US Coins

Hegemony of early halfpence in Colonial America

Colonial America column from Nov. 23, 2015, issue of Coin World:

Halfpence were everywhere in Colonial America, representing the staple coin for small-scale transactions throughout the 18th century.

Generically, they were termed “coppers,” a catchall term that included all sorts of small copper coins of foreign origin, homegrown types, and assorted tokens made both in America and abroad. Phillip Mossman’s library centerpiece Money of the American Colonies and Confederation includes a reference to a newspaper article dated July 30, 1789, that reported seeing five different coppers in circulation, ranging from a 38-grain German quarter stuber and a 54-grain French liard to a 1727 French sol weighing 182 grains. Between those extremes, colonists and early Americans saw an abundance of halfpennies.

Two major types of copper halfpence were seen in early America: those struck for use in England and those produced for Ireland. The copper halfpenny was first produced in 1672, during the reign of Charles II, and every English type that followed in the 17th and 18th centuries depicted the monarch on the obverse and a seated Britannia on the other. Irish halfpence were first struck in copper in the reign of Elizabeth I, in 1601, and by the end of that century their designs echo those of their English brethren.

Early in the 18th century, most halfpence were genuine issues of London’s Tower Mint, but as the century went on, and the genuine issues became more and more worn, counterfeits became more widespread. Against a backdrop of worn-out William III halfpence, whose designs quickly wore away, low-quality counterfeits blended in. They persisted throughout the 18th century, even as genuine halfpence of George I, George II, and George III arrived from the mother country.

In 1729, the very first George II halfpence were struck, five years after the thick “Dump” type of George I were last produced. The Pennsylvania Gazette reported to its readership in Philadelphia on March 15, 1729, that, “There having been several attempts to circulate light Half-Pence, occasioned by scarcity of copper coin, we hear that a quantity Half-Pence will be coined at the Tower, of full weight, to prevent the country being imposed upon by light-weight.”

The largest importation of halfpence from England came in 1750, when more than 700,000 George II halfpence dated 1749 were shipped to Boston by order of Parliament. After this enormous infusion of new coppers, the same old halfpennies continued to circulate for decades, their numbers augmented only occasionally thereafter, more often by counterfeits than by genuine coins. The colonists supplemented their supplies with counterfeits, both American made and imported, some cast and some struck. Just like their genuine counterparts, all are avidly collected today.

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