The 1792 Half Disme: A Tiny Classic Coin Shrouded in Mystery

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In the early years of our young nation, America faced a new challenge—a shortage of small change. After years of relying on foreign gold and silver coins, America needed its own system of coinage, especially in small denominations.Half Disme

One of the first tasks of the first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was to create a system for America’s coins. From Hamilton’s work, the Half Disme, or half a dime was the first American coin ever struck under the authority of the April 1792 Mint Act.

Yet just as fast as the first 1,500 1792 Half Dismes were minted, they disappeared from circulation. Even today, questions and intrigue surround this tiny coin with huge historical significance.

According to legend and lore, the many questions around the 1792 Half Disme included: Was the coin actually produced in the cellar of a mint contractor? Were the 1,500 Half Dismes created as pattern coins made for design approval, or were they business strikes meant to circulate among the public? Where did the bullion for the first strike come from—was it from President George Washington who as legend said donated his personal silverware?

For decades, scholars and numismatic collectors and coin dealers argued and chose sides on the questions swirling around the intriguing half disme. What was notable around the Half Disme’s launch was its lack of notoriety. There was no official government announcement, there is no evidence of a “first strike” ceremony and there was no newspaper coverage of this truly historic event for America.

It wasn’t until 1997 that verifiable proof emerged to answer some of those questions. The reason it took so long to find these answers is that they were buried in obscurity.

While serving as our nation’s first Secretary of State in 1792, Thomas Jefferson was also responsible for organizing the U.S. Mint. In fact, the Mint David Rittenhouse reported to Jefferson. So, it was in the personal papers of Thomas Jefferson that some of the answers swirling for over 200 years around the Half Disme were finally answered.

Jefferson tracked his personal income and expenditures in private memorandum books, and his 1792 memorandum book was not published until 1997 in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Here are the key findings that Jefferson noted in his memoranda book:

  • July 10, 1792 entry: withdrew “100. D.” from the Bank of the United States, (likely Spanish silver dollars).
  • July 11 1792 entry: “Delivd. 75. D. at the mint to be coined.”
  • July 13, 1792 entry: “Recd. from the mint 1500. half dismes of the new coinage.”

According to the 1792 Mint Act, any U.S. citizen could bring bullion to the Mint and have it struck— weight-for-weight—into new silver or gold coinage of the United States. Jefferson’s memorandum book reveals that he did just that in July 1792—and that the half dismes were not minted from Washington’s personal silverware.

Jefferson’s careful documentation also provides answers to the pattern or business strike question that engulfed numismatics for decades.

After Jefferson received the 1,500 half dismes on July 13, 1792, he traveled with his daughter Maria from Philadelphia to his Virginia Monticello estate. On the way, that evening Jefferson and his daughter spent the night in Chester, Pennsylvania. He noted in his memorandum book for that date a tip to servants in the amount of 30 cents, signifying the use of six half dismes—for the first time in circulation.

The obverse of this illustrious coin reveals Liberty facing left, with the date shown below the bust. The wordsINDUSTRY LIB PAR OF SCIENCEfill the legend. The reverse features an Eagle facing left, with “HALF DISME” below and the words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”

While the mintage for the 1792 Half Disme was 1,500, there are only 275 are estimated survivors. In 2018, a 1792 Half Disme, graded MS68 sold for $1,985,000. The First U.S. Mint Director David Rittenhouse owned that coin.

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