Ever Heard of a Half Cent?

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The Half Cent is a fascinating little piece of early American history. This particular coin is an 1804 Draped Bust Half Cent, all of which were struck in Philadelphia. The Draped Bust variety was minted from 1800 to 1808. Many die varieties exist for the 1804 – a common date – and many collectors make a specialty of it.

In 1804 the Half Cent had about the same value as the modern day dime, but you would have seen very little U.S. currency on the streets of Philadelphia during this time. It was much more likely that your pocket change consisted of coins from England, Spain, or France. To compete with the denominations in use from these other countries, it made sense for the U.S. to issue the Half Cent.

For example, the British not only had the halfpenny but the farthing, or 1/4 cent, as well. But by far the most popular coin in use at the time was the Spanish 8 Reales, a dollar sized coin made of high grade silver. Because fractional coinage of this series (1 reale, 2 reale, 4 reale) was not nearly as available, the 8 Reale was often cut into pieces to make small change (pieces of eight). Since a single piece (1 reale)  had a value of  12 & 1/2 U.S. cents, the Half Cent denomination made it handy for transactions involving the coinage of these other countries.

Many events transpired in and around Philadelphia in 1804. Thomas Jefferson wins a landslide victory in his bid for his second term as President. Jefferson’s vice president from his first term, Aaron Burr, must flee New York and eventually settles in Philadelphia after he shoots and kills Alexander Hamilton, former Treasury Secretary,  in a duel on July 12. The previous year, the size of the United States is more than doubled by the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France for $15,000,000. From 1804 through 1806 the Lewis & Clark expedition explores much of the territory and continues to the Pacific Ocean.

I love this coin because it saw America’s infancy. So many national legends arose during this period and have become an integral part of our culture. This well used representative of the smallest denomination our country ever produced saw it all. For a definitive book about Half Cents, Roger S. Cohen’s American Half Cents: The Little Half Sisters is a must. To get really technical, Ronald Manley’s “The Half Cent Die State Book: 1793 – 1857” is a specialists’ dream.

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