Like a lover's voice fires the mountainside
President Thomas Jefferson had recommended Thomas Reich as assistant Mint engraver in 1801. But chief engraver Robert Scot, who had designed most early US coins including the Flowing Hair and Draped Bust halves, did not want an assistant. Within a few years, however, Scot's health began to deteriorate and a new mint director, Robert Patterson, was named in 1806. Patterson wanted to overhaul the designs of circulating US coinage and hired Reich to head the effort.
Reich's efforts included the Capped Bust half dollar, first struck in 1807. Like its predecessor, the obverse features a bust of Ms Liberty, but this time she faces left. Ms Liberty wears a Phrygian or 'freedom' cap--a symbol of the American Revolution. The headband carries a LIBERTY inscription. Her low neckline retains a draped gown, but it is now secured by a brooch at the shoulder. The obverse retains the 7 + 6 = 13 stars representing the original states. The date is below.
1830 Capped Bust Half Dollar PCGS AU55 Large 0 CAC
The reverse design features an American Bald Eagle facing left with wings spread. The eagle clutches a bundle of arrows and an olive branch in its claws. A shield is superimposed on the eagle's breast. A scroll above the eagle is inscribed with the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM, and UNITED STATE OF AMERICA circles the rim from about 8 o'clock to 4 o'clock. The denomination appears at the bottom of the reverse as 50 C. The basic design of this reverse would become a fixture on half dollars for much of the 19th century.
The design also featured a lettered edge which read FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR. The 89 silver/11 copper alloy mix was similar to the previous denomination, as were other specs:
Diameter: 32.5 mm
Weight: 13.48 g
Composition: .8924 silver; .1076 copper
Net precious metal weight: .38676 oz silver
Lettered edge Capped Bust halves were issued every year for 30 years except for 1816 when a fire destroyed the Mint's rolling mills and suspended all silver coin production. Annual mintages routinely exceeded 1 million pieces, and peaked at more than 6.5 million in 1836.
Because Capped Bust coinage during this period was produced on screw presses and each production die was individually made with lettering, date, and stars punched by hand, this series produced a huge number of varieties that have challenged collectors for generations. Overton's work remains the seminal catalogue of the myriad varieties.
In 1836 steam powered presses were introduced at the Philadelphia Mint. Steam power enabled the Mint to produce coins more efficiently and with greater uniformity. However, the technical advancements came with some aesthetic cost, including severe limitations on edge ornamentation. Engraver Christian Gobrecht was charged with modifying Reich's design to align with the new production capabilities.
1837 Capped Bust Half Dollar PCGS AU58 Reeded Edge
Gobrecht's modifications featured a coin with a smaller diameter and a reeded edge. Although the portraits of Ms Liberty on the obverse and the eagle on the reverse appeared the same, there were some subtle revisions. On the obverse, the stars were smaller and Ms Liberty was slenderized. On the reverse, the scroll with E PLURIBUS UNUM was removed, and the denomination at the bottom read 50 CENTS.
Fraction of silver in the reeded edge Capped Bust half bust was increased slightly to 90%, but the smaller diametered coin resulted in a net weight of silver slightly smaller than the previous design:
Diameter: 30.0 mm
Weight: 13.36 g
Composition: .90 silver; .10 copper
Net precious metal weight: .38658 oz silver
Only about 1,200 reeded edge halves were struck in 1836. Strictly speaking, the 1836 coins were patterns (i.e., non-production trial coins) as the legislation authorizing the design was not passed until January, 1837. About 3.7 million coins were struck in 1837.
In 1838, Gobrecht tinkered with the design again. He used slightly heavier lettering and tweaked details in the eagle's feathers and talons. The most noticeable change is that the denomination at the bottom of the reverse was altered to HALF DOL.
1838 Capped Bust Half Dollar PCGS AU50 Reeded Edge
The reeded edge "Half Dol." Capped Bust variety was struck in 2+ million quantities in both 1838 and 1839. In 1839, the New Orleans Mint also struck some pieces, making it the first branch mint to produce half dollars.
Because no silver dollar coinage was produced during the 1807-1839 run of the series, the Capped Bust half dollar was the highest denomination coin in circulation during the period. It was the 'workhorse' coin for commerce during the early 1800s. Many pieces were held and traded by banks, so many coins were preserved with light wear. Carrying a Capped Bust Half in one's pocket during this period probably engendered a pretty good feeling as it constituted about a half day's pay for the average working American at the time.