Flowing Hair and Bust Half Dollars (1794-1836)
The half dollar was one of the foundational denominations of American coinage from the very beginning, and though it has fallen out of favor today it played a huge role in the monetary system of previous years. These coins were sanctioned originally in the Coinage Act of 1792 and were first minted in 1794.
Flowing Hair and Bust Half Dollar Design
Half dollars were one of the several denominations authorized by the Coinage Act of 1792. Early half dollars, as with all other U.S. Silver coinage of the time, used an 89.24% Silver and 10.76% Copper composition, an alloy that was slightly modified in future releases.
The first half dollars were struck in 1794. This design, called the Flowing Hair and engraved by Robert Scot, was shared with the half dime and dollar coins of the same time period and ran from 1794 to 1795. Few of these survive, and the ones that did are rare and expensive in higher grades.
The Draped Bust design was created by Robert Scot, the chief engraver of the U.S. Mint at the time, and ran from 1796 to 1807. As part of a redesign of currently circulating U.S. coinage, Scot changed the reverse wreath to an olive wreath symbolizing peace while keeping the eagle. He also updated Liberty’s design to add a ribbon as well as adding a drape-like garment to the bust (which gives this design its name). These ran with two different reverses and minor changes, including variable numbers of stars. There are also overstrikes that can be found in some years.
The Capped Bust came next, a John Reich design engraved by William Kneass. The half dollar changed the portrait to a Liberty with a cap on her head. These coins ran through 1839 before being succeeded by the Liberty Seated design. During the Capped Bust’s run, the edges of the half dollar were stamped with the words “FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR” until the year 1836, when this was replaced with a plain reeded (grooved) edge.
Errors, overstrikes and variants of these coins are more common than they are in later coinage. That is because of the crude nature of the process by which they were made. Coin-making technology has come a long way since those strikes and later coins were changed less than these earlier varieties.
Early U.S. coins were not the only coins post-colonial America had. French, Spanish and English coins circulated freely and were accepted as legal tender, and the mintage of new U.S. money did not stop these from circulating. The half dollar circulated but competed against these coins, particularly these early Bust half dollars. These were important because they were among the first U.S. coins minted, but in terms of day-to-day living at the time of their mintage, their impact was muted. It was not till far later that foreign coinage was banned from use as legal tender and U.S. coins became the standard.
Early half dollars can be hard to find, but later mintages are more common. Some early specimens in the Capped Bust series are available for a reasonable price in lower grades. Higher grades can get prohibitively expensive fast. Flowing Hair and Draped Bust examples in higher grades are out of range of all but the most dedicated and well-heeled collectors, and even low-grade examples cost hundreds of dollars. Some Capped Bust overstrikes are extremely hard to find and command a massive premium at auction.
The higher populations of later series like the Liberty Seated make them a much easier prospect for intermediate collectors. Early examples of U.S. coinage including the half dollar are not easy to get one’s hands-on.
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