The enigmatic 1792 half disme has puzzled numismatists for more
than 220 years, but now — with your help — we are solving its mysteries.
At the recent American Numismatic Association convention near
Chicago, the authors presented findings from two years of intensive
research on the coinage of 1792, focusing on half dismes, the first
coin struck under the authority of the U.S. Constitution.
Since the 1830s, there has been controversy over when and where
the half dismes were struck. The records made in 1792 have since been
lost, but various sources, recorded years later, advanced two
One set of sources held the half dismes were stuck prior to
September of 1792, before the Mint was ready for operations, in the
cellar of a saw maker named John Harper, at the corner of North Sixth
and Cherry streets in Philadelphia. The second set of sources held
they were struck early in October 1792, at the Mint on North Seventh Street.
In 1966, numismatic scholar Don Taxay seemed to settle the “when
and where” questions when he found an entry in Thomas Jefferson’s
Memorandum Book that Jefferson had received, on July 13, 1792, “1,500
half dismes of the new coinage.” Sometimes, however, important
evidence is invisible because it lies in plain sight.
When the authors began examining the coinage of 1792, we decided
to systematically read all of the pertinent literature and closely
examine as many surviving half dismes as possible. Both of these
searches yielded important “plain sight” information that settles the
“when and where” debate. We found little-known written sources quoting
records made by the first chief coiner, Henry Voigt, stating that the
half dismes had been struck in the Mint on Oct. 9, 1792. Voigt’s
records are now lost, but were quoted in books such as James Ross
Snowden’s A Description of Ancient and Modern Coins in the
Cabinet Collection of the Mint of the United States and John S. Dye’s
Dye’s Coin Encyclopedia.
It seemed to us that both Jefferson in July, and Voigt in October,
had been in positions to know what the Mint was doing. Could it be
that, instead of being struck in July or October, the half dismes were
struck in July and October? Could it be that instead of being struck
on one occasion in one place, they were struck on two different
occasions, in two different places?
Then we thoroughly examined as many of the 250 surviving half
dismes as we could. All were struck from a single pair of dies; the
obverse die remained unchanged throughout the run, but the reverse die
We have identified four different reverse die states, with two
sub-states each of states 1 through 3, and a single state 4. Most of
the differences are subtle, but between die sub-states 2-A and 2-B,
something dramatic happened.
In die states 1-A, 1-B and 2-A, the fields are smooth. In die
state 2-B and afterwards, the fields are rough. This roughness is
caused by die rust, which cannot occur overnight.
It follows that the dies were first used to strike half dismes of
die states 1-A, 1-B and 2-A; put away for a period long enough for the
reverse die to rust; and then reused to strike coins of die states
2-B, 3-A, 3-B and 4 (in die state 4, much of the rust on the die was
obscured by polishing).
The different die states confirm the hypothesis we drew from the
literature: two different strikings of half dismes occurred, separated
by nearly three months’ time.
In order to maximize what we can learn from these coins, we are
asking for your help. If you own a 1792 half disme, we ask that you
share with us a description of your coin by grade and by appearance;
any information you have about its previous owners, or auctions in
which it has appeared; if the coin is certified, its certification
number, and the company that certified it. Please send this
information to: email@example.com. All
information shared will be held in complete confidence.
Although much has been learned about 1792 half dismes, much more
remains unknown, and even less is known about the other coins of 1792.
We look forward to publishing all of our findings as a book titled
1792: Birth of a Nation’s Coinage, under the banner of Heritage
Auctions, as soon as we unravel as many mysteries as we can. We
appreciate your help in completing our research.
Len Augsburger, Joel J. Orosz and Pete Smith are all longtime
numismatists and authors. Their Guest Commentary is based on their
Numismatic Theater program at the recent American Numismatic
Association World’s Fair of Money.