Capped Bust, Lettered Edge (1807-1836)
Some coins are admired by collectors. Many are coveted. Only a precious few are truly beloved. Early United States coppers (large cents and half cents) fall into this special category, and so do Capped Bust/lettered edge half dollars or, as they’re widely known with warm affection, “Bust halves.”
Bust half dollars with lettered edges have undeniable charm, much like the copper coinage of early America. They were struck with screw presses, and each working die was prepared individually, the date, stars and lettering being punched in by hand. These elements resulted in a myriad of varieties. They’ve also enabled specialists to pinpoint just which die struck any given coin. And this marvelous diversity is the yeast that keeps interest rising in these coins. The term “Bust halves” actually applies to both Capped Bust half dollars and the Draped Bust coins that preceded them. Draped Bust halves, in turn, come in two types: one with a small eagle on the reverse, the other with a larger, heraldic eagle. For a short time at the end of the Capped Bust coinage in the late 1830s, half dollars of that design were made with reeded edges, after the introduction of steam power at the U.S. Mint made that technology possible. The Bust halves most collectors view with the warmest affection, though, are the Capped Bust/lettered edge pieces issued by the Mint from 1807 to 1836. These are the real heart of this fondly remembered era in U.S. silver coinage.
Design changes occurred with great frequency during the early years of United States coinage, and often they were triggered by a change in leadership at the Mint. So it was that Robert Patterson’s arrival as the Mint’s fourth director in 1806 set the stage for a shake-up in designs across the board. Patterson not only saw the need for new designs but also had a man in mind to create them. His handpicked choice was a talented, young, German-born engraver named John Reich. The mint director appealed for authorization to hire Reich as a staff engraver, maintaining that “the beauty of our coins would be greatly improved by his masterly hand.” His argument carried the day and, in 1807, Reich was hired for the less-than-princely salary of $600 per year, not much more than common laborers made at that time. Then again, Reich had little leverage: he had come to the United States as an indentured servant in order to escape the Napoleonic Wars. Reich’s redesign was truly comprehensive, encompassing every coin from the half cent through the half eagle, the lowest and highest denominations then being produced. His basic obverse design was a left-facing portrait of Liberty with curly hair tucked into a mobcap, a bit of fashion featuring a high, puffy crown. As a consequence, this likeness is often referred to as the “Turban Head” portrait. Liberty wears a headband inscribed with her name, and she is surrounded by a circle of thirteen stars, with the date below. The reverse shows a naturalistic eagle with a shield superimposed upon its breast. The eagle clutches an olive branch, as well as a bundle of three arrows. Above the bird is a banner inscribed with the Latin motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA appears in an arc around the periphery. On the Capped Bust/lettered edge half dollar, the edge bears the statement of value: FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR. For good measure, the inscription 50 C. also appears below the eagle.
Reich was widely accused of basing the buxom Liberty on his “fat mistress,” though no confirmation of any specific model has ever been found. Whoever she may have been (if indeed there was such a model), the Capped Bust coinage was clearly an improvement over the Draped Bust style. During the 30-year lifespan of the series, Capped Bust/ lettered edge halves were issued every year with the single exception of 1816, when a major fire destroyed the Mint’s rolling mills and forced it to suspend all silver coinage. Mintages routinely exceeded one million pieces a year, reaching a peak of more than 6.5 million in 1836, the final year. The low point occurred in 1815, when just 47,150 examples were struck. Proofs of this type are known, but they are extremely rare. For almost every date, though, the total mintage is broken down into multiple major varieties, and these are what give the series its rich flavor and broad appeal. Overdates, deviations in the size of numbers and letters, shifts in the style of numbers—these and other varieties have captivated and challenged collectors for generations. The rarest of these varieties is the 1817-over-14. Only about a half dozen examples are known. Its rarity is underscored by the fact that the late Al C. Overton chose it as the cover coin for his popular book Early Half Dollar Die Varieties 1794-1836, which serves as the standard reference work on the series. Overton’s book, which identifies and codifies the many die varieties, greatly spurred interest in Bust halves. Collectors have paid homage to the author, in turn, by using “Overton numbers” as shorthand for the coins.
In the first edition of his book, published in 1967, Overton put into words the affection he felt for his favorite coinage series. In the process, he summed up the reasons so many other hobbyists also find them so appealing: “The collection and study of our first series of United States half dollars ... has intrigued me almost since I began collecting in the late nineteen twenties. These early U.S. silver coins are not only beautiful and fascinating, but due to the large numbers made and minting methods of the earlier years, there exists a myriad of die varieties and sub varieties, that seem to be unequaled by any other U.S. series, not even the large cents. This offers an almost unlimited challenge to the collector who wishes to become a numismatic student of the early half dollars [and] at the same time, most are within reach of the average collector.” Capped Bust/lettered edge half dollars are plentiful in high circulated grades. They’re also readily available in mint state grades up to MS-64. Above that level, however, their numbers drop sharply. The overwhelming majority saw use in daily commerce, though their high face value (nearly half a day’s pay for many workers) limited that use drastically. Points to check for wear include the drapery at the front of the bust and the edges of the eagle’s wings.
Capped Bust, Reeded Edge (1836-1839)
Across the Atlantic, the Victorian Age was about to dawn in England. Out west, the Alamo fell to a Mexican army led by General Santa Ana. Then, less than seven weeks later, the Mexican commander himself was vanquished at the Battle of San Jacinto, leading to the establishment of the new Republic of Texas. The year was 1836, and though world events moved at a slower pace than they do today, it was nonetheless a time of major developments both globally and domestically.
Significant change was likewise in the air at the United States Mint, where steam power made its debut that year. This technological innovation ushered in an era that would witness great improvement in the technical quality of U.S. coinage but, at the same time, a sharp reduction in the individual coins’ distinctiveness—the characteristic that many collectors find most appealing in the nation’s earliest coins.
The Mint struck 1,200+ half dollars on its new steam press in 1836, and these are among the first U.S. coins made for circulation in this fashion. These half dollars, plus an additional 8,747,792 minted from 1837 to 1839, carried a modified version of the Capped Bust design used on the fifty-cent piece since 1807. However, they are distinguishable at once, for whereas the earlier issues had lettering on the edges bearing their statement of value, the new coins had reeded edges like the smaller silver coins.
In point of fact, the switch from lettered to reeded edges reflected not the capabilities of steam-powered coinage, but rather its limitations. Steam power enabled the Mint to produce coins more efficiently and with far greater uniformity, but these technical advances came at an aesthetic cost—including a severe limitation on edge ornamentation. With a steam press, each coin blank had to be held in a single-piece restraining metal collar (in effect, a third die) at the moment the obverse and reverse dies imparted their images. Lettered-edge coins, by contrast, were made in open collars; this permitted the planchets to spread out slightly when they were struck and thus kept the lettering intact. In close collars, the lettering would have been squashed by the high compression. From that point on, the edges of coins would have to be either plain or vertically reeded, and the quaint edge lettering of early U.S. coinage was consigned to history’s scrap heap.
Had it not been for economic and geographic factors, steam power might have gained a foothold at Uncle Sam’s Mint decades sooner. U.S. Mint Directors had been interested in the technology ever since 1797, when Matthew Boulton demonstrated its value by coining more than 34 million pennies in this manner for the government of Britain’s King George III. Those coins were more nearly identical (and thus more frustrating to would-be counterfeiters) than any similar quantity ever made previously by any other method. For various reasons, however, no foundry in the United States had the capability to build a steam coinage press until the mid-1830s.
Up until 1836, U.S. coins were made on screw presses. Workmen and animals, rather than steam, provided the power. During the nation’s very early years, oxen and horses played a role; thereafter, the power came from men alone. It took five men to operate a typical screw press—two on each end of a weighted iron bar and a fifth man seated in a recess in front of the press. The seated man would insert planchets and remove finished coins; meanwhile, his four co-workers would tug on leather straps attached to the iron bar. The bar, in turn, was attached to a heavy iron screw which drove an upper die down toward a lower one when the men on one side of the bar pulled it toward them. Then, when the men on the other side tugged on the bar, the screw and upper die were raised, and the seated man would remove the finished coin and insert a new planchet. Though primitive, this method was surprisingly productive: A good team of coiners could turn out several dozen small-size pieces per minute.
The first reeded edge half dollars were very close in appearance to the Capped Bust halves that preceded them. The portrait of Liberty on the obverse and the eagle figure on the reverse were basically the same as those fashioned three decades earlier by engraver John Reich, but both sides also revealed subtle refinements by a new Mint engraver, Christian Gobrecht. Among other things, the thirteen stars on the obverse were reduced in size, Liberty was slenderized, E PLURIBUS UNUM was removed, and the statement of value was modified: Instead of saying 50 C. like its predecessor, the new coin read 50 CENTS in 1836 and 1837 and HALF DOL. thereafter. In 1838, Gobrecht made other changes, using larger and heavier lettering and tinkering with details like the eagle’s talons and feathers.
The 1836 reeded edge halves were coined under the old, awkward standard adopted under the original Mint Act of 1792. As of January 18, 1837, however, the half dollar had its fineness revised to a more workable figure of .900 silver. No visible distinction was made to the new coins, and both the 1836 and 1837-39 issues circulated interchangeably. Shortly after adoption of the reeded edge, the very first branch-mint half dollars came into being at New Orleans and promptly joined the roster of great U.S. rarities. Just twenty pieces, all proofs, were struck early in 1839 bearing the date 1838; they carry an “O” mintmark above the date. These are the only proofs in this short series. New Orleans made halves again dated 1839, this time in numbers approaching 179,000. Output at the main mint in Philadelphia was in the millions annually from 1837 through 1839.
Capped Bust/reeded edge half dollars are readily available in mint state grades, but relatively few have survived in levels of MS-65 and above. Although generally collected in the higher grades as type coins, some date and variety specialists assemble sets in circulated condition, often as part of the larger Capped Bust series. Points to check for wear on the obverse include the drapery at the front of the bust, the shoulder clasp and the cap and hair above the eye. On the reverse, wear will first show on the eagle’s wing-edges and talons.
In 1839, Capped Bust halves gave way to Christian Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty design. The following year, this coin type enjoyed a revival of sorts when, at the New Orleans Mint, a Capped Bust reverse die was mulled to a Seated Liberty obverse dated 1840, creating the scarce Medium Letters variety.
Coin Descriptions Provided by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC)