The Liberty Seated design was first seen on Christian Gobrecht's silver dollar in 1836, the inaugural year of that three-year type that ended in 1839 (no dollars were produced in 1837). The soaring eagle on the reverse of the dollar was not used on smaller denomination coins, and when the Seated design appeared on the half dollar in 1839 the reverse displayed the eagle used on the previous Capped Bust type. The first Liberty Seated half dollar did not have an extra fold of drapery hanging forward from Liberty's left elbow, and Liberty was seated on a larger rock. The With Drapery Liberty Seated half dollar, also introduced in 1839, has the extra drapery and Liberty rests on a smaller rock.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
There are three additional subtypes in the With Drapery series. Rising silver prices that followed the influx of California gold into the monetary system in the late 1840s and early 1850s created a situation where the bullion value of silver coins was greater than the face value. To halt the resultant melting of silver coins, Congress passed the Act of February 21, 1853, which lowered the weight of all silver coins except the dollar. To distinguish the new half dollar, an arrow was added to each side of the date on the obverse, and rays were added around the eagle on the reverse. Because of excessive die wear, and to minimize the time needed to prepare dies, the rays were eliminated for 1854 and 1855 issues. Finally, the arrows were dropped from 1856 and subsequent half dollars, creating a fourth type of the No Motto design, which remained essentially unchanged until IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse in 1866. All half dollars from 1853 (Arrows type) through 1866 were at the lower 12.44 gram weight.
Half dollars struck at the New Orleans branch mint in 1861 were produced under three different minting authorities. The first 330,000 coins were produced by the U.S. government. The next 1,240,000 coins were minted by the State of Louisiana after it seceded from the Union, and the final 962,633 pieces were minted by the Confederate States of America after Louisiana joined that Confederacy. Because all of the issues were struck from U.S. dies there is no known way to distinguish which coins were produced under a specific authority, with one exception: some coins were produced using a cracked obverse die, the same die used to produce four 1861 Confederate half dollars. Those half dollars display a CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA reverse, and all were struck on genuine 1861 U.S. half dollars with the obverse preserved (though softened somewhat from the striking process). Restrikes of this Confederate version were made following the 1879 discovery of the original Confederate die, along with white metal tokens displaying the Confederate reverse and a text inscription on the obverse.
The obverse shows Liberty in flowing robes seated on a rock, head turned back to her right. Long locks of curled hair cascade down her back and across the shoulder, and are tied with a barely discernable band. Her left arm is bent, holding a pole topped by a Liberty cap, while the extended right arm supports a Union shield leaning against the rock. Across the center of the shield is a curved banner with the word LIBERTY. Thirteen six-point stars form a circle around the top two-thirds of the coin inside a dentilled rim, seven stars to the left, five to the right, and one between Liberty's head and the Liberty cap. The date is centered at the bottom. Coins from the latter part of 1853 through 1855 have two arrowheads, one on each side of the date; those from 1856 forward have no arrowheads.
The reverse has a centered left-facing eagle, with extended but partly folded wings. The eagle clutches an olive branch in the right claw and three arrows in the left, though fletching is shown for only two of the three arrowheads. A shield is placed over the eagle's chest. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA forms a concentric arc to the inside of the top two-thirds of the dentilled rim, with the denomination of HALF DOL. at the bottom visually completing the circle. On the 1853 issue, lines of varying lengths radiate outward from around the eagle nearly to the encircling text (three examples of 1853-O half dollars with no rays are known). Liberty Seated With Drapery half dollars were minted at Philadelphia (all years), New Orleans (1840-1861), and San Francisco (1855-1866). O and S mintmarks appear on the reverse, below the eagle and above the denomination.
Several hundred Liberty Seated With Drapery business strike half dollars have been certified, though in general there are fewer listings of the pre-1853 and the post-1861 Civil War era issues. Prices are moderate for most issues up to Select Uncirculated, but examples are expensive as near-Gem and finer. A few prooflike pieces have been certified. Higher priced coins are the 1840-O Reverse of 1838, 1842-0 Reverse of 1839, 1844-O Doubled Date, 1846 6 over Horizontal 6, 1847/6, 1853-O No Arrows, 1855/54, 1855-S, 1857-S, and 1866-S No Motto. There are three known examples of the 1853-O No Arrows half dollars, though there is no official record that any were minted. All examples are very expensive, approaching the half million dollar mark as Extremely Fine. Most proof examples are scarce to rare, particularly those produced prior to 1859. Cameo and Deep Cameo examples have been certified. In general proofs dated 1852 or earlier are expensive, with those from 1856 through 1858 less so. Proofs from 1859 through 1865 are moderately priced below near-Gem grades and expensive finer than that. Arrows and Rays proofs of 1853 are expensive at all grades, extremely so as near-Gem and finer; and 1854, 1855, and 1855/44 Arrows proofs are expensive at all grades.
Designer: Christian Gobrecht (from a Thomas Sully drawing), modified by Robert Ball Hughes and James B. Longacre
Circulation Mintage: high 7,294,000 (1858-O), low 5 (1853-O No Arrows, estimated; only 3 pieces are known)
Proof Mintage: high 1,000 (1860, 1861), low 5 (many years, estimated)
Denomintion: $0.50 Fifty cents (50/100)
Diameter: ±30.6 mm; reeded edge
Metal content: 90% silver, 10% copper
Weight: ±13.36 grams; 12.44 grams from the latter part of 1853 forward
Varieties: Many identified, including overdates, double dates, and letter size changes. Those listed in census/ population reports include 1840 Small and Medium Letters Reverse; 1842 Small and Medium Date and Large Letters; 1844-O double date; 1845 double date; 1846 6 over horizontal 6; 1847/6; 1861 Confederate overstrikes; and others with repunches and variation in the size and placement of device features.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
Liberty Seated Half Dollar discussion forum: www.seated.org/boards
The Complete Guide to Liberty Seated Half Dollars. Randy Wiley, Bill Bugert. DLRC Press.
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.