Half Dollars : Capped Bust Half Dollar

Obverse of 1838 Half Dollar Reverse of 1838 Half Dollar

Q. David Bowers (edited and updated by Mike Sherman): In 1807 the Capped Bust obverse was introduced. Liberty now faces left, wearing a cap secured at the base with a ribbon or band inscribed LIBERTY, with tresses falling to her shoulder. Her low neckline is draped in a cloth or a gown and is secured by a brooch on her shoulder. Seven stars are to the left and six are to the right. The date is below. The reverse depicts an eagle perched on an olive branch and holding three arrows, with E PLURIBUS UNUM above on a scroll and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 50C surrounding. The edge displayed the lettering FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR.

Although there are a number of scarce varieties in the 1807-1836 range, most are readily obtainable. Specimens of most issues are typically encountered in grades from Fine to Extremely Fine, with some of the earlier dates in the range, 1807 through 1820, sometimes seen in Good to Very Good preservation. AU pieces are not difficult to find, especially of dates in the late 1820s and 1830s. Many of these pieces were held by, and traded between banks (as no silver dollars were struck for circulation between 1803 and 1840) so many survived with relatively light wear.

Uncirculated coins, particularly ones in higher ranges are elusive with superb pieces being scarce to rare. Many examples show lightness of striking, particularly on the stars on the obverse, the high parts of Miss Liberty, and E PLURIBS UNUM on the reverse. Among Uncirculated pieces, examples typically have friction or rubbing at the lower left of the bust, from coin-to-coin contact in bank bags.

Bust Halves enjoy great popularity from die variety collectors due to their relative availability, moderate price, and plethora of die varieties such as overdates, numeral shapes, large and small lettering, star sizes and other anomalies. Al C. Overton’s book provides the “roadmap” for collectors of this interesting series. In 1836, steam-powered presses were introduced to the Philadelphia Mint, and one of the first innovations was a new half dollar format. Christian Gobrecht modified John Reich’s Capped Bust style resulting in a coin of smaller diameter, with a reeded edge. The obverse continued the older design of Miss Liberty facing left, wearing a cloth cap with a band inscribed LIBERTY, with tresses falling to her shoulder, and with her bosom draped in a gown secured by a brooch. Six stars are to the left and seven to the right. The date is below. The reverse depicts an eagle perched on a branch and holding three arrows with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA above and the denomination expressed as 50 CENTS below. E PLURIBUS UNUM no longer appeared on a scroll above the eagle.

Just 1,200 pieces of 1836 reeded edge half dollars were struck, and are rare in all grades today. The following year, some 3.6 million pieces were made, making them relatively plentiful today in all grades from Good through Extremely Fine. AU coins are a bit scarcer, and Uncirculated pieces are scarce. As with most early 19th century coins of any type, Superb Uncirculated coins are rare.

In 1838, the Capped Bust half dollar was restyled slightly, and the denomination on the reverse, earlier styled as 50 CENTS was revised to HALF DOL. Certain other changes were effected in the thickness of the reverse letters and the details of the eagle. For the first time, half dollars were struck at a branch mint, New Orleans. The 1838-O half dollar is one of America’s prime rarities. It is believe that just 20 were struck, nearly all of which had prooflike surfaces. In the following year, a more generous mintage of nearly 179,000 half dollars were struck at New Orleans. In a seeming show of pride, the mintmark was displayed above the date on the obverse.

The type set collector will probably seek an example of the 1838 or 1839 Philadelphia issue, each of which boasted a mintage of over 1 million pieces. Examples are readily available in grades from Very Good through Extremely Fine. AU coins are scarce, and Uncirculated pieces even more so. Superb Uncirculated coins are quite rare, and seldom seen or offered for sale.

-- Reprinted with permission from "United States Coins by Design Types - An Action Guide for the Collector and Investor" by Q. David Bowers