In 1836 Christian Gobrecht completed work for new Capped Bust half dollar obverse and reverse dies in preparation for the transition from man- or animal-powered coinage presses to new steam-powered presses. The new coins were slightly reduced in weight and diameter, but the most significant change was the use of a restraining collar around the coin blank that imparted a reeded edge to the coin during the striking process.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
The "close collar", for all practical purposes a third die, had been used for smaller silver and gold coins since 1829, but the half dollar was one of the first denominations produced by the new steam presses. An immediate result was greater uniformity of the coin impressions; the "open collar" process previously used allowed the planchet to spread out somewhat which resulted in minor variations in the coin size. Mint Director Robert Patterson described the effect of the new process as giving a "mathematical equality to their diameters." The close collar also precluded using planchets already made with edge lettering or other ornamentation, because the reeding die would have obliterated such impressions during the striking process. Only 1,200 Reeded Edge half dollars were struck in 1836, overlapping the final production year of the Lettered Edge half dollar.
The 1836-dated halves are considered patterns by some because the authorizing legislation for the coin didn't become law until January, 1837, but other researchers give legal tender status to these coins which circulated following production. Other minor design changes were made in this short four-year series, the most significant being the change of the reverse denomination from 50 CENTS to HALF DOL. in 1838, possibly to match the style used on the 1838 Liberty Seated quarter.
An elegant Liberty portrait covers most of the obverse, though with slightly different profile from the preceding version. Facing to the left, Liberty wears a mobcap, described by Webster's dictionary as "a woman's fancy indoor cap made with a high full crown and often tied under the chin", though this representation is not as robust as the cap of the first two years. Across the bottom of the cap is the word LIBERTY, and cascades of curling hair drop down across the back and shoulder from under the cap. A flowing robe drapes across the bust, secured by a clasp on the shoulder. Thirteen six-point stars encircle inside a dentilled rim, six to the left and seven to the right. The date is at the bottom of the coin.
An imposing eagle is placed in the center of the reverse, head turned to the eagle's right (viewer's left), wings outstretched as if ready to fly, with a shield over the breast. Three arrows are held in the sinister claw (eagle's left) and an olive branch in the dexter. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is placed around the top two-thirds of the coin inside a dentilled rim, with the denomination 50 CENTS at the bottom for 1836 and 1837, and HALF DOL. for 1838 and 1839. Most Reeded Edge halves were minted in Philadelphia, but in 1838 the first branch mint half dollar was minted in New Orleans (as a proof), repeated in 1839 (as a circulation strike). The O mintmark is on the obverse, below the portrait and above the date.
Because of the uniformity imposed by the minting process very few varieties are listed in census/ population reports. Coins are certified at most grades, but numbers decline substantially as Gem and finer. Prices are moderate up to Mint State, increasing at double and triple multiples per grade above that. Circulation coins listed at higher premiums are 1836 and 1839-O, the 1836 considerably more expensive. All proofs are very expensive, extremely so for the rare 1838-O issue, and cameo proofs have been certified for 1836 and 1838.
Designer: Christian Gobrecht, from a previous John Reich design
Circulation Mintage:high 3,629,820 (1837), low 1,200 (1836; none for 1838-O)
Proof Mintage: high 20 (1836, estimated), low 5 (1838, estimated)
Denomintion: $0.50, Fifty cents (50/100)
Diameter: ±30 mm, reeded edge
Metal content: 90% silver, 10% copper
Weight: ±13.36 grams
Varieties:A few known, with the design changes made by Gobrecht for each two-year style the most prominent. Other than that, the best known variety is an 1839 Small Letters reverse.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
John Reich Collectors Society: http://logan.com/jrcs/
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.