1796 was a long, long time ago, 217 years to be exact. It was so long ago that Napoleon was still busy rampaging across Europe, pulling France up to the status of the super power of the day. Tennessee was admitted to the United States as only the 16th state and President Washington was ending his second term in office. The United States mint was only four years old, having opened for business in 1792 and producing a few pattern coins that first year. In 1796 however they produced 1,390 half cents, which was the lowest mintage for the entire series of half cents from 1793 to 1857.
The half cent was produced to make change in early American transactions. See, America until the year 1857, used mostly foreign currency to operate as they produced U.S. coinage to enter into the economy and eventually take over. Although the dollar was the basis of the monetary unit, and it was on a decimal standard, one hundred cents to the dollar, it was the only currency in the world to be organized like that. The rest of the world went with whatever suited them best, leading to some weird exchanges. And because of the Spanish influence in the America’s and the amount of reales produced, the 8 reales was roughly equal to the dollar. But the 8 reales piece was equal to eight parts, each part being 12 1/2 cents. Thus the need to make small change with specie. Therefore to keep the poorer classes from getting short-changed from their pieces of 8 which were regularly cut up to make change or buy smaller items the half cent was developed. (the 8 real piece is also where we get the term 2 bits, 4 bits, 6 bits, a dollar…each bit being 1/8 of a real.)
Now imagine this poor little half cent showing up on the other side of the Atlantic in a matchbox in an attic used to store the remaining effects of a man who was killed in an accident in 1963. Also imagine this half cent was in near pristine condition. Well, it just happened. This little beauty changed hands at an auction this month to the tune of £225,700 or $356,606. Wowsers. In other words it value was 71.3 million times more than its face value. Not a bad return after 217 years if I do say so.
I wonder how many other pristine, early American coins, are undiscovered in European collections. I would think quite a few since coin collecting was still all the rage in Europe while America was still trying to get on her feet. Coin collecting wouldn’t be popular in the United States, outside of a few elite and the national coin cabinet, until the 1830’s or 40’s. It may not seem super exciting you most of you, but it really gets me going.