When you think about our coins, which do you think is the oldest? Well, the oldest of our modern coin denominations is actually the nickel which is older than the penny by a year. The nickel is our oldest currency, dating back as early as 1792. Originally known as the half-dime, this coin has been around in one form or another since the early years of the union. Curious about it’s history and how it changed with our country? Read on.

The Half-Disme

1792 half disme
The Half-Disme

First coined in 1792 the half disme (yes they spelled dime with an “s” it was the 18th century, modern english as we know it wouldn’t emerge until much later, and anyways it’s French) emerged as the country was first beginning to expand. The US had just grown to 14 states with the creation of Vermont, had no navy to speak of, and were paying tribute to the barbary pirates. At this point, we had trading relationships with the spanish colonies (Louisiana and Florida) and so Spanish reales flowed freely along with English shillings and pence. Because of the complete incompatibility of the currencies of England and Spain, it slowed down trade and exchange between the two required overly complex exchange calculations.

Which leads us to the creation of the US currency system. Congress was debating how we should change our national currency. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton all favored the adoption of the decimal system, which was useful on multiple fronts for the US. Firstly, it would represent a clean break from the English Pound Sterling currency and allow a way to reconcile the differences between Spanish and English currencies.

After the US adopted the dollar in 1785 events moved very quickly over the next 7 years. From the creation of a national mint to the actual minting of the coin. The half disme is very rare, and many counterfeits exist. To date, there are only 200-250 known examples still in existence. This coin was mainly used for visiting dignitaries and very few were actually issued into circulation. In fact, the coin was replaced in 1794 by the next coin on our list, the Flowing Hair half dime.

1794-95 Flowing Hair Half Dime

1794 Flowing Hair Half Dime
1794-95 Flowing Hair Half Dime

The first nickel to be distributed to the American people was the 1794 Flowing Hair half dime. Designed by Robert Scot, the first chief engraver for the national mint. The coin was minted for two years before it was replaced, but it is an extremely rare and highly valuable collector’s piece. Around 7,500 half dimes were minted with the 1794 date, but were actually minted in March of 1795. Due to the infancy of the mint at this point, most of the half-dimes are of poor striking quality which is considered normal until the mid 19th century where techniques were improved and/or changed. All of the flowing hair half dimes were struck at the newly finished Philadelphia Mint. Interestingly enough, no true proofs are known, although there are some coins that are of presentation levels of quality.

This coin represents a very important piece of American history. This half dime is one of the first official issues of silver coinage by the US. Where in the past, silver coinage had been the purview of the monarchy, for our government to produce it was a clear and decisive act of nationalism.

Our money is a rich and colorful window into our nation’s history. A lot can be gleaned from our coinage. Come back next week where we’ll continue to look at the history of the nickel. Additionally, check out some of the great historical silver coins we have available for purchase.

Gary Dyner is the owner of Great American Coin Company. Connect with him on Google+.

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Great American Coin Company