Half Dimes – Draped Bust Half Dime, Small Eagle, 1796-1797
Robert Scot’s Flowing Hair half dime design, used in 1794 and 1795, was disparaged by some for his portrayals both of Liberty and the reverse eagle. Perhaps responding to that criticism, Mint Director Henry W. DeSaussure announced a goal of improving the designs of all silver coins. Artist Gilbert Stuart (known for his portrait of George Washington and often called the “Father of American Portraiture”) created a sketch of Liberty, modeled after a local resident, that was transferred to dies by John Eckstein. Some have criticized the resultant likeness as not capturing the fullness of Gilbert’s original sketch, but since the whereabouts of that sketch is unknown, such criticism may be presumptuous. The reverse design was also modified. The eagle was reduced in size from the image used on the previous version, though given a more robust appearance, and the encircling wreath was now comprised of two plant types rather than one.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
The several obverse changes in the half dime issues for 1797 are categorized by the number of stars around the rim. The first type of this year had fifteen stars, the same as displayed on the 1796 half dime. To signify the addition of Tennessee as the sixteenth state in 1796, the second obverse die for 1797 was modified to include a sixteenth star. Perhaps because the space for additional stars on the obverse was essentially gone, leaving no room for additional stars representing new states that were likely to join the Union, the number of stars was reduced to 13 on the last 1797 issue. Thirteen stars thus represented the union of the original 13 colonies, a symbolism repeated on many subsequent U.S. coin issues.
On the obverse a youthful Liberty faces right, long hair cascading down the back of her neck, with a decorative headband ribbon tied at the back. Shoulders and neckline are loosely draped with rippled cloth. The word LIBERTY is centered at the top inside the border dentils, with the date centered at the bottom. Fifteen six-point stars with thin rays fill the spaces between date and LIBERTY on the 1796 coins and the first 1797 issue, eight stars to the left and seven to the right. The second 1797 variety has 16 stars, nine to the left and seven to the right, and the final 1797 variety displays 13 stars, seven to the left and six to the right. The 1796 LIKERTY variety is missing most (but not all) of the horizontal top and bottom bars of the letter B, giving a first-glance impression of being a letter K.
The reverse displays UNITED STATES OF AMERICA along the edge of the coin inside a dentilled rim. Just inside the legend is an encircling pair of branches, crossed and tied at the bottom but slightly apart at the top. The left branch is laurel, with berries, while the right is a palm branch. In the center a right-facing eagle with partially outstretched wings rests on an ambiguous surface, identified as either clouds or a rock. Unlike the previous Small Eagle type, the eagle’s wings do not intersect the surrounding branches, though the left wing (viewers right) does touch the palm branch. No denomination or mintmark appears on the coins; all were minted in Philadelphia.
Just a few hundred Draped Bust, Small Eagle half dimes have been certified, with census/ population reports listing more of the 1797, 15-star, coins than of the other varieties. Prices are modest (though not inexpensive) at grades of Good to Fine, but climb steeply above that. Coins graded as Mint State and finer are very expensive. The 1797 13-star is the most expensive variety, at prices approximately double that of any of the others. The 1796/5 overdate has a modest premium above the others up to Select Uncirculated, with the price difference increasing above that grade.
Designer: Robert Scot
Circulation Mintage: high 44,527 (1797, all varieties), low 10,230 (1796, all varieties)
Proof Mintage: none
Denomintion: $0.05 Five cents (05/100)
Diameter: ±16.5 mm, reeded edge
Metal content: 89.24% silver, 10.76% copper
Weight: ±1.35 grams
Varieties:Though every issue of the two-year type is distinct, five versions are specifically identified as varieties: the 1796/5 overdate; the 1796 “LIKERTY”, so-called because of a break at the top and bottom horizontal bars of the B, not from the use of the letter K; and 15, 16, and 13 star obverses for the year 1797.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
Federal Half Dimes. Russell J. Logan, John W. McCloskey. John Reich Collectors Society.
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.