This type is also labeled Draped Bust or Turban Head to distinguish it from the later Capped Bust type introduced in 1807 (the Guide Book calls this type Capped Bust to Right, and the later type Capped Bust to Left). The eagle on Robert Scot’s earlier Capped Bust Small Eagle design of 1795 was unpopular, criticized as being scrawny. Scot replaced the small eagle with a larger eagle, often called a Heraldic design because of the dominant presentation of the Union shield over the eagle’s body. Some have noted that steel coinage dies used at the time were nearly as valuable as bullion, and for that reason it was common to use and reuse those dies until they wore out. Such economy resulted in many varieties of early half eagles, including the chronologically “impossible” pairing of the Heraldic eagle reverse with an obverse 1795 date, explained by the use of an older 1795 obverse die in 1798. Similarly, 1801-dated dies were prepared but not used in 1801, modified the next year to produce the 1802/1 overdate, and 1803 coins are 1803/2 overdates. The Large Eagle dies were first made early in 1798, but earlier-dated dies were retrieved from storage to meet increased demand for half eagles that year. This resulted in the production of Large Eagle reverse examples dated 1795, 1797, and 1798, the years also associated with the Small Eagle reverse.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Much has been written about Scot’s “blunder” in the placement of arrows and the olive branch in the eagle’s claws. The symbolism of promoting peace over war would normally have resulted in the placement of the olive branch in the eagle’s right or more honorable claw. The left claw was the sinister claw, so-called because of evil or troubling connotations that attached to anything representing the left side (this association may be familiar to those who attended grade school up through the 1950s, when efforts were made by some teachers to change left-handers to right-handers). Therefore, arrows as symbols of war should have been placed in the left claw, indicating the evil and disaster accompanying war. The olive branch was to be placed in the honorable right claw, indicating the desire for peace. It is uncertain whether Scot’s reverse of this symbology was intentional or a mistake. Some have suggested a misreading of perspective: the olive branch is to the viewer’s right but in heraldry right and left are determined from the perspective of the image, which means the eagle’s right claw is to the viewer’s left.
A right-facing Liberty wears a soft cap, possibly a mob cap (a high fashion headdress of the 1790s, seen on portraits of Martha Washington) rather than a pilleus or Liberty cap. Around Liberty’s portrait, inside a dentilled rim, are six-point stars to the left and right, the word LIBERTY at the top, and the date at the bottom. The top of the soft cap creates a visual break between the top left star and LIBERTY. Issues dated 1795 have 10 stars to the left and five to the right. Two unique pieces dated 1797, one with 16 obverse stars and the other with 15 obverse stars, are in the Smithsonian. Half eagles dated 1798 through 1807 have 13 obverse stars, eight to the left and five to the right; except for one 1806 variety with seven stars to the left and six to the right.
The reverse displays an eagle with outstretched wings in the center, a Union shield across its body, holding a loop of a banner on which is E PLURIBUS UNUM. The banner is in front of the eagle’s right wing and behind the left. The eagle holds an olive branch in its left claw and a cluster of arrows in its right claw. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA makes nearly a complete concentric circle inside the dentilled rim, UNITED and STATES, and OF and AMERICA separated by the tips of the eagle’s wings. Underneath STATES OF is an arc of clouds. Below the clouds, above and around the eagle’s head, is a canopy of small six-point stars in three short arcs, six at the top, five below, and one to each side of the eagle’s head. One 1798 variety has 14 reverse stars with six stars in the middle row instead of five. Some 1798 and 1799 issues have the stars arranged in a linear “cross” pattern rather than the curving arcs. All coins were minted at Philadelphia, and no mintmark or denomination appears on the coins.
Half eagles are scarce to rare in census/ population reports and though a few hundred have been certified for some dates, no issue of this type can be considered common. There are no known proof pieces, but there is a certified specimen example of the 1795 Large Eagle. Prices are moderately high even at low grades and increase rapidly into low Mint State grades. There is a significant jump in prices between near-Gem and Gem, with Gem and finer examples extremely expensive. The 1797 Large Eagle, 16 Stars coins are extremely expensive in all grades, and the 1795 Large Eagle and 1797/5 Large Eagle varieties also have higher premiums. Pre-1800 issues are generally more expensive than post-1800 coins, and are not represented by as many pieces in census/ population reports.
Designer: Robert Scot
Circulation Mintage: high 64,093 (1806), low 7,451 (1799)
Proof Mintage:none known, but a specimen example of the 1795 Large Eagle reverse has been certified
Denomintion: $5.00 Half Eagle
Diameter: ±25.0 mm, reeded edge
Metal content: 91.67% gold, 8.33% silver and copper
Weight: ±8.75 grams
Varieties:Many known, and include examples with changes in the number and size of the stars, size and position of date numerals, minor device differences, and overdates. Census/ population listings include 1797/5, 1798 Small 8, 1798 Large 8 13 Stars and 14 Stars reverses, 1799 Small Stars and Large Stars reverses, 1802/1 (all are of this type for the date), 1803/2 (all are of this type for the date), 1804 Small 8, 1804 Small 8 over Large 8, and 1806 Knobbed 6 and Pointed 6 varieties.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties; A Study of Die States, 1795-1834. John W. Dannreuther and Harry W. Bass Jr. Whitman Publishing.
Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins 1795-1933, Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth, Whitman Publishing.
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.
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.