The Half Dollar of the United States, sometimes known as the fifty-cent piece, has been produced nearly every year since the inception of the United States Mint in 1794. The only U.S. coin that has been minted more consistently is the cent.
A two year Type coin, the 1794 Flowing Hair half Dollar was the first year that Half Dollars were struck at the new US Mint.
Coinage in general was slow to get under way at the nation’s first mint in Philadelphia. Congress passed the law authorizing the U.S. Mint and spelling out coin denominations and specifications on April 2, 1792—but the first copper coins didn’t go into production until 1793, and more than two full years went by before the first silver coins emerged.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Part of the delay resulted from complications inherent in setting up a new mint. But, to a great extent, precious metal coinage was stymied by red tape of the government’s own devising. In establishing the Mint, Congress had decreed that two key technical officers—the chief coiner and assayer—would have to post bonds of $10,000 apiece before they could work with gold and silver. The intent of this was laudable: to protect the American people from malfeasance. The effect, however, was crippling: The designated officers couldn’t come up with the money, an enormous sum by 18th Century standards, so only copper coinage could proceed.
The first delivery of 1794 half dollars took place in the final quarter of the year, with 5,300 pieces delivered by Henry Voigt, followed by an additional delivery of 18,164 coins early in 1795, all from 1794-dated dies. Two different dates are often given for the first delivery, either October 15, 1794 as claimed by Walter Breen, or December 1 as claimed by Hilt and others. The second delivery is recorded as February 4, 1795.
Congress had specified that the silver coins should carry a design “emblematic of Liberty,” and Chief Engraver Robert Scot had implemented this mandate with a right-facing portrait of a youthful female figure whose hair flowed freely behind her—hence the descriptive term “Flowing Hair.” It’s said the flowing hair was meant to signify freedom. LIBERTY appears above the portrait, with the date below and fifteen stars along the sides, denoting the number of states in the Union at that time. The coin’s reverse depicts a small, spread-winged eagle perched upon a rock and surrounded by laurel branches. Along the border, encircling this, is the motto UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The half dollar’s edge bears the inscription FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR, with decorations between the words.
The Mint produced 23,464 half dollars dated 1794 and 299,680 dated 1795. It replaced the obverse in 1796 with the Draped Bust portrait of Liberty, making the Flowing Hair version a two-year type coin. Some 1795 half dollars have a recut date, but these are not unduly elusive. Some 1795 pieces have three leaves under each of the eagle’s wings, instead of the normal two, and these are scarce. No proofs are known for this series, which is widely collected by type.
Early Half Dollars have a strong and active collector base, and examples in all grades are sought after. Most serious “Bust Half Collectors” assemble sets based on the Overton varieties as laid out in the book ” United States Early Half Dollar Die Varieties 1794-1836″ by Don Parsley ( based on earlier work by Albert C. Overton). To date there are 789 Die Marriages recognized, making collecting bust halves one of the most interesting specialty in numismatics.
There are 10 Overton varieties for the 1794 date and a total of 32 varieties for the 1795
Designer: Robert Scot
Mintage: 1794 – 23,464 1795 – 299,680
Diameter: ±32.5 millimeters
Metal content: Silver – 89.2% Copper – 10.8%
Weight: ±208 grains (±13.5 grams)
Varieties: Lettered – FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR (various ornaments between words)
Additional Resources :
For the collector of Early Half Dollars, through 1839, an excellent resource has been compiled by Stephen Herrman. His Auction and Mail Bid Prices Realized for Bust Half Dollars, often abbreviated AMBPR, is an invaluable tool for the collector or dealer.