From the September 2001 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:
Capped Bust Half Dollar Varieties: Why Are They So Popular?
By Mike Nourse
Nobody can say exactly why one series of coins is popular (such as the
Capped Bust halves) while another series is not nearly so heavily collected and
/ or written about (Capped Bust quarters for instance). I believe that the
reason for the popularity of these halves is twofold: they are abundant (read:
affordable) and the varieties are big and easy to see. Put away your stereo
microscopes and high magnification loupes! The vast majority of these varieties
can be identified with no magnification at all.
Nobody can say exactly why one series of coins is popular (such as the Capped Bust halves) while another series is not nearly so heavily collected and / or written about (Capped Bust quarters for instance). I believe that the reason for the popularity of these halves is twofold: they are abundant (read: affordable) and the varieties are big and easy to see. Put away your stereo microscopes and high magnification loupes! The vast majority of these varieties can be identified with no magnification at all.
I have mentioned before that the standard reference book for varieties of half dollars minted from 1794 through 1836 is Early Half Dollar Die Varieties by Al C. Overton. It shows a whopping 450 plus varieties for the capped bust half series alone, which runs from 1807 through 1836. Let’s look at some examples of these varieties to see what is out there.
Right near the beginning, in 1809, some experimentation was going on with the edge of the coin. The whole capped bust series has a lettered edge stating “fifty cents or half a dollar”, but in 1809 the mint engravers decided to try putting a series of IIIII’s between the words on one variety, and XXXXX’s between the words on another. The edge lettering, along with the I’s and X’s is kind of small because these are not particularly thick coins, but it is all reasonably easy to see without any magnification. You should be able to acquire one coin with the normal lettered edge, one with the I’s and one with the X’s for under $200 for the group of three in Fine condition. In what other US series can you get a group of coins with edge varieties for that kind of price? These are almost 200 years old now!
Overdates? We got ‘em! And these are nice, clear overdates, unlike the recently popularized 1914/3 buffalo nickel which must be viewed under a powerful microscope, with a purple light shining on it, on the third Thursday of the month during which Mars is in the constellation Capricorn, to have any chance at all of seeing the overdate. No, you can see these overdates any day of the week with no magnification needed. Some examples are the 1811/0, the 1814/3, the 1820/19, the 1827/6, all of which are valued under $100 each in Fine condition.
And, if you like overdates, there are some other over-stampings that may interest you. One that is particularly fascinating (and easily visible) is the 1813 coin with the 50c punched over UNI at the bottom of the reverse. There are also over-letters to go with the overdates. One example was produced the following year, 1814, when the word STATES on the reverse was originally spelled STATAS, necessitating punching an E over that errant second A. The original A is still quite visible under the new E. Again, these are available for $100 or less in Fine condition.
There are other variations to look at in the date. Some nice examples occurred in both 1827 and 1828, in which one variety has a square base on the numeral two in the date, while the other variety has a much fancier curled base on the two. These are easy to tell apart even without having the two varieties sitting side by side to compare. You can get one coin with a square base 2 and one with a curled base 2 of either date for under $100 for the pair in Fine.
We also find different size number punches being used to put the date on the dies. Two good examples are the 1812 coins with either a large or a small 8 in the date and the 1830 with either a large or small 0 at the end of the date. These varieties are best owned as pairs because the difference in the size of the numbers is only obvious when the large and small varieties are side by side. Fear not, even if you have only one, you will have no trouble at all looking at a picture in a book to determine whether you have the large or small number. This compares favorably with a coin such as the 1970 Lincoln cent, which can be a bummer to determine if they have the large or small date. In this case, the 1812’s will run about $150 for the pair in Fine, while the 1830 duo will cost only a bit more than half that figure in the same condition.
Another example of size variation can be found on the reverse of the 1834 half dollars. The entire legend ‘United States of America’ around the edge comes in both small letters and large letters varieties. Again, the difference is very noticeable when you have one of each next to each other, but they are available in Fine for under $100 for the pair.
These are just a few of the clearly visible, no magnification necessary varieties that are available at an affordable price range that have made collecting capped bust half dollars by variety so popular. Granted, most of the 450 plus varieties out there are identified by relatively small variations in the placement of the stars and numbers on the obverse, and the lettering on the reverse, but they are still fun to collect and compare. They also make fantastic displays to show people the variations that inevitably occurred back when each die was produced individually by hand!
Questions, comments, or suggestions? Mail to: Mike@alaskacoinexchange.com