A challenge awaits anyone who wishes to acquire the type and variety
half dollar coins struck beteen 1794 and 1807, generally referred to
as "early half dollars.
The half dollar design became standard beginning in 1807 when the
early designs were replaced with the Capped Bust design that would
consistently be used on the denomination for more than 20 years.
The early half dollar types comprise the Flowing Hair; Draped Bust,
Small Eagle; and Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle. Many varieties of each
of these exist.
Silver coins did not appear until 1794, since U.S. Mint Chief Coiner
Henry Voigt and Assayer Albion Cox did not post the $10,000 surety
bonds required for handling gold and silver bullion.
During early 1794, Congress passed an act that reduced the surety
bond figure to a more affordable level. Local banks then began to
deposit silver at the new Mint for coining.
The Flowing Hair obverse design used in 1794 and 1795 was designed
by Mint Engraver Robert Scot, who produced a simplified replica of the
Liberty Head design being used on the obverse of the early large
cents. Scot's reverse design consisted of an eagle punch with
individual numeral, letter, star and leaf punches.
Several different Liberty Head and Eagle device punches were used,
which created varieties sought today by collectors. Die varieties are
important to many collectors collecting this series.
The Draped Bust obverse first struck in 1796 was designed by Scot
from a drawing of Mrs. William Bingham (nee Ann Willing) by Gilbert
Stuart. Bingham was a Philadelphia socialite who was said to be one of
the most beautiful women of her day.
The Small Eagle reverse type was designed by John Eckstein. The
wreath palm branches were meant to be a compliment to South Carolina,
the home state of Mint Director Henry W. DeSaussure, who left office
before the design was struck.
There is debate regarding the order in which some dies were used,
since two obverse dies dated 1796 have 15 and 16 stars, respectively,
yet are known muled with a reverse used in 1797. The shift to 16 stars
should have come when Tennessee entered the union in 1796.
It has been suggested that unrecorded prooflike presentation strikes
may have been made with this unusual mix of mules. Archive data is not
known on these coins.
No half dollar coins were struck after 1797 until 1801. In 1798 the
silver dollar adapted the Heraldic Eagle reverse designed by Scot
based on the Great Seal of the United States. This reverse was adapted
for the half dime and dime denominations in 1800. When production of
the half dollar resumed in 1801, the Heraldic Eagle reverse was used exclusively.
The eagle reverse punch did not include the stars, berries and end
of the stem, which were the cause of many varieties of the coins of
There are no known 1804 Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle half dollars,
although 1805/4 overdates exist. The only known 1804-dated half
dollars have all proved to be counterfeits or altered 1805/4 coins.
The mintage of half dollar coins was interrupted in the summer of
1807 as the Mint changed over to the new Capped Bust design for the denomination.
All early half dollar coins have mintage figures of less than 1
million pieces. The lowest mintage of the major varieties is 934
pieces of the 1796 Draped Bust, Small Eagle, 15 Stars half dollar.
The highest mintage of any of these coin types is 839,576 for the
1805 Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle half dollar. This mintage includes
all of its many varieties.
Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:
Cents and half cents:
2- and 3-cent coins:
Dimes and half dimes: