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The Historic 1792 Half Disme

By Q. David Bowers, Founder

Author: Q. David Bowers / Thursday, February 05, 2015 / Categories: Highlights from the D. Brent Pogue Collection

A Mint is Planned

After the United States won the Revolutionary War, plans were made to establish the new government. Among those was the establishment of a monetary system. Previously, commerce was conducted in foreign coins, mainly from Spanish-American countries and Europe. When the Continental Congress issued paper money from 1775 to 1778 it was denominated in Spanish dollars -- silver eight-real coins or “pieces of eight.” Foreign coins were valued depending on their silver or gold content, purity, and weight.

In 1783 a proposal was made to establish a federal mint, and a few pattern coins were struck, but nothing came of the idea at the time. Finally, the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, authorized an extensive coinage consisting of the copper half cent and cent, silver half dime (half disme), dime, quarter dollar, half dollar, and dollar, and gold quarter eagle ($2.50), half eagle ($5), and eagle ($10). At the time the capital of the United States was in Philadelphia, where it would remain until 1800 when it was relocated to the Federal City, or Washington. President George Washington had a residence in Philadelphia, as did other government officials.

After the passage of the legislation, property was purchased, and plans were made for the refurbishing of two existing buildings and the erection of new ones. The foundation for a new Mint building was laid on July 31, 1792. In the meantime, coin presses and other equipment was gathered and stored in the shop of local machinist John Harper.

The First Federal Coinage

In mid-July 1792, President Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson privately secured a supply of silver and in the Harper shop had 1,500 silver half dimes struck—the very first federal coinage. These bore the denomination HALF DISME on the reverse. “Disme” may have been pronounced “dime” or else “deem.” In any event, half dime and dime became the standard usage later, and the middle “S” was dropped.

In his annual message to Congress on November 6, 1792, Washington, obviously proud of the coinage, stated: “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.”

In the meantime the Philadelphia Mint opened in the autumn of 1792. Various pattern coins were made that year. In March 1793 the first coins minted for general circulation—copper cents—were released. Silver coins were not minted until 1794, as the chief coiner was required to post a security bond of $10,000 before striking coins in precious metals. Accordingly, it was in 1794 that the first half dime dies were made at the Mint.

The 1792 half disme, made from privately-supplied silver and thus not subject to the security bond, today is an American classic. Perhaps 250 or so exist, most of which show extensive wear. The D. Brent Pogue Collection features a beautiful Mint State (Uncirculated) example that surely will attract a lot of attention as it crosses the auction block.

Tags: Mint Coin Pogue