The smallest denomination ever struck by the U.S. Mint, the half cent is an extremely complex series. It features five major types and subtypes that all have a series of varieties, the last of which was the Braided Hair half cent (1840-57). As the new Chief Engraver, Christian Gobrecht was responsible for shifting the design from the Classic Head to the Braided Hair motif, making Lady Liberty younger and changing the hair into a tightly braided bun.
As part of the Coinage Act of 1857, the United States Congress officially eliminated the half cent denomination. This measure was long overdue and reflected the economic realities of the mid 19th century. By 1857, not only did the half cent cost more to produce than it was worth but the buying power was also too low to be economically useful. When first struck in 1793, the half cent actually had some economic utility, and some goods were priced at a ½ cent or its multiples. According to a report by the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor in 1885, in 1793 one pound of flour cost eight cents, one pound of butter cost 17 cents, and one pound of coffee cost 19.5 cents. However, by the mid-19th century, inflation had decimated the denomination’s buying power. In 1857, the coins were treated much as modern cents are today, valued only for their minuscule metal content.
Since the denomination was scrapped towards the beginning of the year, only 35,180 pieces had been struck by the United States Mint in 1857. Of that already limited number, Mint Director James Ross Snowden ordered that many be melted down, leaving even fewer examples. It is unknown exactly how any pieces were melted, and no record was made of how many remained. Due to this, as well as the replacement of the large cent, the 1857 half cent was almost immediately of significant interest to the numismatic community. While most Braided Hair half cent dates are considered scarce by modern minting standards, a sufficient number, perhaps 1,300 or more, survive in all grades with approximately half believed to survive in Mint State or better. Obviously, many Americans found the suspension of half cent production significant and retained pieces for posterity.
The 1857 Half-Cent in Today’s Market
Since 1857 was the last year of production and the mintage was comparatively small, examples command a premium over many earlier dates. Examples in poor condition can cost between $50 and $150 USD. In low-to-high AU condition, examples will sell for between $250 and $350. Slightly nicer coins in low Mint State will command between $500 and $725. Mid-to-high Mint State coins are generally hard to find, and when they come to market, they can command anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500. The auction record for a “Brown” designated example graded MS-65+ was set in a January 2012 auction when the coin hammered for $2,530.
High-grade coins with a “Red” designation are significantly more valuable, with only a few surviving examples. At the time of writing, the auction record for this designation is $18,000 for an MS-65 RD at a February 2020 auction. Lower-grade MS examples sell for between $500 and $1,000. Since no circulated copper coins can earn the “Red” designation, there are only a few surviving examples.
The obverse of the 1857 half cent is dominated by the left-facing bust of a young Lady Liberty. Unlike the earlier Draped Bust and Classic Head half cents, the 1857 Braided Hair Lady Liberty has her hair up in a braided bun. Despite this, Liberty has several locks of hair that flow down beneath the bust. Resting on her head is a coronet engraved with the word “LIBERTY”. Directly below the neck truncation of the bust is the date 1857. Around the outside denticled rim of the obverse are 13 stars that represent the 13 original US colonies. The rim of the Braided Hair design is slightly wider than the previous designs, which leads to a slightly smaller bust and a more crowded design.
On the reverse of the coin, the denomination “HALF CENT” is inscribed in two rows at the center of the design. The denomination is completely surrounded by a closed wreath that is tied together with a ribbon. Around the outside of the wreath, and nearly touching the denticled rim, there is the country name “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA”. Since all coins of this denomination were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, the design does not include a mint mark.
The edge of the 1857 Braided Hair half cent is smooth.
Second-generation German-American Christian Gobrecht was born in Hanover, Pennsylvania. As a young man, Gobrecht apprenticed as a watchmaker, during which time he learned the art of engraving. He then found employment at the United States Mint, possibly working at the Philadelphia Mint as early as 1823. In 1836, he designed the so-called Gobrecht dollar struck from 1836 through 1838. He is also responsible for the popular Liberty Seated motif found on all Seated Liberty coinage. After serving as “Second” Engraver from 1835 until 1840, he was appointed as the third Chief Engraver at the United States Mint. After his appointment, his designs would quickly be included on almost every U.S. denomination. Gobrecht served as Chief Engraver for four years, until his death in 1844.
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