The obverse of this Type is the same as the previous one, except that there are 13 stars on the obverse: eight along the left edge and five along the right edge. All other devices remain the same. The central device on the reverse is the heraldic eagle, a Union shield on its chest, holding arrows in its right claw and an olive branch in its left. Arrayed around the eagle’s head are 13 stars, with clouds spreading from wing tip to wing tip. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surround the devices. Placing arrows in the eagle’s right claw was either a major blunder or a personal militaristic statement by the engraver. In heraldry the right claw, also known as the dexter claw, is the dominant of the two. The Great Seal of the United States, from which this design is taken, has an eagle holding an olive branch in the right claw symbolizing the nation’s great desire to live in peace. It is not known whether the erroneous placement of the arrows was intentional.
This new reverse was a marked improvement over the scrawny eagle seen on the Small Eagle Type. The first coin to display the new reverse was the quarter eagle of 1796.
This is another series rich with varieties. Among the most interesting are the Heraldic Eagle issues dated 1795 and 1797. Theoretically, these should not be possible, as the Heraldic Eagle reverse did not debut until 1798. The explanation for these incongruous die-pair marriages can be stated in two words: yellow fever. In this era Philadelphia, at the time the second-largest English-speaking city in the world, was subject to annual yellow fever epidemics in the late summer and early fall. The city’s wealthy inhabitants would pack up and leave to return only when the threat was gone; while the less fortunate were left to wait and see who got sick and who died. The Mint was forced to close each year to keep its employees alive. This was not always successful, and one of the early Mint’s recurring problems was the death of trained, experienced employees.
When the Mint closed, dies would be dipped in hot wax for protection, and then stored until the threat had passed and the Mint could reopen. Upon returning to work, Mint workers would often be forced to strike large numbers of coins in a very short time to catch up on lost production. When this occurred, the Mint would grab any usable die to get the production process moving. In 1798, when minting half eagles, the Mint apparently had obverse dies left over from 1795 and 1797. To get coins into production, the Mint decided not to waste time by creating new obverse dies; they just matched up old obverse dies with new Heraldic Eagle reverse dies, thus creating two of the rarest Draped Bust Half Eagles.
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