The first half dollar was of the so-called Flowing Hair design. Its obverse featured a portrait of a youthful female figure whose hair flowed freely behind her; its reverse bore a small, spread-winged eagle surrounded by laurel branches.
After just two years of production, 1794 and 1795, the Mint replaced the youthful Miss Liberty with a more mature and more sedate portrait, one that has come to be known as the Draped Bust type. To a great extent, this resulted from a change in leadership at the Mint.The first director, David Rittenhouse, had resigned at the end of June, 1795, and his successor, Henry William DeSaussure, set out at once to improve the designs of all denominations, especially the silver pieces.
Gilbert Stuart's drawing was transferred to plaster by a Providence, Rhode Island artist named John Eckstein, and Mint Chief Engraver Robert Scot then executed the coinage dies. Stuart, disappointed with Scot's interpretation, disavowed the work entirely, and it was not generations later that his connection to it was rediscovered.
Like her more youthful predecessor, this matronly Liberty had stars alongside her. Curiously, though, the number of stars increased from fifteen to sixteen partway through the 1796 production year, after Tennessee was admitted to the Union as the 16th state. It then dropped back to fifteen in 1797, evidence that dies were mostly prepared in advance and then dated only as they were needed for coining.
The reverse was similar to that of the Flowing Hair design, but slightly modified. The eagle became more graceful, less ungainly, and its perch was moved from a rock to a cloud. Additionally, the branches were reworked and refined, with a palm branch now on the right and an olive branch on the left. As on the previous coinage, the inscription LIBERTY and the date appear on the obverse, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA on the reverse. Lettering on the edge proclaims the statement of value: FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR. For emphasis, the fraction 1/2 was added below the wreath.
No proofs are known for this series, but proof-like specimen pieces exist. Even though the series lasted just two years, it is almost always collected by type rather than date, because so few were made. This half dollar is, in fact, one of the pivotal keys and crowning glories of any type set. Draped Bust/Small eagle half dollars are extremely scarce in all grades and virtually nonexistent in high mint state grades. Points to check for wear are the hair above Liberty's forehead and the crest of the eagle's breast.
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC
Designer: Robert Scot
Diameter: 32.5 millimeters
Silver - 89.2%
Copper - 10.8%
Weight: 208 grains (13.5 grams)
Edge: Lettered - FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR (various ornaments between words)
Mint mark: None (all dates of this type were struck at Philadelphia)