1792 H10C Half Disme, Judd-7, Pollock-7, R.4--Repaired--NCS. AU Details

The mirror image of the Birch cent with Liberty facing left, the date immediately below the bust. Around the obverse periphery: LIB. PAR. OF SCIENCE & INDUSTRY. The reverse shows an eagle in flight, the denomination HALF DISME below. Around the margin: UNI. STATES OF AMERICA. Struck in silver with a diagonally reeded edge.

The story of the 1792 half dismes is one of the best-known and often-repeated tales in U.S. numismatics. The story begins with George Washington. His involvement with these coins was twofold. He allegedly contributed the silver to the Mint to strike the half dismes, and he also mentioned the coins in his national address of November 6, 1792:

"In execution of authority given by the legislature, measures have been taken for engaging some artists from abroad to aid in the establishment of our Mint. Others have been employed at home. Provisions have been made for the requisite buildings, and these are now putting into proper condition for the purposes of the establishment. 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."

The final sentence of Washington's address seems to clearly indicate that the half dismes were intended for circulation. The other involvement of Washington, that of his contributing the silver necessary to strike the pieces, is also generally accepted as factual today. However, it took nearly a century for evidence to surface that substantiated his contribution. Research conducted by Joel Orosz and Carl Herkowitz, titled "George Washington and America's 'Small Beginning' in Coinage: the Fabled 1792 Half Dismes" and published in the 2003 American Journal of Numismatics, cited a memorandum by John A. McAllister, Jr., who related his interview with Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt:

"In conversation with Mr. Adam Eckfeldt (Apr. 9, 1844) at the Mint, he informed me that the Half Dismes ... were struck, expressly for Gen. Washington, to the extent of One Hundred Dollars, which sum he deposited in Bullion or Coin, for the purpose. Mr. E. thinks that Gen. W. distributed them as presents. Some were sent to Europe, but the greater number, he believes, were given to friends of Gen. W. in Virginia. No more of them were ever coined."

While discovery of this document would seem to indicate that all half dismes were struck from silver "deposited in Bullion or Coin" by President Washington, the authors would not state conclusively that this was the case. In a Coin World article on June 13, 2005, Eric von Klinger wrote a review of Orosz and Herkowitz's article, titled "Document Details Half Disme: Confirms that G. Washington was Source of Silver," and first sentence that reads: "General Washington did indeed deposit silver for the 1792 half dismes." Orosz responded in a July 4, 2005 letter to the editor that:

"We never claim in our article that we have proved that President Washington provided the silver used to strike the half dismes, as both the headline and the first sentence of von Klinger's article flatly state. In our article, we conclude that while the great preponderance of the evidence points toward Washington as the silver provider, the pieces of evidence that could prove he was-- Washington's diary for 1792 and Acting Chief Coiner Henry Voigt's July 1792 account book--are unavailable. Washington was a long-time diarist, but the press of his presidential duties prevented him from keeping a diary in 1792. Voigt did keep an account book, but it was lost about a century ago, and no one knows where it is, or if it even still exists. Therefore, while the authors believe that all of the available evidence points to Washington, we cannot prove he was the donor beyond the shadow of a doubt."

Orosz and Herkowitz are to be commended for thoroughness in their research as well as their reluctance to draw a conclusion without proof from a primary source. That unfortunately has not been the case with the story of the half disme over the past 150 years. Since Washington apparently deposited bullion or coin for this issue, the story was embellished that he contributed the family silverware. Another favorite story about the half disme is since Washington had some involvement in this project and since there is a female figure of Liberty on the obverse, then the female figure must be Martha Washington. These stories did not originate with Dr. Montroville Dickeson and Mint Director James Ross Snowden in their books on American coinage published in the late 1850s, but both considerably enlarged the myths that had been put in print only a few years previously. Both Dickeson and Snowden undoubtedly meant well in promoting numismatics in the mid-19th century but their writings are certainly suspect from the point of view of modern historical scholarship. After the wide dissemination of their printed works, these myths became fact to succeeding generations of numismatists. Only in the last few years have we begun to take a hard look at what has previously been assumed to be factual. Now we are almost certain that Washington was the source of the silver for the half dismes, but we will probably never know if his silverware was melted to provide the necessary bullion. We certainly know now that Martha Washington was not the model for the depiction of Liberty. Rather, the engraver, whom we now believe was William Russell Birch, simply used a mirror image of the design on the Birch cent and applied it to this coin.

One aspect of the half disme that is left unresolved is its status. Was it meant to be a pattern or a regular issue? We have primary sources that seem to contradict each other regarding this. In his national address from 1792, Washington states: "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." But John McAllister seems to contradict this with his statement from 1844: "Mr. E. thinks that Gen. W. distributed them as presents. Some were sent to Europe, but the greater number, he believes, were given to friends of Gen. W. in Virginia." Both statements could be true. President Washington could have distributed them to friends and foreign dignitaries, but the "want of small coins in circulation" could also have compelled many recipients to use these pieces in the channels of commerce.

Fact, fiction, and myth have surrounded the 1792 half dismes almost since they were struck 217 years ago. Perhaps some of the fiction will decrease in the future, but the lore of this issue will undoubtedly continue as long as there are collectors of U.S. coinage.

Repaired--NCS. AU Details $41,687.50 (Jan 6, 2009 HA.com)
1792 Half Disme Patterns
Source for information and pictures courtesy of  Heritage Coin Auctions
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