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The 1792 Half Disme and Why It Is Important

Jefferson was instrumental in the circulation of the 1792 Half Disme.
Jefferson was instrumental in the circulation of the 1792 Half Disme.

By CoinWeek …..

The 1792 Half Disme – The Five-Cent Silver Coin That Started It All

What is a half disme and why is the 1792 half disme important?

A half disme and disme are the first two coin denominations struck by the fledgling U.S. Mint. There were struck within months of passage of the Coinage Act of 1792, which authorized the creation of a national mint. The word disme was adopted from a french word meaning “tenth part” and was struck in a proportion that was to be one-tenth of a dollar. This unusual spelling fell out of favor without much fanfare and was replaced by “dime”, which is how we know the 10-cent coin today. The half disme, being one half of one-tenth, was a five-cent coin.

While only 1,500 half dismes were produced in 1792, the half dime denomination that followed was struck by the United States Mint in intermittent fashion from 1794 to 1873. The small silver coin saw its heaviest use from the beginning of the 1830s through the start of the American Civil War. Less than a decade after the war, the half dime was phased out in favor of the larger base-metal nickel five-cent coin, which remains in use today.

Surrounded by Myth and Legend

Hanging on the wall at the Philadelphia Mint is a reproduction of a painting by American artist John Ward Dunsmore, which portrays President George Washington, First Lady Martha Washington, along with Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and several senior Mint officials inspecting the newfound nation’s first coins.

These first coins were referenced in Washington’s State of the Union Address given on November 6, 1792. While the Northwest Indian War and flashpoints of conflict with the Cherokee tribes of the South hung heavy over the evening’s proceedings, the president did take a few moments to update Congress on the progress of the national mint, saying:

“In execution of the 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. Provision has been made of the requisite buildings, and these are now putting into proper condition for the purposes of the establishment. There has also been a small beginning in the coinage of half dimes, the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them.”

The Rittenhouse 1792 Half Disme.
The Rittenhouse 1792 Half Disme.

That small beginning was likely the result of a deposit made by Secretary of State Jefferson, who recorded a deposit of $75 to the Mint in a July 5, 1792 entry in his memorandum book. This $75 deposit is the basis of the belief that 1,500 1792 half dismes were minted. This interesting fact, reported in Pete Smith, Joel J. Orosz, and Leonard Augsburger’s 1792: Birth of a Nation’s Coinage (2017) upended the oft repeated legend that the silver used to strike America’s first coins was derived from Martha Washington’s silver table service.

This was the version of the story depicted in Dunsmore’s painting and was made famous by Mint Director James Ross Snowden’s book A Description of Ancient and Modern Coins, In the Cabinet Collection at the Mint of the United States (1860).

With respect to this myth, Logies has stated:

“Many 19th-century collectors referred to the coin’s design as the ‘Martha Washington half disme’ because the portrait resembled the President’s wife, however, the head’s side of the coin actually depicts a symbolic female representation of Liberty.”

The Mint produced a number of different pattern coins in 1792, but the half disme is the only one produced in sufficient enough quantity to be considered a regular issue. That the coins were released into circulation by the third president of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence only adds to their romance and appeal.

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Martin Logies, Curator of the Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation, proudly exhibited the finest known 1792 half disme at the February 2011 Long Beach Expo. This phenomenal coin traces its origins to the basement of a Philadelphia sawmaker before the first United States Mint building was open for business.

In this exclusive CoinWeek interview, Logies discusses the coin and how, as collection curator, he finds such wonderful examples of America’s most storied coins.

Coinweek is the top independent online media source for rare coin and currency news, with analysis and information contributed by leading experts across the numismatic spectrum.

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