If the United States Mint were to issue a coin today that bore absolutely no reference to its denomination, Congress would likely launch an investigation. However, the Mint did issue a coin that for its first nine years of production, despite several design changes, bore no denominational markings of any kind.
It was the half dime.
Or is that half disme?
COIN VALUES: See how much your Early Half Dimes are worth today
The Mint Act of April 2, 1792, authorized a half disme – a silver 5-cent coin – as the smallest of the silver denominations. The unusual spelling – disme – was also used for the 10-cent coin that we today call the dime.
According to the late Walter Breen, Mint officials used both spellings – "dime" and "disme" – until 1835-36.
The words "half dime," with the traditional spelling, weren't used as a legend on the silver 5-cent coin until 1837, when the Seated Liberty design was introduced.
Interestingly, the 1792 pattern pieces do bear a denominational reference: the words HALF DISME. (Some of these 1792 patterns may have circulated.)
However, the first two half dimes (or half dismes) issued for general circulation bear no denominational markings of any kind, even on the edge (which was too thin to be lettered as on the silver dollar and half dollar, and on the copper half cent and cent), which is reeded.
The Flowing Hair half dime was issued in 1794 and 1795 only. The Draped Bust, Small Eagle design was used in 1796 and 1797. The Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle design was issued in 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 and 1805.
The third series – the Capped Bust half dime – was introduced in 1829. It bears on its reverse the denomination as 5 C.
Early half dimes offer much to variety collectors. The hands-on approach to die production resulted in overdates (like the 1796/5); misspelled words (LIKERTY); different star counts (13, 15 and 16 in 1797); and more.
The earliest of the early half dimes can be expensive. However, for collectors willing to spend a little time and money, it's a great collection to build. Early half dimes aren't cheap, even in low grades. Forget about a Mint State set, even if such a set were possible. It would probably take a collecting lifetime and a fortune to complete.
Capped Bust half dimes are much more affordable, even in Mint State. The best approach to the early half dimes might be a complete set of Capped Bust half dimes, and type specimens of the early designs. You'll need three: the Flowing Hair, Small Eagle; Draped Bust, Small Eagle; and Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle.
Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:
Cents and half cents:
2- and 3-cent coins:
Dimes and half dimes: