Half Dollars : Liberty Seated Half Dollar

Obverse of 1846 Half Dollar Reverse of 1846 Half Dollar

Q. David Bowers (edited and updated by Mike Sherman): The Liberty Seated design, without motto on the reverse, was minted in the half dollar series from 1839 through 1866.  Certain pieces dated 1853 and all dated 1854 and 1855 have arrows at the date and are different types, as discussed in the next section.  The obverse features Liberty seated on a rock, holding in her left hand a liberty cap on a pole and with her right hand holding a shield inscribed LIBERTY.  Thirteen stars surround the top border, and the date is at bottom.  The reverse is similar to the preceding type, and consists of an eagle perched on an olive branch and holding three arrows, with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA above and HALF DOL. below.

Numerous variations exist throughout the series, including the absence of drapery from Liberty’s elbow on certain issues of 1839, different sizes of reverse lettering and different date numeral sizes.  While there are some scarce varieties (notably the 1842-O Small Date, 1844-O Double Date, 1847/6) and some rare date/mm combinations (the Philadelphia issues of 1850-1852, 1855-S and the 1866-S No Motto) and even a major U.S. rarity (1853-O No Arrows) there are enough common dates that the type collector should have little difficulty in finding a nice affordable example in any desired grade from Good through About Uncirculated.  Likewise Uncirculated examples are widely available, but truly superb examples above MS-66 are very rare.
 
The quality of striking is apt to vary from issue to issue, with those made in New Orleans being often lightly struck, particularly on the obverse stars.

In 1853 when the authorized weight of the half dollar was reduced from 206.25 grains to 192 grains, the change was noted on the coins by the addition of a small arrowhead to each side of the date and rays above the eagle on the reverse.  Otherwise the Liberty Seated motif remained the same as used from 1839 onward.  Just two varieties were produced: the 1853 Philadelphia issue of which 3,532,708 were made, and the 1853-O with a mintage of 1,328,000.  Examples of the type are readily available in grades from Good through AU.  Uncirculated coins are scarcer, while truly superb Uncirculated pieces (above MS-65) are rare.

The Liberty Seated half dollar style of 1854-1855 with arrows at date is the same as used in 1853 except that the reverse rays have been deleted.  Thus, the 1854-55 halves stand as a distinct type.  Coinage was produced primarily at Philadelphia and New Orleans.  In 1855 the San Francisco Mint issued the denomination for the first time, striking 129,950 pieces.  This remains the only rare mintmark variety in the date span.  An interesting variation is provided by the 1855/4 overdate, a variety which exists in business strike form as well as proof.

Like the 1853 arrows and rays type, examples are readily available in all grades from Good to About Uncirculated.  Uncirculated pieces are naturally scarce, but not as scarce as the “with rays” variety.

The regular Liberty Seated design, which had been in use since 1839 was modified in 1866 by the addition of IN GOD WE TRUST to the reverse.  The motto appears on a scroll or ribbon above the eagle.  A similar change was effected in the quarter and dollar denominations.  Production was continuous at the Philadelphia mint from 1866 onward, though quantities struck after 1878 were sharply curtailed due to the production of Morgan Dollars.  Business strikes were also made at San Francisco and Carson City, with several of the Carson City issues, particularly those made in the early 1870s, being rare today.  The series boasts a major rarity as well, with the 1878-S costing mid-five figures, even in lower circulated grades.  Certain half dollars of 1873 and all of 1874 again have arrows at the date, and are a separate type discussed in the next listing.

The “common” dates in the series are generally the Philadelphia and San Francisco issues of 1875-1877, and collectors should find them relatively easy to obtain in any grade from Good through MS-65 provided they’re willing to pay the price.  Superb MS-66 and MS-67 examples, while around, are both costly and scarce.  Proofs exist in proportion to their original mintages.

Part way through 1873 the authorized weight of the half dollar was increased slightly from 192 grains to 192.9 grains, the latter equaling precisely 12.5 grams.  To signify this change, arrowheads were again placed to the left and right of the date, as had been done twenty years earlier when it signified a weight decrease.  After 1874, even though the new weight standard remained the same, the arrows were no longer used.  Otherwise, the Liberty Seated with IN GOD WE TRUST motto type is the same as that used from 1866 through 1891 inclusive. 

As usual, the Philadelphia mint produced the lion’s share of coins during the 1873-74 years, so the type set collector normally gravitates towards one of these.  Examples are available in grades from Good through Extremely Fine with little searching, although a Choice AU or Uncirculated piece will require a bit more time to locate.  Superb Uncirculated pieces are tough with only about a dozen certified by PCGS above MS-65.  One rare business strike exists in the series: the 1874-CC, of which just 59,000 were minted, and it is estimated that fewer than 200 survive today.

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