The half cent became one of the very first denominations to circulate in the United States, debuting alongside the one-cent coin in 1793 as the first federally issued circulating coinage issued for mass production. Early on, the half cent represented a small but significant amount of money; in the year 1793, a half cent was worth the equivalent of approximately 14 cents today. In other words, a half cent represented greater purchasing power than does a modern-day dime. Perhaps that was not much money, even in the age of an infant United States, but nevertheless the half cent coin had its place in the American economic system – and an important one at that.
Time rolled on, and by the mid-19th century a half cent was still worth the modern-day equivalent of about 14 cents. But the cost of producing half cents approached or eclipsed the face value of these relatively large 100% copper coins, which in the 1850s weighed 5.44 grams and had a diameter of 23 millimeters – approximating the heft and girth of today’s quarter dollar. The half cent was discontinued under the Coinage Act of 1857, a landmark piece of legislation that also spelled an end for the large cent, spawned the birth of the small cent, and demonetized circulating foreign coins as legal tender in the United States.
Half Cents as Collectibles
The final curtain call for the half cent in 1857 coincided with the last of the large cents, the latter particularly helping to spark a dramatic rise in interest in numismatics on the United States scene. Collector curiosity also grew for many other early American copper coins, including half cents. The typical American numismatist of the mid-19th century was just beginning to grasp the sheer scarcity – and complexity – of the overarching United States half cents series.
The lowest-denominated coin ever officially struck by the United States Mint, the half cent involves five major types and subtypes as well as countless varieties. Additionally, half cents offer myriad issues that are decidedly rare. Technically, all half cents are now numismatically scarce, original mintage figures meaning practically nothing for a coin that has been melted in great quantities and otherwise lost to the brutal hands of time. Even the most “common” dates among half cents are known to exist in quantities of only 1,500 to 3,000 survivors.
Much like their large cent counterparts, United States half cents are generally considered collectible even in grades of Poor, Fair, and About Good – particularly the case with the Liberty Cap (1793-1797) and Draped Bust (1800-1808) types. Meanwhile, most of the half cent coins struck since 1809, including Classic Head (1809-1836) and Braided Hair (1840-1857) are generally collected in grades of Good and better, though there are no rules about which grades one should collect. As with any coin, grade preference owes only to one’s own numismatic whims and collecting budget.
Collecting the Last Half Cents
The 1857 Braided Hair Half Cents are among the scarcer offerings of the obsolete denomination, or at least those produced since the early 1800s. Only 35,180 half cents were struck in 1857, however there is an important caveat here. United States Mint Director James Ross Snowden had the remaining stocks of half cents melted following the passage of the Coinage Act of 1857 in February of that year. No record is known to exist reflecting just how many half cents were melted or what dates were represented in that melting.
However, modern population counts – compiled thanks in large part to reporting from coin dealers and collectors as well as statistics derived from grading coins at PCGS – point to a survival estimate of about 1,350 examples across all grades and color designations; this includes 650 or so in MS60 or better and 45 grading MS65 or higher. This means that even circulated examples of 1857 Braided Hair Half Cents are on the scarcer side, even in the context of half cents. Gem uncirculated examples are downright rare. There is a handful of known Red specimens, though these are exceedingly rare.
In 2020, a PCGS MS65RD specimen took $18,000 at a Stack’s Bowers Galleries auction. Meanwhile, more generic uncirculated Brown examples trade for around $500 in PCGS MS63BN. PCGS XF45BN specimens take about $200. The 1857 in proof is one of the more common such strikes among half cents, with a mintage of 266 and about 115 survivors, ranging in price from about $3,000 for a PCGS PR60BN up to nearly $20,000 for a nice Red-Brown graded PCGS PR66RB. Reds exist and are extraordinarily rare.
- Breen, Walter. Complete Encyclopedia of US and Colonial Coins. Doubleday, 1988.
- Hengeveld, Dennis. “Affordable Half Cents.” Coin Update. October 23, 2017.
- Walker, Alissa. “The U.S. Killed the Half Penny When it Was Worth What a Dime is Today.” Gizmodo. September 25, 2014.