Everyday we use coins and probably don’t really think about how they evolved or where they came from. The truth is, U.S. coinage, actually dates back long before the United States was even formed, where early Americans in the thirteen colonies used Indian wampum beads for trade. However, since the beginning, our coins have told our story of how we became a great nation. Today, we might take our coins for granted or value them too lightly, but someday, the coin in your pocket could be rare and in someone’s collection.
As a collector, if you are lucky enough to hold a 1792 Half Disme (pronounced dime) in your hand, you can travel back to colonial times when the United States was just a newly formed young republic. It was there at the beginning of our nation when we, as a country, were trying to find our place in the world. Imagine the people who may have actually held that coin, an early American who would have fought for the freedoms that we enjoy today. It could have even been one of our founding fathers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or even Benjamin Franklin.
On July 6, 1785, less than 10 years after we became a country, A Congressional resolution adopted the dollar as the monetary unit of the United States. Subsequent resolutions spanning 1786 and 1787 specified weight, fineness, and the decimal system for the relationship of each of the coins authorized. This set the stage for American Congress to pass the country’s first Coinage Act of April 2, 1792. This Act specified “…that the money of account of the United States shall be expressed in dollars or units, dismes or tenths, cents or hundredths and that all accounts in the public offices and all proceedings in the courts of the United States shall be kept and had in conformity to this regulation.” In other words, this meant that the United States Mint was officially responsible for creating coins for public use. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were two of the men who contributed research and ideas towards the early versions of those coins. Washington appointed David Rittenhouse of Philadelphia, the most renowned scientist in America, Director of the Mint. A well-known clockmaker of the time, Henry Voight, was appointed Acting Chief Coiner.
Mechanics began construction of the necessary coining apparatus and “engines.” On July 9, 1792, President Washington authorized proceeding with the coining of half dismes. No time was wasted, as just four days later, Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, recorded in his household account book: “rec’d from the mint 1500 half dimes of the new coinage.” Some research suggests that the single pair of dies used for the 1792 half disme was designed and engraved by a British medalist, William Russell Birch, rather than the Robert Birch who was associated with the Mint in those early years and previously credited with the coin’s design. Birch purportedly used letter punches for the initial coins supplied by Jacob Bay of Pennsylvania, a well-known maker of printing types.
The obverse of the half disme portrays the head of Liberty facing left, with the date 1792 below. The motto LIB•PAR•OF SCIENCE & INDUSTRY encircles the border. The reverse depicts an eagle flying left with the denomination HALF DISME in two lines, with a five-pointed star below. The legend UNI•STATES OF AMERICA frames the eagle. The new mint building was actually under construction, so the coining machinery was housed in a small cellar ofJohn Harper, a saw maker, at the corner of Cherry and 5th Streets. That basement is where it all began and where these initial Half Dismes were struck.
Dr. Jonas McClintock, a Treasury official, had a conversation at the Mint with Adam Eckfeldt, the retired Chief Coiner, and only surviving Mint official who was actually present when the half dismes were made. Eckfeldt related that President Washington deposited $100 in silver bullion for the purpose of coining these half dismes, however, it is believed that the first coins were actually made from silverware provided by George and Martha Washington. 1,500 dismes were struck and presented to Jefferson by Mint Director Rittenhouse, he certainly must have passed some on to General Washington that were then used as presentation pieces for visiting dignitaries and VIPs. Also, many were given to acquaintances in Virginia. It’s estimated that the majority of 1792 half dismes entered circulation but only about 200-250 are known to exist today, generally in low grades. (About 20 uncirculated examples are included in that figure.) Learn more about coin grading here.
Interesting to note that these coins were not fully struck up originally so that even uncirculated examples don’t show full breast or leg feathers on the eagle. The hair curls above and below Liberty’s ear are also seen as partly flat. Adjustment marks are very common and cast counterfeits are known.
President Washington, in his fourth Annual Address to Congress, November 6, 1792, spoke of “a small beginning in the coinage of half dismes, the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them.” A small beginning perhaps, but of great national significance, as the prerogative to coin precious metals, has historically been an expression of national sovereignty. A period painting by John Ward Dunsmore of New York portrays General and Mrs. Washington, Alexander Hamilton and wife, Thomas Jefferson, David Rittenhouse, Tobias Lear, Henry Voight and Adam Eckfeldt inspecting these first coins. Because of their historic context, these diminutive pieces are among the most prized of American silver coins. In fact, one of the uncirculated coins was sold in 2006 for $1,322,000.00. Some numismatists consider the 1792 half dime to be nothing more than a pattern coin, or “test piece”, and this matter continues to be subject to debate. No matter if they were pattern coins or test pieces, dedicated men that created the first U.S. coins created history in that tiny basement on the corner of cherry and 5th streets in Philadelphia, and more importantly, created the beginnings of our monetary system, as we know it today.
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