1792 Half Disme (Deem) first US Coin image
Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions

The Mint Act of April 2, 1792, established a Mint at Philadelphia--the nation's capital at the time--mandated a decimal coinage system. The Act was largely the vision of Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury, based on his "Report on the Establishment of a Mint" presented to the House of Representatives on Jan. 28, 1791. Hamilton recommended a decimal standard with ten dollar ("eagle") and one dollar gold coins, one dollar and ten cent ("disme") silver coins, and copper one cent and half-cent pieces. However, the final Act as adopted also comprised silver half dollars, quarter dollars, and half dismes.

On July 1, 1792, President George Washington appointed David Rittenhouse to be the nation's first Mint director. Congress contemplated putting a portrait of President Washington on coinage, a concept he dismissed as "monarchical." The final Act accordingly specified a "portrait emblematic of liberty." The issues of 1792 were mostly patterns, but many numismatists, including the present cataloger (GH), consider the Liberty Head, Flowing Hair half dismes to be a circulation issue. President Washington referred to making "a small beginning in the coinage of half-dismes" in his address to Congress on Nov. 6. In that same year, Adam Eckfeldt was hired as a workman, the first of generations of Eckfeldt family Mint employees--and was present at the striking of the half dismes, in the basement of sawmaker John Harper.

Much evidence in addition to Washington's address to Congress points to the 1792 half dismes' role as circulating coinage. For example, the existence of a unique pattern half disme in copper leads directly to the conclusion that the silver half dismes are not patterns. Most survivors show extensive wear, but it is also recorded that President Washington handed out numerous examples as souvenirs. The certified population (likely the top end of surviving examples) contains quite a few Mint State pieces, evidence that the original recipients mostly cherished those historic numismatic presents from our nation's first president.

Courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Designer: Robert Birch and Joseph Wright
Mintage: 1500-2500 [est.]
Denomintion: Half Disme
Diameter: 17.5 millimeters
Metal content: .8924 silver, .1076 copper
Weight: 1.35 grams
The Case For Half Dimes As Coinage
by Daniel Malone (2011)

Some numismatists consider the 1792 Half Disme the first coin minted by the United States, but others claim the coin was only a pattern issue or proposed coinage. However, there's written history that the coin was intended to be US Coinage, and some specimens show circulation from being spent. I will cover this evidence but first a little history on this famous and valuable coin.

It was decided that the coin be called a Half Disme (pronounced as "deem") after the decimal system, and made smaller than a modern dime but slightly larger than a 1794 Flowing Hair Half Dime. Nonetheless, most numismatists consider it nothing more than a pattern coin, or 'test piece', if you will, for the new U.S. Government, and not actual coinage. However, further evidence suggests the 1792 Half Disme is much more than pattern coins, and actual U.S. coinage.

Even George Washington referred to half dismes as circulating coinage in this quote from his November 6, 1792 National address, "There has been a small beginning in the coinage of half dimes, the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them. Of course, there were many patterns struck during this era including a 1794 Half Disme, with a different metal content, but it's obvious to this writer that the "1792 half dime" was the first coin minted by the United States Government for circulation. This was done in John Harper's basement a few blocks from the Philadelphia Mint that was under construction.

So, why is this coin not included as an officially circulated Half Dime? Why do most of the major publications either refer to the Half Disme as a pattern or refuse to list it as the first Half Dime?

Might it be stubbornness? Or is the evidence too circumstantial to prove otherwise? We might never know. But a few facts are clear to this writer, the 1792 Half Dime was an official U.S. Government coin that President Washington, among others, intended for circulation, was minted in the same size and metal content as other Half Dismes, and with the same Liberty Head design as other half dimes of the era; at this time there are still many of these coins that exist in a circulated state of preservation.

In conclusion, I suggest, to the powers that be, that the 1792 Half Disme be proclaimed as the first actual coinage authorized and minted for circulation by the U.S. Government, named "1792 Flowing Hair, Facing Right, Half Disme (Half Dime). It may never happen, but it's an injustice to allow the first U.S. coin to languish in a lesser role as merely a pattern coin, than the other circulated Half Dimes of the same era.

Special thanks to Karl Moulten of coincats.com for his assistance in finishing this article.

Design: The 1792 has INDUSTRY - LIB - PAR - OF - SCIENCE around the inside rim, and is translated as "Industry and liberty on par with science". This coin doesn't have a mint mark and was minted in Philadelphia, as most early US Coins were.
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