By 1809 the half cent was not a denomination as frequently used in commerce as was the cent and various foreign coins that circulated during this era in the United States. Lowered public demand and the difficulty in securing sufficient copper blanks for production resulted in the suspension of half cent production after the 1811 mintage. Although the denomination was resumed starting in 1825, mintage was not done every year from the mid-1820s through the 1830s. No half cents were minted in 1827, 1830, or from 1837 through 1839; there were few orders and the Mint had a large quantity stockpiled. However, the Mint found another reason to produce half cents. In the early 19th century it was not unusual to give dignitaries from other countries a proof set of U.S. coins, and in 1840 Mint Director Robert M. Patterson decided to include half cents in those sets.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Engraver Christian Gobrecht was directed to produce new half cent dies for the proof coins, as well as hubs from which working dies could be produced if the need for more circulating half cents became apparent. Gobrecht had modified the John Reich/ William Kneass Matron Head cent in 1839 (apparently intended for use in 1840), and used the same basic Liberty design for his half cent. The reverse continued with very few alterations the John Reich design first used on the 1809 half cent. Both obverse and reverse have a classic simplicity, with just a few elements in the uncluttered designs. Though Braided Hair half cents were produced every year from 1840 through 1849, only starting in 1849 were the coins made for circulation- the early 1840s issues were proof only, made for the presentation sets or for collectors.
Increased demand by 1849, after several years of draw-downs from the Mint’s stockpile of 1834 and 1835 half cents, resulted in restarted mintage for circulation. But production halted in 1852, except for proofs, as demand for the denomination again weakened and sufficient 1851 half cents were on hand for distribution. Although resumed with 1853 circulation issues (but no proofs for that year) official production of the half cent ended with the 1857 pieces, by the Act of February 21, 1857. Unofficial proof restrikes of the 1840s dates and 1852 were made in the late 1850s by Mint employees, a practice halted by Mint Director James Ross Snowden in 1860, only to be resumed briefly in the late 1860s by Mint Director Henry R. Linderman; after which the dies were destroyed. After a half-century hiatus the denomination almost returned in the early 20th century, along with the three cent piece, as a result of legislation that passed the U.S. House in 1912. The bill died in the Senate, however, leaving the 1857 coins the last of the denomination.
A left-facing, neoclassical Liberty is in the center of the obverse. Curled and flowing hair is swept back in rope-like braids to a bun tied by beaded cords, with locks draped over the ear and down the back of the neck. A coronet worn above the ear and forehead displays LIBERTY. Thirteen six-point stars and the date at the bottom form a circle inside dentils located next to the flat rim. The reverse displays UNITED STATES OF AMERICA as a mostly complete circle concentric with the dentils and flat rim. Inside of that is another circle formed by a laurel branch with berries, the ends tied by a ribbon at the bottom. In the center is HALF CENT, each word on a separate line. All Braided Hair cents were minted at Philadelphia and display no mintmark.
A few hundred business strike Braided Hair half cents have been certified for each date from 1849 through 1857, except for 1852. Coins are described as Brown (BN), Red-Brown (RB), or Red (RD), with RB examples less common than BN, and RD the most scarce. Prices are modest for many issues up to and including MS63 (MS64 for BN examples), but are expensive finer than that, particularly for RB and the scarce or rare RD examples. Fewer than 20 proof Original and Restrike examples are certified for many years (more for the 1850s), also with the Brown (BN), Red-Brown (RB), and Red (RD) designations; there are also a very few Cameo pieces. All proof Braided Hair half cents are expensive, both Original and Restrike, with Original pieces generally higher priced. Examples graded PR63 and finer are very expensive, and the 1851 pieces are very expensive in all grades.
Designer: Christian Gobrecht
Circulation Mintage: high 147,672 (1851), low 35,180 (1857; none minted 1840-1848, and 1852)
Proof Mintage: high 275 (1857, estimated), low 25 (several years, estimated; none known for 1853)
Denomination: One half cent (005/100)
Diameter: 23 mm, plain edge
Metal Content: 100% copper
Weight: 5.44 grams
Varieties: Several known including Restrikes dated 1840 through 1849, and 1852 (Large Berries and Small Berries reverses); 1849 Large Date and Small Date; and other minor die variations.
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
Early American Coppers: www.eacs.org
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