1792 half disme (or "half dime") was an American
silver coin with a face value of five cents. Although it was
an experimental issue, which President George Washington referred
to as "a small beginning," many of the coins eventually
were released into circulation. It is widely (although not
universally) considered the first United States coinage struck
under authority of the Mint Act of April 1792.
1792 H10C Judd-7, Pollock-7, R.4. SP67 PCGS. Ex: Starr.
Sold for $1,322,500 in April 2006
NGC MS68, The Cardinal Collection Educational Foudation,
sold for $1,500,000 in July 2007
President George Washington, Artist: Gilbert Stuart, Title:
Portrait of George Washington, Location: Sterling and Francine
Clark Art Institute, Williamstown. 1st President of the United
States, In office: April 30, 1789 March 4, 1797, Vice
President John Adams, Preceded by None, Succeeded by John
Thomas Jefferson painted by Charles Willson Peale. Philadelphia,
1791. 3rd President of the United States, In office March
4, 1801 March 4, 1809,
Vice President Aaron Burr (18011805), George Clinton
(18051809), Preceded by John Adams, Succeeded by James
When speaking to the House
of Representatives in November 1792, President Washington
mentioned the "want of small coins in circulation"
and stated that he had begun work on establishing a U.S. Mint
and that some half dismes had been produced already. At this
point, most of the personnel had been hired, but the Mint's
buildings and machinery were not yet ready. As a result, the
half dismes, which had been struck in or around July 1792,
were produced using the private facilities of local craftsman
John Harper, although under the auspices of official Mint
personnel. In his personal log book, Secretary of State Thomas
Jefferson recorded the receipt of 1,500 specimens on July
Because of President Washington's
connection with these early coins, numismatic folklore holds
that the portrait on the obverse is that of First Lady Martha
Washington and that some of the coins were struck using melted-down
silverware from the Washington household. However, there is
no solid evidence for either of these assertions.
From Heritage Archives, April
Regardless of grade, the ownership of a 1792 half disme clearly
indicates that the numismatist is a connoisseur of American
coinage. Despite opinions to the contrary, this issue is the
first circulating American coin struck under authority of
the Mint Act of April 1792.
The Orosz-Herkowitz Study
A simple memorandum, in three
different versions, provides much of what we know about the
1792 half dismes, and yet, it has also been the source of
much confusion. The first copy of this memo was discovered
by Edward Haden early in 1943, and was brought to the attention
of the numismatic world a few weeks later. Shortly after this
announcement, Philadelphia numismatist Charles McSorley, Jr.,
incorrectly identified the author as Jonas R. McClintock.
A second and slightly altered copy of the same memo came into
the possession of Walter Breen in the early 1960s, and a third
copy was acquired by Carl Herkowitz in 1995. It was this third
copy of the memo, also slightly revised, that allowed a positive
identification of the author, Mr. John A. McAllister, Jr.
The earlier attribution of this memo to Jonas McClintock has
been continually repeated over the last 60 years, and even
today, the misattribution still appears in print.
Herkowitz and co-author Joel
J. Orosz prepared a detailed article around this document,
solved its authorship, and answered questions about the history
of this famous coinage issue. Their article, "George
Washington and America's 'Small Beginning' in Coinage: The
Fabled 1792 Half Dismes," appeared in the 2003 edition
of American Journal of Numismatics, Second Series, published
by the American Numismatic Society in 2004.
The text of the final version of the McAllister
"Description of Half
Dismes coined in 1792"
"On one side = a Head = 1792 = Lib. Par. of Science and
"On the other side = an Eagle Flying = Half Disme = United
States of America --
"In conversation with Mr. Adam Eckfeldt (Apr. 9, 1844)
at the Mint, he informed me that the Half Dismes above described,
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. They were never designed
as Currency. The Mint was not, at the time, fully ready for
being put into operation. The Coining Machinery was in the
cellar of Mr. Harper, saw maker, at the corner of Cherry and
6th Sts, at which place these pieces were struck."
The study by Orosz and Herkowitz
provides an in-depth examination of this memorandum, and also
looks at much of the history of this issue. In the past, many
false and unsubstantiated claims have appeared in print about
this coinage issue. Among such claims is one that suggests
Martha Washington posed as "Miss Liberty" for the
engraver. Another claim that remains unsupported is that the
Washingtons provided their family table service for the coinage.
Both of these claims date back to 1860, when James Ross Snowden
wrote: "The bust of Liberty is popularly supposed to
represent the features of Martha Washington who is said to
have sat for the artist while he was designing it ... This
piece is said to have been struck from the private plate of
Washington, which is not unlikely, considering the great interest
which he took in the operations of the infant mint, visiting
it frequently, and personally superintending many of its affairs."
Today, the numismatic world is indebted to the efforts of
Orosz and Herkowitz for correcting many past claims.
Unfortunately, these authors allowed a new
and unsubstantiated claim to be introduced. While an entry
in Thomas Jefferson's "household account book" dated
July 13, 1792, has been known for many years, a related entry
dated July 11, 1792 was first published in the Orosz-Herkowitz
study. The two entries read:
July 11, 1792: "Delivd.
75 D. at the Mint to be coined."
July 13, 1792: "Recd. From the Mint 1500 half dimes of
the new coinage."
These two statements clearly indicated that the coins were
struck on July 12 or July 13, 1792, probably the latter day.
While the combination of these statements positively identify
when the coins were struck, they also leave us with another
question. How was it possible for the Mint to receive $75
in bullion and provide finished coins two days later? The
authors quoted a comment by Eric Newman, asking this very
question: "it would have been literally impossible for
the new Mint to have received $75 in bullion or coin on 11
July and melt it, refine it, roll it into strips, wash the
strips, anneal them, punch out the planchets once more, run
all of the planchets through the Castaing machine to reed
their edges, and then strike the coins, all in time to deliver
1,500 half dismes to Jefferson on 13 July."
The authors spent considerable
space to answer this question with "logical explanations"
developed by Newman. While logical explanations are fine and
dandy, they can eventually become "numismatic facts"
for a future generation to resolve. Newman suggested that
the Mint had prepared the silver for striking at an earlier
date, then placed it in the care of Jefferson (who was head
of the Department of State, then in charge of the Mint) until
the presses were ready. Once that took place, Jefferson delivered
1,500 finished planchets to the Mint, ready to be coined.
Two days later, Jefferson took delivery of the new half dismes,
and personally delivered them to Washington, who was then
at Mount Vernon. At the end of their article, Orosz and Herkowitz
included Eric Newman's logical explanation in their conclusions,
as if to suggest that this is now a known fact.
John Trumbull's (June 6, 1756
November 10, 1843) famous painting is usually incorrectly
identified as a depiction of the signing of the Declaration.
What the painting actually depicts is the five-man drafting
committee presenting their work to the Congress. Trumbull's
painting can also be found on the back of the U.S. $2 bill.
It is generally accepted that
the 1792 half dismes were not struck within the physical confines
of the new Mint, but rather, in John Harper's cellar. While
some have more recently translated "cellar" to "basement,"
the term cellar could mean any separate structure, although
usually referred to a room or enclosed place under a building.
It is also generally accepted that George Washington did,
in fact, provide the silver for these pieces, as related by
Adam Eckfeldt (although the Moulton research discussed below
disputes this). The mintage is variously estimated at 1,500
to 2,000 coins, based on documentary evidence left by Thomas
Jefferson, who stated that he received $75 value, or Adam
Eckfeldt, who stated that Washington provided $100 in silver
for these coins.
While Adam Eckfeldt claimed
that these pieces were never designed as currency, George
Washington suggested otherwise in his November 6, 1792 National
address. The President stated: "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 entirety of this final sentence clearly
tells us that these coins were intended for circulation, especially
the second part of this sentence.
Congress Voting Independence, a depiction
of the Second Continental Congress voting on the United States
Declaration of Independence. Oil on canvas.
Source Historical Society of Pennsylvania, via the US Library
of Congress, Date c. 1776, Author "Edward Savage and/or
Robert Edge Pine"
The Moulton Research
Numismatic researcher Karl
Moulton takes exception to the currently recorded history
of the 1792 half disme that is based on the McAllister memo.
Moulton considers this memo to be an unsubstantiated tale
that should be completely disregarded. Since neither Eckfeldt
nor McAllister signed the Mint visitor log for the date recorded
in the memo, Moulton believes that neither man was there,
and that the meeting never took place.
Based on original letters
and documents in the Library of Congress, Moulton contends
that the silver used for the half dismes was supplied by the
government, and not by Washington or Jefferson. His version
of the history of this issue suggests that David Rittenhouse
made arrangements for the purchase of silver for these coins.
Further, the coins were struck in mid-July from dies prepared
by Jacob Perkins, copied in part from the other 1792 dies
by Robert Birch and Joseph Wright. The die sinker was John
Harper, and the planchet adjuster and coiner was Henry Voigt.
According to Moulton's research, Adam Eckfeldt was not present
when these coins were produced. Currently, Karl Moulton is
preparing a history of the first Mint, to be published under
the title Henry Voigt and Others Involved with America's Early
This is a high-resolution image of the United
States Declaration of Independence. This image is a verson
of the 1823 William Stone facsimile Stone may well
have used a wet pressing process (that removed ink from the
original document onto a contact sheet for the purpose of
making the engraving).
The Starr Specimen
This is probably the finest
known example, and it is certified by PCGS as a Specimen strike,
the only such piece to receive this designation. A roster
of more than two dozen high quality pieces, below, shows the
position of the Starr coin as the only Specimen strike, and
the probable finest known. It is a spectacular, fully struck
coin. All of Liberty's hair details are fully defined, and
the eagle's plumage is equally well brought up. From the details
on this piece, it is obvious that special care was taken to
strike this coin at least twice. The design features on both
sides are nicely centered with full obverse and reverse border
details. Care was also taken to polish the surfaces as each
side displays light die striations in the fields and across
the central device on the obverse. Both obverse and reverse
display a multitude of speckled colors with bright reflectivity
around the peripheral lettering on the obverse. The toning
has been variously described as orange-crimson and lilac,
and as blue, gray, and light gold. There is only one surface
flaw that we see: a shallow, vertical scratch in the left
obverse field. The reverse has two faint vertical die cracks,
approximately parallel, through the right field. One extends
from the right base of A(M) to the eagle's wing and F in HALF.
The other begins at the left base of the adjacent M, also
through the eagle's wing, and on to the right side of E in
Additional material from our
consignor discusses the stature of this coin: "This specimen
striking of the 1792 silver half disme is truly a coin that
transcends numismatics. It occupies a place in our Nation's
history unequaled by any other coin. For centuries, the coinage
of silver was a royal prerogative. For a young nation, the
coining of these half dismes was of enormous political significance
and an expression of national sovereignty understood around
the world. Numismatic scholar Walter Breen wrote, 'Their historic
context has for over 120 years made these half dismes among
the most prized American silver coins.' Today, as a unique
specimen striking, this coin must be considered America's
most important numismatic coin and a priceless historical
An accompanying letter from
David Hall, president and founder of PCGS, seems to affirm
this statement from our consignor. Hall briefly reviews the
history of the 1792 half disme, then discusses this specific
250 to 400 1792 half dismes survive, most of them in well
worn condition. Miraculously, there are a handful of Mint
State examples known. The finest of these is the coin from
the Floyd Starr collection.
"When the Starr collection
was auctioned in October of 1992, his 1792 half disme was
described thusly, 'Choice Uncirculated, semi-prooflike ...
Both sides, brightly reflective, especially around the letters.
Possible Specimen: exceptional sharpness of strike seen on
no other specimen, save this one.'
"Earlier, the pioneering
and extremely influential coin dealer, Wayte Raymond, had
described the Starr 1792 half disme as, 'Perfect Mint State
with brilliant proof surface. Probably the finest specimen
"The Starr 1792 half
disme is so extraordinary in the sharpness of its strike and
the reflectiveness of its surface that PCGS has designated
the coin as a Specimen striking. It is the only 1792 half
disme to receive this designation from PCGS. The coin is so
exceptional that I believe it could very well be the first
1792 half disme struck, and thereby the first U.S. coin ever
struck. It is certainly one of the most important coins PCGS
has ever handled."
The cataloger for the Starr
Collection noted that this was an early strike: "Some
reverse letters soft, particularly A and M in HALF DISME and
M in AMERICA, as seen on most specimens from the earliest
run struck with medal turn reverse orientation."
It is this cataloger's (Mark
Borckardt) opinion that the coin, while certainly very special
and deserving of a Specimen designation, is not, nor could
it be, the first 1792 half disme struck. The reverse has faint
but clearly visible die cracks. Earlier die state examples
are known without the die cracks, proving that this example
is a later die state and was among the final examples produced
in July 1792. However, given its obvious specimen status,
it might well have been the very first United States coin
actually released by the State Department, perhaps a special
gift to a friend of the U.S. or even to George Washington
Ex: "Great American"
Sale--Virgil Brand (J.C. Morgenthau, 10/18/1933); via J.G.
Macallister to Floyd Starr on October 26, 1933; Floyd Starr
Collection (Stack's, 10/1992), lot 4; Baltimore '93 Auction
(Superior, 7/1993), lot 138.
Boston Tea Party, December 16, 1773: Colonists
dumped the British's tea into the Boston Harbor. They did
this because they were angry at the British govenment for
taxing the colonies. While the colonists were doing this you
can see in the picture that they had dressed up as Native
Americans. This 1846 lithograph has become a classic image
of the Boston Tea Party by Sarony & Major, 1846
Roster of High Grade
1792 Half Dismes
We believe the following roster
represents distinct individual specimens, although it is possible
that some duplication may exist. This roster is based primarily
on a comparison of plates in the various catalogs. Plate matching
of older, poor quality photographs can be quite difficult.
Specimen-67 PCGS. The example
offered here. J.C. Morgenthau (10/1933), lot 77; Floyd T.
Starr (Stack's, 10/1992), lot 4; Superior (7/1993), lot 137.
Gem Unc. Malcolm O.E. Chell-Frost
(1948 ANA $100); John Jay Pittman Collection; David Akers
(10/1997), lot 423; Clifford Mishler.
Gem Unc. Dr. J. Hewitt Judd;
Paramount (Auction '80, 8/1980), lot 592; Jimmy Hayes (Stack's,
10/1985), lot 3. Judd and Red Book plate coin. Dr. Judd reportedly
traced the pedigree of this example back to David Rittenhouse.
MS66 NGC. Col. James W. Ellsworth
(3/1923); John Work Garrett; Johns Hopkins University (Bowers
and Ruddy, 3/1981), lot 2351; Superior (10/1989), lot 891;
Superior (5/1990), lot 3550; Stack's (10/1995), lot 267; Bowers
and Merena (8/2004), lot 1383. Note: This coin was graded
Choice AU by Bowers and Ruddy in the Garrett sale, later certified
by PCGS as MS63, and most recently graded MS66 by NGC.
MS65. Mid America (5/1987),
lot 721; Superior (1/1990), lot 2354.
MS64 PCGS. Goldberg (1/2004),
MS64 PCGS. Bartlett Collection
(Bowers and Ruddy, 11/1979), lot 2359; Bowers and Merena (9/1995),
lot 1177; Bowers and Merena (1/2005), lot 327.
MS64 PCGS. Stack's (1/1992),
lot 477; MS64 PCGS. Bowers and Merena (1/2002), lot 345; Bowers
and Merena (7/2003), lot 565. Graded Gem Unc by Stack's, and
AU58 PCGS when sold by Bowers and Merena in January 2002.
MS63 PCGS. Heritage (8/1995)
MS63 NGC. Pacific Coast (6/1988),
lot 25; Heritage (11/2005), lot 2055.
MS63 NGC. Bowers and Merena
(8/1987), lot 1498; RARCOA (7/1988), lot 1592; Heritage (6/2005),
lot 5684. In 1987, Bowers and Merena graded this coin AU50.
MS63 NGC. Heritage (7/2005),
Gem Unc. Stack's (10/1988),
Mint State. Elliot Landau
Collection (New Netherlands, 12/1958), lot 344.
Mint State. Stearns Collection
(Mayflower, 12/1966), lot 277.
AU58 PCGS. A.H. Baldwin &
Sons (London, 1945); Pennsylvania Cabinet (James O. Sloss);
Bowers and Merena (1/1999), lot 1010; American Numismatic
Rarities (11/2004), lot 469.
AU58 PCGS. Bowers and Merena
(3/1987), lot 582; Bowers and Merena (5/1992), lot 1708; Stack's
(1/1993), lot 356; Superior (7/1993), lot 138.
AU58 PCGS. Superior (6/1997),
lot 300; ANR (3/2005), lot 1551.
AU55. Abe Kosoff (5/1953);
Norweb Collection (Bowers and Merena 11/1988), lot 3389; RARCOA
(5/1992), lot 3.
AU55. Richard B. Winsor (S.H.
& H. Chapman, 12/1895); J.M Clapp; Clapp Estate (1942);
Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr.; Eliasberg Estate (Bowers and Merena,
5/1996), lot 883.
AU50. Henry Chapman; J.A.
Beck (Kreisberg, 2/1976), lot 759; Bowers and Merena (9/1984),
AU50. Kagin's (8/1983), lot
283; Bowers and Merena (8/1987), lot 223; Stack's (11/1995),
lot 1152; Goldberg (6/2000), lot 34.
AU50. Bowers and Merena (8/1989),
AU50 PCGS. Bowers and Merena
(11/1999), lot 253.
AU. Stack's (11/1989), lot
AU. Stack's (4/1962), lot
876; Stack's (11/1974), lot 34; Stack's (7/1985), lot 1594.
AU. Laird U. Park Collection
(Stack's, 5/1976), lot 202; Stack's (1/1989), lot 931.
VF35. Superior (6/1977), lot
282. This coin would probably grade AU in today's marketplace.
The following citations are
for coins which may or may not be included in the roster above.
Metro Sale (Stack's, 5/1956),
Wolfson Collection (Stack's,
5/1963), lot 415.
DiBello Collection (Stack's,
5/1970), lot 90.
Thomas Cleneay; John Story
Jenks (Henry Chapman, 12/1921), lot 5568.
J.C. Morgenthau (6/1942) lot
26; Stack's (4/1978), lot 417.
Butterfield (1/1995), lot
Mickley Collection (W.E. Woodward,
10/1867), lot 2133; S.S. Crosby.
Roach Collection (B. Max Mehl,
2/1944), lot 2661.
Atw*ter Collection (B. Max
Mehl, 6/1946), lot 1115.