From the July 2001 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:
Only Made 8 Million Of These?
In modern times, where mintages of regular issue circulating coins are usually in the hundreds of millions, if not over one billion, we have to look way in the past to find mintage numbers of only eight million. But wait, I am not focusing on a single issue that had a mintage of only eight million, I am looking at an entire denomination, the United States half cents.
Half cents were minted during a span of 65 years from the beginning of the mint in 1793 through 1857 when they were discontinued in the same legislation that outlawed the circulation of foreign coinage. With the elimination of bits (12 ˝ cents) from our monetary system there was no longer a need for the half cent. They did not get used in commerce very much anyway and were not terribly popular with the public. Due to this low demand there was not a great need to produce the half cents in huge quantities. In fact, every time the mint tried cranking out a large number of half cents, they ended up with a great oversupply that took years to get rid of. Hence, there were a number of years with no production at all while the previously minted stock was used up.
We know that in 20th century terms, eight million coins produced for circulation over the course of 65 years is miniscule, but how did it stack up back in those days? The closest comparison would be the other copper coin of the day, the large cent. Over that same 65 year span, there were a whopping 155 million large cents made, or 19 times as many as half cents. The public just did not have as much use for the half cents. A number of half cents even went to the melting pot so that their copper could be used to mint the large cents.
There are five major designs for half cents. The flowing hair design of 1793 saw only 35 thousand pieces made, the liberty cap design of 1794 through 1797 saw only ten times that quantity, 350 thousand. Increasing again by ten times to 3.5 million gives the approximate mintage of draped bust half cents of 1800 to 1808, and, coincidentally, the same 3.5 million number is used again for the classic head design from 1809 through 1836. Production then dropped to 545 thousand for the braided hair design from 1840 to 1857.
For the ultimate in rarity, look no further than the Proof half cents with a grand total of 1,259 pieces produced. This consists of a lonely 192 classic heads along with 1,067 braided hair coins. This is a land in which original mintages are generally stated with two digit numbers and survivors can fit in one hand. Hmmm, sounds like something to explore in a future article…
How best to collect half cents? Realistically, a five piece type set is the only method available to the average collector. A one a year set is a reasonable goal for the 1800 through 1857 years (ignoring the proof only years), but the very rare 1796 will require a high four digit outlay keeping it out of the reach of most of us. Even the five piece type set will empty the average wallet, primarily because the 1793 flowing hair half cent commands $1425 or thereabouts in Good condition. The other four types are much more reasonable although the liberty cap design is by no means cheap. If you just want a half cent, any half cent, $30 will get you a specimen in Good, although $45 for a Fine is a better value in my opinion.
We all know that just under eight million half cents were produced, but we do not know how many are still here in the 21st century. Of course, most of them are gone, but I would not be surprised if three percent (250,000 pieces) are still around today. However, if that number is somewhat accurate, I would say that 100,000 of them have been truly thrashed via bending, holing, buffing, wire wheel, turned into jewelry at one time, etc. An additional 100,000 would have taken a milder beating, mostly in the form of heavy dings or a cleaning. I really doubt that any more than 50,000 coins remain in nice uncleaned, undamaged condition. Even the Proofs, which were supposed to be well cared for by knowledgeable numismatists, probably do not number more than 500 by now after eliminating cleaned specimens. And I think that even these numbers may be overly optimistic.
If there are not that many remaining, how can they be available for only around $30? Simple. Demand is quite limited because half cents do not show up at the top of the popularity list. They are heavily overshadowed by the large cent, which is much more readily available, generally less expensive, has more interesting varieties, and has had more books written about it. Also, a truly complete set is not realistic since a number of the dates are super rare Proof only issues, which require horrendous amounts of cash to acquire on the infrequent occasions that one becomes available for sale. Even type set collectors seem to put off the half cents until last, preferring to focus first on the higher denominations.
Are half cents a good investment? Probably they are, but you are not likely to get rich quick with them. The key is to only acquire those few uncleaned, untampered with pieces. It is not unusual that when you look through a dealer’s inventory you will find many pieces that have seen some form of abuse over the years along with very few original pieces. The original ones cost more of course, but these are the ones that will increase in value and always be very easy to sell for a fair price. In my 27 years of buying and selling coins, I doubt that I have ever had more than twenty five or so half cents at any one time, and never more than one Proof at a time.
So, here is a coin that saw limited original production, has low survivorship, is over 140 years old, and is an odd denomination. Consider picking up a few original pieces along the way. You will find that it is not as easy as you may think to find them!
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