great as expected, and in 1795 production fell off. Though never very popular with the general public, half cents were minted up until 1857.
The denomination of half cent minted from 1793 to 1857 is broken down into four basic design types:
- Liberty Cap
- Draped Bust
- Classic Head
- Braided Hair
About the Four Design Types
The Liberty Cap was the first design and was minted from 1793 to 1797. In 1800 the design was changed to the Draped Bust design, which was produced until 1808. Starting in 1809, the Classic Head design was initiated and lasted until 1836.
The War of 1812 is one of the significant reasons the half cent was not struck between 1812 and 1824. The planchets’ copper blanks were supplied by the British company Boulton & Watt. During the war years of 1812 to 1815, all legal commerce ceased between the United States and Great Britain, resulting in no planchets being available for striking.
The final design of the denomination was called the Braided Hair half cent, which lasted from 1840 to 1857. The demand for the small denomination coin had diminished so much so that the Mint finally discontinued production of the half cent coin in 1857.
Classic Head Half Cents (1809 to 1836)
The term “Classic Head” refers to the design with Miss Liberty on the obverse (front) of the coin. A design similar to this was used on other denominations of coins during that time period. Mintage for this series began in 1809 and ended in 1836. In 1831 the dies were modified slightly, and the resulting coins had a raised rim. In 1831, the production of proof half cents began. Proof coins are made with highly polished dies and special attention is made to their striking to give a high quality coin. Proof coins are made by the Mint primarily for sale to coin collectors.
The first three years of production (1809 to 1811) of the Classic Head typically have areas of the coin that exhibit light or incomplete striking. It is common to see higher grade examples, Extremely Fine (EF) or better, that have areas where the design is missing or faint and the rest of the coin is sharp and full of detail. For details on coin grading, see the American Numismatic Association coin grading guide (see Reference section below). The inconsistencies in strike for these early coins should be considered during the grading process.
By 1825 the minting process had improved to the point where the coins produced were of higher quality than the earlier coins in the series. Coins dating after 1825 aren’t typically found with faint areas resulting from a poor strike.
The quantities of these coins produced (minted) are extremely small compared to modern coins. The 1809 half cent had the highest mintage of the Classic Head series with only 1,154,572 produced. In comparison, the 2019 Lincoln cent struck in Philadelphia had a mintage of over 3.5 billion! It is estimated that only one in ten of these original half cents survive today, making any half cent a scarce coin.
The half cent was not minted from 1812 to 1824 due to a shortage of copper blanks (planchets) from Great Britain. Between 1825 and 1829, regular production of the half cent was continued, with mintages as low as 63,000 in 1825 and up to 606,000 minted in 1828. From 1832 until 1835, the mint resumed production of the coin for general circulation. 1836 was the final year of mintage for the Classic Head design. In 1840, the Mint resumed production of half cents with the “Braided Hair” design.
This short run series of coins has its share of die varieties—which are minor design changes. Three dates have easily recognized die varieties, these are: 1809 has three minor variations to the date, 1811 has a wide and narrow date variety, and the 1828 comes with both 12 and 13 stars on the obverse. None of these varieties are rare and don’t command a significant premium over the more common varieties.
The Rare 1831 Half Cent
The great rarity of the series is the 1831 with only 2,200 minted. Starting in 1831, new coinage equipment and modified dies produced coins with a raised rim. Proof coins and restrikes (coins made after their year of issue) were made at the Mint for selling to collectors. Due to the low mintage, any genuine 1831 half cent will cost thousands of dollars.
What Price Should You Pay?
Common date examples of the Classic Head half cent can be purchased for around $60.00 in Good (G) condition; in Extremely Fine (EF) condition they cost around $110; and in uncirculated condition (MS60BN) they sell for $300 or more. With any coin, you want to be careful to avoid heavily cleaned coins. Typically, early half cents are rarely seen with natural bright red mint luster. Copper tarnishes over the years, and any early half cent that is bright copper color has probably been re-colored by a chemical process—avoid these coins unless they are professionally graded by a reputable coin dealer. For coins that are uncirculated (MS60 or higher), it is wise to buy coins that have been professionally graded and encapsulated by either: PCGS, NGC, ANACS, or ICG.
A good source of current pricing information on half cents can be found in A Guide Book of United States Coins published by Whitman Publishing, LLC—usually called the “Red Book” by collectors. Since the price of half cents are slow to change, this book gives a good idea of prices you will have to pay from a dealer. The book also provides pictures of some of the more common varieties. In general, half cents are not common coins and if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. There are few bargains for properly graded and problem free half cents.
Half Cents as an Investment
Since it is easy to tie up several hundred or thousand dollars into a collection of half cents, it is helpful to know how your collection might fare as an investment. To get an idea of the potential these coins have for price appreciation, take the retail price of an 1810 half cent in Good condition in 1961, which was $5.00, and by 2021 the price had increased to $70. In the case of the same 1810 half cent in uncirculated condition, in 1961 it was $85 and by 2021 the price had increased to $2,000.
Generally, the value of old coins increases with time due to inflation of the money supply and the decreasing number of old coins available on the coin market. Coins don’t always go up in value, but over many years they tend to maintain or increase in value.
Specifications – Designer John Reich, weight: 5.44 grams, composition: copper, diameter: 23.5 mm, and plain edge.
- Bressett, Kenneth (editor). Official ANA Grading Standards for United States Coins (Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins). Whitman Publishing, 2013.
- Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. New York: F.C.I Press, Inc., 1988.
- Garrett, Jeff (Senior Editor) A Guide Book of United States Coins R.S. Yeoman. 73rd Edition. Pelham: Whitman Publishing, LLC, 2019.
- Yeoman, R.S. 1961 A Guide Book of United States Coins. Racine: Whitman Publishing Company, 1960.