The half cent coin was authorized by the Coinage Act of 1792, which established the US dollar as the standard unit of currency. It also created the decimal system that we use for currency today, dividing up the dollar into 100 cents. The US dollar was based on the Spanish silver dollar, a widely used currency at the time.
Because of its low value, even then, the half cent was made of copper — 8.55 g. The penny was double that at 17.1 g, and other coins were made from silver or gold. Its size varies from 22 mm in diameter to 23.5 mm, although wear and tear mean that actual sizes can vary. For comparison, it's slightly smaller than a quarter.
Its early origins meant that the half cent was struck at the only mint available: Philadelphia. As a result, there are no mint marks.
Varieties of Half Cent
The half cent underwent several redesigns throughout its limited life.
The first design is known as the Liberty Cap Left. This was engraved by Henry Voight and issued in 1793. The coin features Lady Liberty with a distinct Phrygian cap. In this instance, she is looking to the left. It features a lettered edge, and the reverse has a wreath with various berries. As with all half cents, it has "United States of America" on the reverse, and the denomination is listed as 1/200. Over 35,000 coins were produced in 1793.
In 1794, the obverse design was flipped. Lady Liberty now faced right, and the edge became plain. This made it cheaper to strike. It was designed and engraved by Robert Scot. Over 350,000 of these coins were struck between 1794 and 1797, with the rarest being the 1796 variant with just 1,390 coins being released.
Between 1800 and 1808, the Draped Bust half cent was issued. This was a design from Gilbert Stuart, Robert Scot and Scot-John Gardner. The Draped Bust is perhaps one of the most famous designs from this era, and it was used for numerous coins. Lady Liberty faces right, she has tidy locks of hair and there is a drape over her shoulders. As with previous half cents, there is a wreath on the reverse and 1/200 as the value. Approximately 3.4 million of these coins were struck.
Another redesign in 1808 resulted in a marked departure from the 1793 half cent. This was part of the Classic Head series of half cents, with a much more sizeable Lady Liberty with the word "Liberty" as a band around her head. In addition, the words "Half Cent" now appeared on the reverse. Roughly 3.1 million of these coins were struck between 1809 and 1835.
The Braided Hair design would prove to be the last of the half cents. This style, created by Christian Gobrecht, was akin to Greco-Romano coins, although it was intended to make Lady Liberty look younger. Regardless, this coin was proving less popular, due to its dwindling practicality. Like most previous half cents, it had a plain edge while keeping the words "Half Cent" on the reverse. Just over 544,000 were struck.
A Rough Guide to Coin Values
These coins vary substantially in value, and much of it depends on their condition. In many cases, rare coins will retain substantial value even in poor condition. At the top end are uncirculated coins, which naturally fetch the highest values.
- Liberty Cap Left: $35,000
- Liberty Cap Right: $12,000 to $100,000
- Draped Bust: $675 to $25,000
- Classic Head: $200 to $1000
- Braided Hair: $165 to $240
This is a rough guide the pricing that was accurate at the time of writing and is intended as a rough benchmark for comparison's sake.
Once the quality of the coin falls, its value goes down significantly. In good condition, which may mean a couple of scratches and substantial evidence of use, many coin values drop below $50, particularly those from the mid-19th century. Extremely rare coins, such as the 1796 Liberty Cap Right, still command high values, sometimes being valued as much as $18,000.