HomeUS Type CoinsType Coins SilverHalf Dollars - Draped Bust Small Eagle Half Dollar, 1796-1797

Half Dollars – Draped Bust Small Eagle Half Dollar, 1796-1797

The Draped Bust half dollar was introduced after only two years of production of the previous design. The simple portrait of Liberty on the Flowing Hair type was criticized as being an inappropriate representation, not dignified with her wildly flowing hair more aboriginal than aristocratic. The eagle was especially vilified; one letter writer compared it to a “turkey cock”. When Henry William DeSaussure replaced the first Mint director, astronomer and surveyor David Rittenhouse, he wanted to improve the designs of all coins, particularly the silver issues. DeSaussure was to resign after just five months as director, and his successor Elias Boudinot (former president of the Continental Congress) was in place by the time the revised half dollars were issued. The Draped Bust design was first used on the silver dollar in 1795, and then applied to the cent, half dime, dime, quarter dollar, and half dollar in 1796.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

John Eckstein modeled Liberty from a portrait done by artist Gilbert Stuart, and Chief Engraver Robert Scot produced the coinage dies from Eckstein’s impression. Stuart was apparently displeased with the final result and disassociated himself from the effort; his participation was unknown for many years afterward. Draped Bust half dollars of 1796 and 1797 are considered the rarest circulation strike U.S. silver coins. Most bullion depositors at the Mint in the late 1790s requested silver dollars; half dollars were struck only upon specific request. Few were made and very few were preserved as keepsakes, and most today are in circulated condition. Half dollars of 1796 have both 15-star and 16-star obverses (the 16th star representing the addition of Tennessee to the Union), with the 15-star variety apparently produced first. Paradoxically, half dollars from 1797 also have 15 stars, likely from the use of an obverse die prepared in 1796 to which the last date digit was added for the 1797 production.

The obverse prominently displays Liberty in the center of the coin, long flowing hair swept backward and down her neck, and tied at the back with a ribbon. Folded drapery is placed across the bust and over her shoulder. Six-point stars, LIBERTY at the top, and the date at the bottom form a circle inside the dentilled rim. The earlier 1796 variety has 15 stars, eight to the left and seven to the right, and the second version displays 16 stars, nine to the left and seven to the right. The 1797 issue reverts to 15 stars, eight to the left and seven to the right.

The reverse has in the center a right-facing eagle, slightly smaller than on the Flowing Hair type, perched on what appear to be clouds. Around the eagle is a circle formed by two branches, laurel on the left and palm on the right, tied at the bottom with a bow. Below the bow is the denomination, represented as the fraction 1/2 (with a horizontal separator), the only time the denomination is so displayed on any lettered-edge half dollar. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA forms nearly a complete circle just inside the dentilled rim. All coins were produced at Philadelphia and have no mintmark.

The most common half dollar of this type is the 1797 issue, but “common” in this case is relative term. All examples of the type are rare, very expensive at the lower grades and extremely expensive as very fine or finer. The 1796 16-star examples are more expensive than the other issues at all grades. No proofs are known, but a 1796 15-star coin has been certified as a Premium Gem specimen example.


Designer: Robert Scot and John Eckstein
Circulation Mintage: 3,918 (both years combined)
Proof Mintage:none known, but prooflike specimens exist
Denomintion: $0.50 Fifty cents (50/100)
Diameter: ±32.5 mm. Lettered edge, FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR, the words separated by circle, rectangle, or star ornamentation
Metal content: 89.24% silver, 10.76% copper
Weight: ±13.48 grams
Varieties:Two major varieties of the 1796 issue are known, one with 15 obverse stars (likely produced first) and the other with 16 obverse stars. A couple of other varieties with minor differences in device placement or size are also known.

Additional Resources :

CoinFacts: www.coinfacts.com
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
John Reich Collectors Society: http://logan.com/jrcs/
United States Early Half Dollar Die Varieties 1794-1836. Donald L. Parsley. Donald L. Parsley
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.

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