Coin Rarities & Related Topics: 1792 Half Dimes, Part 1: Origins and Meaning

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #144....

Two of the five finest known 1792 half dismes will be offered at auction in January 2013 and at least six others will be offered as well. I estimate that just three hundred exist, in all states of preservation. In 1792, the French term “disme” was employed. The word “dime” had not become part of the English language. My purpose here is to discuss the nature and meaning of 1792 half dismes, with emphasis upon my theory that 1792 half dismes are patterns, not regular issues.

In the upcoming FUN Platinum Night event in Orlando, Heritage will auction the Floyd Starr piece, which is PCGS certified ‘SP-67.’ Later in January, in New York, Stack’s-Bowers will auction the Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 half disme, which is NGC graded “MS-68.” It seems that 1792 half dismes will be the leading topic of the new year.

In the second part of this series, I will discuss the physical characteristics and histories of the Starr and Knoxville-Cardinal pieces. Condition rankings will be addressed therein. If the auction results in January are exciting, then a third part will be devoted to analyzing the results and discussing market values of 1792 half dismes. I suggest consulting an expert before bidding on one. Here, I focus on the history and nature of these fascinating items.

I. Introduction

A half dime is not a nickel. Five cent nickels are 25% nickel in composition and were not formally issued until 1866. Three Cent Nickels predate five cent nickels, as these were first minted in 1865. Half dimes predate dimes, which were not struck until 1796.

A half dime is made primarily of silver and does not contain any nickel. Each half dime weighs half as much as a dime of a corresponding issue weighs or would weigh if it existed. Half dimes were minted for circulation from 1794 to 1873, though not in all years in between.

The U.S. Mint struck copper half cents and large cents for circulation in 1793. In addition to copper coins, silver half dimes, silver half dollars, and silver dollars were struck in 1794. U.S. gold coins were not made until 1795, when Half Eagles ($5 gold coins) and Eagles ($10 pieces) were struck, in addition to all the copper and silver denominations just mentioned. Dimes, quarters (twenty-five cent coins) and Quarter Eagles ($2½ gold coins) were not minted until 1796.

In April 1792, an act of the U.S. Congress authorized a U.S. Mint. Quite a few patterns from 1792 survive. For example, a 1792 disme was auctioned in October 2012. Earlier this year, I wrote about a 1792 Silver Center Copper Cent pattern. (Clickable links are in blue.)

U.S. Mint officials considered a variety of coin designs and they tested equipment. The patterns of 1792 include a few proposals for cents, half dimes, dimes and quarters. In 1792 and later, patterns of silver denominations were sometimes struck in copper to test equipment and/or to save money.

Until twenty to thirty years ago, most coin experts referred to 1792 half dismes as patterns, rather than as regular issues. They are or were listed as patterns in all reference guides for patterns.

The first Philadelphia Mint was not ready for operation until 1793. All 1792 half dismes were struck during a short time in July 1792 in a building owned by John Harper, who ran a business that produced saws.

On July 13, 1792, the entire run of 1500 of them was delivered to Thomas Jefferson, who was then Secretary of State and in charge of the coinage program.This run of 1500 half dismes had a total face value of just seventy-five dollars, a small sum even in 1792.

It is extremely likely that 1792 half dismes were given to influential individuals, including U.S. Congressmen, diplomats and foreign officials. In his encyclopedia of 1988, researcher Breen, on page 153, stated that 1792 half dismes were presented to very important persons (“VIPs”). In Don Taxay’s epic book on The U.S. Mint and Coinage (1966), Taxay, too, indicates that these were given to influential people and Taxay focuses upon an early 19th century document, which cites one of the first U.S. Mint officials as saying that 1792 half dismes were not intended to be used as coins in commerce (Taxay, 1966, p. 72).

In David Lange’s book on the History of the United States Mint and Its Coinage (2006), Lange states that Jefferson “was given instructions to distribute [1792 half dismes] to important individuals both in the U.S. and abroad. Many later found their way into general circulation,” Lange adds (on page 26).

These 1792 half dismes were distributed by President Washington and Secretary of State Jefferson. In my view, the point of the distribution was not to direct 1792 half dismes into circulation among consumers and merchants. Indeed, this could not even have been a secondary consideration. I theorize that the objective of producing 1792 half dismes was to attract attention for future coinage by the U.S. Mint, to advertise that the U.S. was adopting a decimal based monetary system, and to indicate to powerful people in Europe that the U.S. national government had a serious, practical plan to produce its own silver coins.

II. Half Disme or Half Dime?

The term ‘disme,’ not dime, appears on the reverse (back) of each of these 1792 half dimes and on 1792 dime patterns. “Disme” is a now obsolete French word that never entered the English language.

Disme and dime were once alternate spellings of the same French concept, which literally meant ‘tenth.’ It also was a reference to the decimal system for computing in tenths and multiples of ten. Disme was, in French, defined as both ‘tenth’ and a system of ‘tenths’ and multiples of ten. The French language now has different words for tenth and for the decimal system. Disme and dime, in this context, are no longer French words.

The word ‘dime’ entered the English language during the first half of the 19th century, with a meaning that is much different from the early French concept. Dime, in English, just refers to a coin denomination, and not to a decimal system.

Researcher Breen found the term “disme” to stem from a mathematician and physicist named Simon Stevin, who was born in 1548 in Bruges and died in 1620. In 1585, a pamphlet of his was published, in which Stevin explains the decimal system. According to Breen (encyclopedia, 1988, p. 153), the contemporary French translation of this pamphlet was called “La Disme.” An English translation of the full title was “Disme: the art of tenths or decimal arithmetic.”

It is very likely that the first Director of the U.S. Mint, David Rittenhouse, was familiar with Stevin’s work. So, it follows the U.S. Mint officials would use the French word ‘disme’ to call attention to the use of a decimal system for U.S. coinage, which set the planned U.S. system apart from European systems of coinage.

In regards to “disme” and “dime,” I consulted numerous English dictionaries dating from 1768 to 1829. Famous English dictionaries of Stephen Jones, William Perry and John Walker do not list “disme” or “dime.” As for the epic dictionaries of Samuel Johnson, the 1768 and 1792 editions list “disme” as a French word, without a clear guide as to pronunciation, and do not list “dime” at all.

The one major English dictionary that provides clear evidence regarding the pronunciation of “disme” in 1792 is the widely respected dictionary of Thomas Sheridan, who died in 1788. Sheridan himself did not include the word ‘disme’ in the first edition, 1780.

Posthumous editions of 1789, 1792 and 1797 suggest that “disme” was pronounced in England as it was pronounced in France. It rhymes with steam and beam. ‘Disme’ thus sounded almost identical to the current English word ‘deem.’ Indisputably, the ‘s’ in disme was silent in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s. In sum, the term ‘disme’ served as a label for the decimal system and it appeared on five cent silver coins of 1792 to indicate the fact that the U.S. was adopting a decimal system for coinage.

III. Circulated Later Than 1792

A large percentage of 1792 half dismes did circulate, though years later, after formal production of U.S. half dimes had commenced in 1794. In 1792 and 1793, merchants would not have been familiar with 1792 half dismes, and most would have been suspicious of them, thinking perhaps that they were tokens or pranks. Not many people would even have tried to spend 1792 half dismes in 1792.

It is important to keep in mind that the literacy rate is much higher in 2012 than it was in 1792. Many people then were not able to read newspapers or had difficulty doing so. There was no radio, no television and no Internet in existence. Besides, very few U.S. citizens in 1792 would ever have seen or heard the word ‘disme.’

After 1795, it was widely known that the U.S. Mint was operational and had been producing tens of thousands of half dimes. As quantities of 1794 and 1795 half dimes circulated, people in major cities in the U.S. became familiar with such U.S. coinage.

By the middle of 1795, many business people would have accepted 1792 half dismes in transactions for goods or services. By then, merchants would have become familiar with U.S. silver coins and the U.S. coinage system. The Spanish monetary system was based on eighths, not tenths, and British systems of measurement were complicated, often with emphasis upon multiples of three.

IV. Washington’s Speech

The main argument put forth to suggest that 1792 half dismes are regular issue U.S. coins stems from President George Washington’s annual speech before the U.S. Congress, on Nov. 6 1792. The president then referred to a “small beginning in the coinage of half dismes; the want of small coins in circulation calling first attention to them.”

This statement by Washington is often taken out of context. He is not saying, nor is he implying, that 1792 half dismes are regular issue coins. In the same paragraph, President Washington talks about the “measures [that] have been taken” to “aid in the establishment of our Mint” and he implies that it will be months before the U.S. Mint begins operating.

Washington adds that the “regulation of foreign coins in correspondency with the principles of our national coinage ... will be ... resumed and completed [in the future].” I interpret this remark to mean that a national policy for regulating foreign coins in circulation will be implemented around the time that regular U.S. coins are produced, which had not yet happened by Nov. 6, 1792.

In this speech, Washington recognizes that there was an insufficient amount of small silver coins in circulation. It seems that he felt that a quantity of half dime patterns would be a strong marketing tool to call attention to the plans for the U.S. Mint, which were very controversial at the time. Many Americans, including more than a few influential politicians, then believed that the costs of having a national mint outweighed the benefits of having one.

Thomas Jefferson wrote drafts of passages of this speech that Washington delivered on Nov. 6, 1792. Jefferson had suggested that Washington mention large cents and half dimes. Don Taxay concludes that Jefferson was referring to some 1792 cent patterns.

I suggest that Jefferson probably figured that the first U.S. coins struck for circulation would be large cents, and that is why he wished for Washington to publicly mention large cents in Nov. 1992. Jefferson was very interested in the U.S. Mint and he knew that cents of any sort had not been struck in quantity by U.S. Mint officials in 1792. The fact that Jefferson wanted Washington to mention both cents and half dimes is evidence that the coin references by Washington and Jefferson, in 1792, were to patterns, not regular issues. They regarded 1792 half dismes as promotional items and mentioning them in a major speech was part of the promotion.

V. Why only 1500 silver pieces in 1792?

There has been some debate among researchers regarding whether all 1500 1792 half dismes were struck in one day, over two days, or over a longer period of time in July 1792. This controversy is beside my points here. After all, if U.S. Mint officials could produce 1500 half dismes in two weeks, they would have been able, in a technological sense, to have produced many thousands of silver coins in 1792.

If, at any point in 1792, President Washington and/or Secretary of State Jefferson really thought that the U.S. Mint was ready to and should produce coins for circulation, regular issues in 1792, then multiple sources for substantial quantities of silver bullion would have been arranged. It would not have been difficult to produce thousands of regular issue silver coins in 1792.

President George “Washington appointed, as the first Director of the Mint, David Rittenhouse, of Pennsylvania, an eminent scientist and philosopher,” stated David Watson (on p. 61) in his classic book, “History of American Coinage,” which was published in 1899 in New York and London. Watson notes that, on July 9, 1792, Rittenhouse asked Washington for permission to produce, for circulation, “some copper cents & half cents, and likewise small silver, at least dimes & half dimes” (Watson, 1899, p. 63).

While copper truly was in short supply in 1792, silver was not hard to find. Foreign silver coins circulated throughout Philadelphia every day, and large quantities were at ports and in banks. Moreover, of the founding fathers and other U.S. citizens who were enthusiastic about the idea of a U.S. Mint, a substantial number were wealthy. A few letters or personal conversations requesting significant deposits of silver for half dimes and dimes would certainly have generated a positive response. More than a few wealthy people would have enjoyed trading some silver scrap or ingots for half dimes and dimes, and would have been honored by requests from George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

Asking someone to trade $100 of silver bullion for silver coins that have a face value of $100 would not have been like asking for loans or political ‘donations.’ Undoubtedly, quite a few wealthy friends and/or wealthy political allies of Washington, Jefferson or others involved in the coinage program would have been delighted to obtain new U.S. silver coins in 1792.

Historians sometimes mention security or legal obstacles to coinage of silver or gold coins in the early 1790s. If Washington or Jefferson had asked wealthy, influential U.S. citizens, perhaps other founding fathers, to consider sending silver to the U.S. Mint to be used to strike true, regular issue coins, then any such obstacles could have easily been surmounted or avoided. Also, given the fact that there was a shortage of small change, many merchants would have been eager to make use of five cent coins and ten cent silver coins.

Tens of thousands of 1792 half dismes could have been produced in 1792. Dimes and quarters could have been made in quantity in 1792 as well. Clearly, Washington and/or Jefferson decided that regular issue, U.S. silver coins would not be produced in 1792. All 1792 issues are patterns.

VI. 1500 patterns is sensible

Obtaining 1500 promotional items, made out of real silver and produced by U.S. Mint officials, for only $75 was a great deal, especially since 1792 half disme patterns advertised the introduction of U.S. coinage and the fact that U.S. coinage would be based on the decimal system. The number of patterns struck usually relates to the purpose of the respective patterns. It made logical sense to strike 1500 or more patterns to advertise a new system of coinage and to promote the monetary system of the United States, a new nation.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that Washington and Jefferson would have explicitly referred to patterns as “patterns.” Washington and Jefferson were not advanced coin collectors and it should not be assumed that they would have used the vocabulary of coin collectors. After all, the word “pattern” has a standard meaning in everyday life that is much different from the meaning of the same word in the coin collecting community.

Besides, when was the word ‘pattern’ first used in relation to coinage in the United States? It certainly was not commonly so used in 1792. So, it is unsurprising that people in the 1790s would sometimes refer to patterns as coins.

Distribution of half disme patterns relates to the concept that a national program for silver coinage, with a new monetary system, is additional evidence that the United States had, by 1792, become a true nation, with a strong government, not a loose confederation. Many government officials and businessmen in Europe doubted that the United States would succeed, and some thought that disagreements among factions may prevent a strong national government from emerging. After all, the Articles of Confederation had not inspired confidence in the United States national government.

I theorize that Washington and Jefferson did not wish for 1792 half dismes to be used in commerce in 1792, for people spending them would often be focused on the goods and services being purchased. It would be logical to assume that Washington and Jefferson wanted influential people to focus on 1792 half dismes themselves and to think about their meaning.

If a handful of 1792 half dismes was given to a prominent European, then it was hoped that he would distribute U.S. half disme patterns when he returns to his respective home country. The use of a French word, “disme,” was undoubtedly deliberate and relates to the political purposes that 1792 half dismes served. The production and informal distribution of 1500 1792 half disme patterns, for promotional purposes, was a low-cost method of broadcasting the concept that the U.S. national government was united, solid and an entity to be taken seriously by European nations.

©2012 Greg Reynolds

2 Comments on "Coin Rarities & Related Topics: 1792 Half Dimes, Part 1: Origins and Meaning"

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  1. Sujan Shrestha says:

    This article about 1792 coins is very intriguing, especailly the grades and how beautiful those coins are. Researching articles about 1792 cents. I am assuming they were struck in England. Is there a possibility that some Birch Cents GWPT were also struck in copper, as they were experimenting in different metals? Any help would be appreciated for my research.

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