Know your U.S. coins: Seated Liberty half dime

The Seated Liberty half dime is the smallest in size and lowest in denomination of the six series of coins bearing the Seated Liberty designs. The Seated Liberty half dime's production at the Mints at Philadelphia, San Francisco and New Orleans totaled 84,828,478 coins struck for circulation.

The design, featuring Liberty seated on a rock and holding a shield, was first conceived in 1835 and was first used on the silver dollar patterns of 1836. But the design was first used for circulation on the half dime in 1837.

COIN VALUES: See how much Seated Liberty half dimes are worth today

The series is divided into several subtypes. The first, struck at Philadelphia in 1837 and New Orleans in 1838, appears Without Stars on the obverse. A semicircle of 13 stars was added around the obverse border when the design was modified in 1838. This general design was employed in the half dime series from 1838 through 1859.

Early pieces in the series appear sans drapery at Liberty's elbow. Mint officials determined this was an oversight and agreed that the addition of drapery would make Liberty's dress more flowing in appearance. The proportion of the drapery to the design varies from denomination to denomination within the Seated Liberty series. On the half dime, the drapery appears very large.

From 1838 to 1853, the Mints at Philadelphia and New Orleans produced half dimes. Numerous varieties occur through the half dime series, including the 1849/6 and 1849/8 overdates.

In 1853, small arrows were added to each side of the date to reflect a reduction in weight. Because of rising silver prices, the weight was reduced to prevent coins from being melted for their silver content. The arrows remained until 1855.

In 1856, the arrows were dropped, with the earlier design resumed through 1859. Two interesting varieties appear during this period: The elusive 1858 regular date over inverted date and the 1859 with stars bearing hollow center points.

Two transitional patterns or fantasy pieces were produced in 1859 and 1860, both missing UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The obverse of each features Liberty seated surrounded by stars. The reverse features half dime surrounded by a wreath.

In 1860, the regular half dime issue was again changed. The obverse stars were replaced with the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The reverse wreath was enlarged. This basic design was retained through the end of the series in 1873.

One of the most startling numismatic discoveries of the 20th century, more than 100 years after its production, was the unique 1870-S Seated Liberty half dime, since Mint records confirming production of the coin were unknown until March 2004. The piece came to light in 1978 when it was displayed by the Chicago-based auction firm Rarcoa.

In 1872, two half dime varieties were created at the San Francisco Mint, one with a Mint mark above the wreath bow and the other with a Mint mark below.

During the last decade or so of the half dime denominations, coins were not released into circulation at the time of coinage, but were stored by the Treasury. During the period, specie payments were suspended and silver coins did not circulate. This accounts for many latter year pieces being elusive.

The gap was filled by copper-nickel 5-cent coins bearing the Shield design.

The Seated Liberty half dime series is teeming with collectible varieties in addition to those previously cited. These include blundered dates, repunched and recut dates, overdates, repunched Mint marks, as well as large, medium and small dates, and more.

Collectors of Seated Liberty half dimes and other coins in the Seated Liberty genre may be interested in the specialty club devoted to their study – the Liberty Seated Collectors Club, which publishes research in The Gobrecht Journal.

Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:

Cents and half cents:

2- and 3-cent coins:


Dimes and half dimes:


Half dollars:


Gold coins:

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