Robert Patterson, a respected scholar with ties to President Thomas Jefferson, was appointed Director of the U.S. Mint in 1805. As Director, he was instrumental in the ascension of John Reich to the position of Second Engraver under Chief Engraver Robert Scot. Reich came to this country from Germany as an indentured servant to get away from the Napoleonic Wars. Patterson gave to the talented Reich the responsibility of revamping the designs of U.S. coins, a task applied to the half cent for the 1809 issue. Reich was an assistant under Engraver Robert Scot, who apparently was unwilling to give Reich the same credit for his abilities as did both the Mint Director and the President. After not receiving a pay raise in the nearly ten years since his appointment, and seeing his designs modified by Scot during his tenure, Reich resigned from the Mint in 1817.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Reich’s portrayal of Liberty was more reserved than the previous Draped Bust design and was reminiscent of classical art, though the Classic Head name was not attached to the design until 1868 by Ebenezer Mason. Mason’s label was apparently due to the depiction of a fillet, Liberty’s narrow headband, that dates to ancient Greece. The depiction of the fillet was considered incongruous because only young males wore the band in ancient times, as a prize awarded to the winners of athletic contests. A harsher criticism, born of rumor or disdain (or both), was that Liberty was a representation of Reich’s “fat mistress”. There were issues more serious than those of artistic merit, however, in that by 1809 the growth of commerce in this country was minimizing the value of the half cent as a denomination for transactions. This situation, combined with a shortage of copper planchets from the English firm of Boulton & Watt during the War of 1812, resulted in suspension of half cent production after 1811.
Minting of half cents resumed in 1825, presumably in response to orders by a Baltimore merchant, though the new coins had design modifications by Chief Engraver William Kneass (Scot died in 1823 and Reich had left years earlier). Even with the orders, more half cents were produced than needed, and no coins of the denomination were minted in 1827 or 1830, though production resumed in 1831. 1836 half cents were made only as proofs, and in the mid-19th century restrikes of some dates, both circulation and proof, were made. No half cents were produced from 1837 through 1839, but some include an 1837 privately issued Hard Times token as part of a period half cent collection.
Reich’s Liberty faces left, displaying a more reserved and mature countenance than the previous Draped Bust type. Her long, curling hair drapes over the forehead, around the ear, down the side and back of the neck, and is tied at the back. The headband prominently displays the word LIBERTY across the facing side. A circle of dentils or beads follows along the rim. Thirteen six-point stars frame the portrait, seven to the left and six to the right; a notable 1828 variety has twelve stars, seven to the left and five to the right. The date is located below the portrait at the bottom. The reverse features a dentilled rim, within which is a concentric circle formed by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, broken at the bottom by the tied ends of a laurel branch with berries that forms an inner wreath. At the center is the denomination of HALF CENT, the words on separate lines with a centered dot between; a short horizontal line is under CENT. All half cents of the type were minted at Philadelphia and show no mintmark.
A few thousand business strike Classic Head half cents have been certified, though some varieties and color types are represented by fewer than 100 pieces, and some by fewer than 10 examples. 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 moderate for many issues up to MS63, but are expensive finer than that, particularly for RB and the scarce RD examples. Higher priced dates include 1811 and 1831, the latter the most expensive coin of the type. Very few proof examples were minted, from 1831 through 1836, though one Specimen example for 1811 is listed in census/ population reports. Some proofs are restrikes, all are rare and expensive at PR60 to very expensive as PR63 and finer; all Original 1831 proof half cents are very expensive
Designer: John Reich, modified by Robert Scot and William Kneass
Circulation Mintage: high 1,154,572 (1809), low 51,000 (1832, estimated)
Proof Mintage: none reported or known, 1809-1829; 25 (1831-1836, estimated)
Denomination: One half cent (005/100)
Diameter: 23.5 mm, plain edge
Metal Content: 100% copper
Weight: 5.44 grams
Varieties: Several known including 1809 Small o Inside O and 9 Over Inverted 9; 1811 Wide Date, Close Date, and Reverse of 1802 (restrike); 1828 13 Stars and 12 Stars; 1831 Large Berries Reverse of 1836 and Small Berries Reverse of 1840-1857 (restrike, proof); 1836 Reverse of 1840-1857 (restrike, proof); and other minor die variations.
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
Early American Coppers: www.eacs.org
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of Early United States Half Cents 1793-1857. Walter Breen. American Institute of Numismatic Research.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing.
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.