What is a half dime? If you’ve come across an old coin labeled as a ‘half dime’ and are wondering exactly what that is, you’ve come to the right place. Half dimes are an interesting part of early American history and their unique story is a fascinating one.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: A half dime is a silver coin produced in the United States from 1794 to 1873 that was valued at five cents. Half dimes contained half as much silver as the regular dime coins of the time.

In this complete guide on half dimes, we’ll explore everything you need to know about these historical coins, including what they looked like, why they existed alongside regular dimes, how much they were worth, key dates to look out for, and what happened to the half dime after 1873.

What Did Half Dimes Look Like?

Early Half Dime Designs Featured the Flowing Hair Liberty Bust (1794-1805)

The first half dimes minted in 1794 featured a design of a bust of Liberty with long, flowing hair on the obverse side. This Flowing Hair Liberty bust design was the work of noted early American mint engraver Robert Scot and reflected the neoclassical style that was popular at the time.

The Flowing Hair half dimes were tiny coins, with a diameter of approximately 16-18mm. They were made of silver, with the precious metal content weighing around 1.35 grams. The rims of these first half dimes had beaded borders and the words “LIBERTY” and the date were inscribed on them.

On the reverse side, the early United States half dimes had an open wreath design encircling the words “HALF DIME”. Later issues starting in 1795 added a central eagle design on the back. These small silver coins are highly sought after by collectors today, with the 1794 specimens ranking amongst the rarest and most valuable US coins in existence.

Draped Bust Half Dimes Followed a Similar Design (1796-1805)

In 1796, the United States Mint updated the half dime with a new design featuring a Draped Bust depiction of Liberty. This Draped Bust half dime concept showed Miss Liberty wearing a dress that draped over the bust line, reflecting the fashions of the era.

Engraved by noted mint designer Robert Scot, the portrait was said to possibly be based on a society lady named Ann Willing Bingham.

Like the earlier Flowing Hair type, the Draped Bust half dimes depicted Liberty on the front and a small eagle reverse on the back. The lettering and inscriptions remained similar as well, although the edges were now standardized with raised borders instead of beaded rims.

The weight and silver purity also were largely the same, at 1.35 grams and .8924 fineness respectively.

While produced for a shorter time, the Draped Bust half dime remains a popular and scarce early American type coin. The rarest issues are the low mintage 1796 and 1797-dated coins, which can sell for upwards of $10,000 for specimens in nice collector condition.

Why Were Half Dimes Created Alongside Regular Dimes?

The half dime was introduced in 1792 alongside the regular dime to provide smaller denomination coins for commerce. At that time, there was a shortage of small changes needed to conduct everyday cash transactions.

The largest denomination coin in circulation was the quarter, leaving no good option for purchases under 25 cents.

To fill this need, the Mint Act of 1792 authorized both a ten-cent dime coin and five five-cent half dime. The first half dimes were minted in silver and were much smaller than dimes in size. In fact, some numismatists believe the half dime was actually the precursor to what later became the nickel five-cent piece before it was discontinued in 1873.

More Practical Than Spanish Coins

Before the half dime, many merchants used smaller denomination Spanish silver coins like the half real to make change. However, reliance on foreign coins created headaches due to fluctuating values. The Mint Act sought to remedy this by introducing an official US small change coin that would have a fixed, dependable value backed by the federal government.

Matched the Ubiquity of the Half Dollar

Another reason for introducing the half dime was that it created a proportional coin relative to the silver half dollar. Early American commerce saw frequent use of the half-dollar coin. So issuing a half dime created a smaller denomination coin that matched the widespread usage of the 50-cent piece.

If the half-dollar coin equated to four bits or four reals, the half-dime matched at two bits or two reals.

Appealed to Lower Income Citizens

In addition to the practicality for commerce, half dimes also catered to lower-income citizens who often conducted transactions in pennies. The five-cent half dime represented a substantial step up from the penny for the poor.

Yet it still served as a handy coin for minor purchases that the dime may have exceeded.

What Was a Half Dime Actually Worth?

A half dime, as the name implies, was worth five cents. This coin was minted in the United States from 1792 to 1873. For most of its lifespan, the half dime contained a small amount of silver, making its melt value slightly higher than its face value.

When the half dime was first produced by the U.S. Mint, it was prescribed by the Coinage Act of 1792 to contain 1.35 grams of silver. With the price of silver at that time, this amount was worth about five cents.

The original weight and silver content gave the half-dime good buying power when it was introduced. Over the years, the melt value of the silver half-dime gradually increased. By 1853, the silver in a half dime was worth six to seven cents at market rates.

Factors Affecting the Half Dime’s Value

There were a few key factors that affected how much a half dime was worth over time:

  • Silver content – Having silver gave the coin some intrinsic melt value beyond its face value.
  • Silver prices – Fluctuations in the market price of silver impacted the melt value.
  • Condition – Half dimes in pristine, uncirculated condition tend to be worth more to collectors.

While the coin’s silver content gave it some extra value, the tiny size of the half dime meant it never contained very much precious metal. Even when silver prices increased dramatically, a half dime was still a very small fraction of an ounce.

Final Years of the Half-Dime

In the early 1850s, a rise in silver prices due to the California Gold Rush caused U.S. silver coins to trade for higher than face value. Many half dimes (along with other silver coins) were melted for their metal content. This encouraged hoarding and disappearing from circulation.

To address this problem, Congress in 1853 reduced the silver content of the half dime, quarter, and half dollar. By containing less precious metal while retaining the same face value, coins would remain in circulation instead of being hoarded or melted.

These reduced-silver coins are known as “Seated Liberty” design half dimes. They continued to be minted until 1873 when the half dime was discontinued.

Collectibility and Value Today

Coin Grade Approximate Value
Heavily circulated $8-$20
Moderately worn $30-$100
Mint State $200-$2,000+

While no longer in circulation, half dimes are still collected today by numismatists and enthusiasts. Their small size makes them cheaper to collect than early dimes, quarters, or half dollars. Prices vary considerably based on scarcity, date, mint location, and condition.

So in the end, a half dime did accurately live up to its name by being worth five cents. But over time, factors like precious metal value, condition, and collectibility have made most surviving specimens worth much more than five cents to modern collectors.

Key Dates and Other Rare Half Dimes

1796 Half Dime

Among the very first half dimes minted was the 1796 Draped Bust series, making them highly sought-after by collectors today. Only around 54,000 1796 half dimes were produced, carrying an estimated value of $1 million for those in pristine condition.

These historic coins featured Lady Liberty on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse. Struck in silver, the 1796 half dimes are considered a milestone as the first circulating coins officially minted under the newly established U.S. federal coinage system.

1846 Half Dime

While more common than the 1796 half dime, the 1846 Philadelphia half dime is still quite rare and valuable for collectors. It is considered the rarest half dime from the Seated Liberty coin series, with a mintage of just 27,000 pieces.

An 1846 half dime recently sold at auction in 2022 for over $170,000! Coins from this year feature the Seated Liberty design by Christian Gobrecht on the obverse, with a denomination mark and eagle on the reverse.

The Unique 1870-S Half Dime

Perhaps the rarest and most enigmatic half-dime is the lone 1870-S issue. Struck at the San Francisco mint, it is the only half dime ever minted with an “S” mint mark identifying it as such.

While records of its production have been lost, numismatic historians believe just a single specimen was made as a trial before the half-dime denomination was discontinued in 1873. This essentially “priceless” coin now resides as the showpiece rarity of the du Pont Collection at the Smithsonian Institution.

Half-Dime Year Mintage Approx. Value (USD)
1796 1,500 coins $1 million (pristine)
1846 27,000 coins $170,000+ (AU58 grade)
1870-S 1 coin Priceless (Unique rarity)

While early half dimes can run into the tens or hundreds of thousands based on condition, even well-worn examples with details intact can fetch four-figure prices at auction. For coin collectors, these fascinating little silver 5-cent pieces offer an affordable entry point into the elite world of rare numismatics.

The Demise of the Half Dime in 1873

The half dime, a tiny 5-cent coin first minted in 1794, served an important role in commerce for nearly 80 years. However, by 1873 economic changes in the United States brought about the end of the half dime.

The Coinage Act of 1873

A major piece of legislation called the Coinage Act of 1873 led to the demise of the half-dime. This act set the value of a dime at 10 cents, which made the half dime obsolete. With a 10-cent dime now available, there was no need to produce a separate 5-cent half dime anymore.

The Coinage Act essentially consolidated the 5 and 10-cent coins into a single dime denomination.

Shift from Silver to Base Metals

The Coinage Act of 1873 also shifted US coinage from silver to cheaper base metals like copper-nickel. Up until 1873, all dimes and half dimes were made of 90% silver. But the new act transitioned dimes to a copper-nickel composition.

This saved the US Mint a significant amount of money compared to using silver. However, it meant the intrinsic value of the coins was lowered. With less precious metal value, the tiny half-dime no longer made practical sense to produce.

Rise of Nickels

Another factor that led to the half-dime’s retirement was the introduction of the Shield nickel in 1866. Nickels were thicker, larger coins that could withstand heavy use and wear better than tiny half-dimes.

By 1873, nickels had grown popular and largely replaced half dimes in commercial transactions. So combined with the new copper-nickel dimes, half dimes became redundant in Americans’ pockets and cash registers.

After 73 years of production, the last half dimes were struck in 1873 at the San Francisco Mint. Tens of millions of half dimes circulated in the US through the late 1800s, but as they gradually wore out, the denomination passed into history.

Despite its small size, the half-dime had a sizable impact on early American commerce.

What Is A Half Dime – Conclusion

Half dimes have an intriguing history tied closely to the early days of American coinage. These tiny silver coins give us a glimpse into the nation’s first mint in Philadelphia in the late 1700s.

While regular dimes went on to become a mainstay of our coinage system, half dimes faded away after less than a century of production. Yet they remain popular collectibles for numismatists interested in the origins of U.S. coinage.

We hope this guide has helped explain exactly what a half dime is and illuminated some key parts of its history that you may not have already known. Half dimes tells a fascinating monetary story from America’s past.

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