These days it’s hard to imagine anything less valuable than a penny, but for many years the one cent coin was not even the smallest circulated in the United States. That honor belongs to the lowly half cent, produced from the early days of the Republic until just before the Civil War.
In its era, the half cent was actually one of the more important coins for daily commerce. At that time, a workingman’s daily wages averaged around one dollar; many subsisted on less. Flour usually cost less than five cents per pound. Rounding the necessities of daily life to the nearest penny would often create a significant price difference. Tying the half cent to a simple inflation index gives it a present-day value closer to a quarter - hardly the smallest denomination in circulation today!
The half cent was nearly the size of a modern-day quarter, too, varying from 22-23.5 mm in diameter across its designs. All half cent coins were made from pure copper (at least as pure as could be expected given the smelting technology of that era). Copper is a very soft metal, and rather ironically, the more metallically pure coins were more prone to wear. Today, high-quality examples of early half cents are rare and often valuable.
Die and strike quality was also generally poor at that time. Many dies were individually made, resulting in a number of different errors and variations in each of the designs. For example, the date on 1809 half cents was struck in a few different ways throughout the year, resulting in a few varieties. In 1828, mint engravers mistakenly left out one of the thirteen stars on the obverse, resulting in a version with just “twelve stars.”
The half cent was one of the original coins authorized by the Coinage Act of 1792, and among the first ever minted by the United States. The first design, depicting Lady Liberty carrying her Phrygian cap on a pole, was minted only for 1793 and is today the rarest half cent. The “Liberty Cap” design was revised slightly for 1794 through 1797: Liberty faces right instead of left. In 1796, a few half cents were minted without the pole on which Liberty’s cap is hoisted. These “no pole” half cents are the rarest in the series, with only a few dozen extant.
The design of the half cent in succeeding decades largely followed that of its cousin, the one cent coin, now referred to among numismatists as the “large cent.” The Draped Bust design first appeared on the large cent in 1796, but was only extended to the half cent from 1800-1808. The Classic Head (1809-1836) and Braided Hair (1840-1857). The later dates in the series are more common, as inflation drove down the popularity of these coins. Many orders ended up sitting in bank vaults, resulting in a greater availability of uncirculated coins.
By the 1850s, the US Mint was spending more than a penny to make each large cent. Both the half cent and large cent were eliminated from production after 1857. A new penny emerged – smaller, thicker, and made from a more durable alloy – but a new half cent did not.