Along with the large cent, the half cent was one of our original coins dating to 1793. At the time of circulation, their value was close to the value of our modern dime. However, they were never popular, and were generally minted in much smaller quantities than the large cent. During the first year, there was fewer than one half cent minted for every 100 citizens. In the 1850's (the final decade for the half cent), the ratio was the same. The half cent could never serve the needs of the public. It was unusual for anyone to ever get one in change.
Taxation and the US mint
In 1791, the federal government exerted its authority on monetary policy by authorizing George Washington to establish a mint (thus ending coinage by states) and by imposing a whiskey tax. In 1794, farmers in my home state of Pennsylvania rebelled against the tax and were quelled by federal troops. It is in this environment that the minting of US coins began.
Who designed the first half cent?
It has not been established who designed the first half cent, which is from 1793 with the head facing left. It had been thought to be Adam Eckfeldt, whose main contribution to numismatics was saving the best specimens of coins as they were minted and preserving them for future use. Modern numismatic scholars feel that the designer was more likely to be Joseph Wright. However there is much doubt on that.
Liberty changes direction
In 1794, Liberty changed direction and faced right. In 1795, the coin was re-designed with a smaller portrait.
Other half cent designs
The other early designs for the half cent include the draped bust (1800-1808) and the classic head. The last regular issue of the draped bust coin was 1835,although proofs were struck in 1836.
The Liberty Coronet CentAfter 1835, there was a large gap with no half cents struck for circulation. During this time, many businesses minted their own copper tokens. Regular issues of half cents did not resume until 1849, with the Liberty Coronet Cent.
Liberty Coronet Proof CoinsProof coins of the Liberty coronet series exist dated 1840 to 1849. These coins are referred to as original (distinguished by larger berries on the reverse) and restrikes. Although the restrikes were likely made after the so-called originals, it is likely that neither of these types were actually struck during the dates that appear on the coins. They may have been made by employees of the mint without knowledge of their director.
The end of the half centThe mintages for the liberty coronet cent were quite small. Neither the half cent nor large cent were popular. In 1857, James Buchanon signed the coin act that eliminated the half cent and large cent and intyroduced the small cent.
Collecting half centsHalf cents were ignored by most collectors through the mid twentieth century. Interest in half cents started with Roger Cohen's book, AMERICAN HALF CENTS The "Little Half Sisters" . Half cents are collected in many ways. Many collect them by type, in which there are six major types (I consider the 1794 a unique type, although others lump it with the 1795 to 1797 coins). The first type, where liberty faces left is the most valuable. Even well worn specimens sell for over $1000. Half Cents are also collected by date. My advice is to skip the proof only coins dated 1840 to 1849. A full set of these (including originals and restrikes) can run about $140,000. For the regular issue coins, the key rarity is 1796, when only 1,390 half cents were struck. The vast majority of the surviving coins of that year will sell for over $10,000, thus leaving a hole in most collectors' albums. Albums available for half cents include Dansco Half Cents 1793-1857 Album #7098 and Whitman Harris Half Cents Album .
More information on half centsMore information about half cents can be found in the book, Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of United States Half Cents, 1793-1857 .