The Act of February 21, 1853, established the prevalence of fiat coinage for this nation; the value stamped on a coin was what the government said it was, not necessarily related to the value of the material from which that coin was made. Though for at least the past generation all circulating coins have a face value that is higher than the metal value (recent copper and nickel price issues notwithstanding), in the mid-19th century that was not the case. People expected coins to have intrinsic value, but maintaining parity between the face value and the metal value of silver and gold coins was a constant balancing act. The discovery of vast quantities of gold in California in 1848 and subsequent years disrupted that balance. As gold became plentiful but silver supplies remained constant, gold's value declined relative to silver and the price of silver rose. When the face value of circulating silver coins became less than the value of the silver in those pieces, silver coins disappeared from circulation, melted as bullion or hoarded.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
To address the problem, Mint Director George N. Eckert reduced the weight of silver coins (except for the dollar) so that melting would no longer be profitable, a change authorized by the February Act. To distinguish new half dimes from the old heavier coins, and with no time to make significant alterations, the only change made by Chief Engraver James B. Longacre to the half dime was the addition of an arrow on each side of the date. Arrows appeared on half dimes from 1853 through 1855; 1853-dated half dimes were produced both without arrows and with arrows. James Ross Snowden became Mint Director in 1853 and removed the arrows from 1856 half dimes, probably because by then most of the older heavyweight coins had either been melted or otherwise put away for safekeeping. All half dimes from 1856 forward were produced at the lower weight.
On the obverse a full-length representation of Liberty wears long, flowing robes and is seated on a rock, head turned back to her right. Her left arm is bent and holds a pole topped by a Liberty cap. The right arm extends down at her side, hand supporting a Union shield across which is a slightly curved banner displaying LIBERTY. The date is centered at the bottom, below the rock upon which Liberty rests, and is flanked on either side by a single short arrow pointing away from the date. Inside dentils along the raised rim, 13 stars form a partial circle, seven to the left of Liberty, one between Liberty's head and the Liberty cap, and five to the right.
The reverse has a concentric circle formed by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, broken at the bottom by the ribbon that ties the ends of two laurel branches. The branches form another circle inside the text, though the ends are slightly separated at the top, and in the center is the denomination of HALF DIME, each word on a separate line. A circle of dentils lies inside the raised rim. Arrows at Date half dimes were produced at Philadelphia and New Orleans each of the three years of the type; the O mintmark is located below DIME and above the bows of the ribbon.
Several hundred circulation strike Liberty Seated, Stars, Arrows at Date half dimes have been certified for most dates. Prices are moderate up to and including Gem, becoming expensive as Premium Gem and finer. The New Orleans issues, and particularly the 1855-O pieces, are more expensive with prices nearly double or triple those for coins minted at Philadelphia. Proof examples of the type are scarce or rare, and include a few pieces certified as Cameo. All proofs are expensive, becoming very expensive as Gem and finer. The 1853 proof half dime is very expensive at all grades.
Designer: Christian Gobrecht modified by Robert Ball Hughes and James B. Longacre, from a Titian Peale/ Thomas Sully design
Circulation Mintage: high 13,210,020 (1853), low 600,000 (1855-O)
Proof Mintage:high 20 (1854 and 1855, estimated), low 5 (1853, estimated)
Denomintion: $0.05 Five Cents, 05/100 Half Dime
Diameter: ±15.5 mm; reeded edge
Metal content: 90% silver, 10% copper
Weight: ±1.24 grams
Varieties: A very few known, most minor die variations.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
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.