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Half Dimes – 1792 Half Disme

Throughout the broad range of U.S. coinage from 1792 to the present day, this issue is arguably the most significant of any that has ever been struck. Although still recorded as a pattern issue in some references, most numismatists now consider the 1792 half disme to be a regular issue coin.

Slightly smaller than a modern dime and weighing half as much. Disme (pronounced, “deem”), is an early spelling of the word, dime.

Over the years, much has been speculated and much has been written, but little is known for sure. Many false and unsubstantiated claims have appeared in print about this coinage issue. Among such claims is one that suggests Martha Washington posed as “Miss Liberty” for the engraver. Another claim that remains unsupported is that the Washingtons provided their family table service for the coinage.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Rare Coin Wholesalers – Steve Contursi

Both of these claims date back to 1860, when James Ross Snowden wrote: “The bust of Liberty is popularly supposed to represent the features of Martha Washington who is said to have sat for the artist while he was designing it … This piece is said to have been struck from the private plate of Washington, which is not unlikely, considering the great interest which he took in the operations of the infant mint, visiting it frequently, and personally superintending many of its affairs.”

With respect to the Martha Washington issue, Martin Logies, President of the Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation has stated, “Many 19th century collectors referred to the coin’s design as the ‘Martha Washington half disme’ because the portrait resembled the President’s wife, however, the head’s side of the coin actually depicts a symbolic female representation of Liberty.”

Regarding the issues of the source of the silver used to coin the half disme, it is generally accepted that George Washington did, in fact, provide the silver for these pieces, however Numismatic researcher Karl Moulton disagrees.

Based on original letters and documents in the Library of Congress, Moulton contends that the silver used for the half dismes was supplied by the government, and not by Washington or Jefferson. His version of the history of this issue suggests that David Rittenhouse made arrangements for the purchase of silver for these coins. Further, the coins were struck in mid-July from dies prepared by Jacob Perkins, copied in part from the other 1792 dies by Robert Birch and Joseph Wright. (Some research suggests that the single pair of dies used for these coins was designed and engraved by a British medalist, William Russell Birch, rather than the Robert Birch who was associated with the Mint in those early years and previously credited with the coin’s design.) The die sinker was John Harper, and the planchet adjuster and coiner was Henry Voigt. Karl Moulton is preparing a history of the first Mint, to be published under the title “Henry Voigt and Others Involved with America’s Early Coinage”.

However, we do know that the little half dismes were the very first coins authorized by President Washington under the Mint Act of 1792. Thomas Jefferson, who was Secretary of State at the time, personally received the coins on behalf of Washington.

A number of different pattern coins were struck by the U.S. in 1792, but the half disme is the only one that was produced in large enough quantity to be considered a regular issue. Late in the year, President Washington referred to these coins in his November 6, 1792 National address.

The President stated: “In execution of authority given by the legislature, measures have been taken for engaging some artists from abroad to aid in the establishment of our Mint. Others have been employed at home. Provisions have been made for the requisite buildings, and these are now putting into proper condition for the purposes of the establishment. There has been a small beginning in the coinage of half dimes, the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them.” The entirety of this final sentence clearly tells us that these coins were intended for circulation, especially the second part of this sentence..

The actual mintage is not known, although evidence points to 1,500 coins, and this seems appropriate, based on the number that are still in existence today, estimated between 200-400 pieces. We know that these coins were struck in July 1792, prior to completion of the actual Mint buildings, thus they were struck at another location. That location is generally believed to be John Harper’s cellar,at the corner of Cherry and 5th Streets, just a short distance from the Mint site.

A period painting by John Ward Dunsmore of New York portrays General and Mrs. Washington, Alexander Hamilton and wife, Thomas Jefferson, David Rittenhouse, Tobias Lear, Henry Voight and Adam Eckfeldt inspecting these first coins.

For over 200 years, these coins have been among the most prized numismatic items ever issued by the United States. Numismatic scholar Walter Breen wrote, ‘Their historic context has made these half dismes among the most prized American silver coins.’

Specifications:

Designer: Robert Birch and Joseph Wright
Mintage: 1500 [est.]
Denomintion: Half Disme
Diameter: 17.5 millimeters
Metal content: .8924 silver, .1076 copper
Weight: 1.35 grams

Additional Resources :
The Half Disme of 1792: Introduction
Unique Specimen Floyd Starr Half-Disme to be Auctioned!

Posted in: Type Coins Silver

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