Christian Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty design was adopted for U.S. silver dollars in 1836; in 1839, the half dollar became the last silver denomination to use it. The coin’s obverse features a full portrait of Lady Liberty seated on a stone, with a heraldic shield marked “Liberty” in her right hand and a pole with a liberty cap on the top in her left. The reverse depicts an eagle similar to that on earlier half dollars.
Seated Liberty half dollars were issued from 1839 to 1891 and went through several variations over this time period. The first change came late in 1839, when an extra piece of drapery was added to Lady Liberty’s left elbow; half dollars without this extra drapery are rare. In 1842, the coin changed again when the letters on its reverse were increased in size.
An even bigger change was introduced in 1853. Because of the sudden increase in the supply of gold thanks to the California Gold Rush, the price of silver compared to that of gold rose dramatically—gold was now less scarce and less valuable. As a result, more and more people were hoarding silver coins and melting them down because their silver content was now worth more than the face value of the coin itself. America faced a shortage of change as coins disappeared from circulation.
To combat this trend, Mint Director George N. Eckert proposed a plan that Congress passed on February 21, 1853. This action reduced the weight of half dollars from 206 ¼ grains to 192 grains: if the coins were lighter (and had less silver), their precious metal content would not be worth more than their face value, which would discourage the hoarding of coins and their destruction.
To indicate the reduced metal content without having to design a new coin, the Mint added two arrows around the date on the obverse, plus rays around the eagle on the reverse. These rays were discontinued in 1854 because the design took too long and cost too much to mint; the arrows were discontinued in 1855. In 1856, half dollars returned to their original Seated Liberty design but maintained their new lighter weight.
A decade later, in 1866, Congress added the motto “In God We Trust” to the reverse in a ribbon above the eagle. This motto first appeared two years earlier on two-cent coins as a result of increased religious fervor during the Civil War, and it would become more and more common on U.S. coins as the years passed.
In 1873 and 1874, Seated Liberty coins again included arrows around the obverse date, this time to indicate an increase in weight from 192 grains to 192.9 grains. Rays were not added. From 1875 to 1891, the Mint returned to the variation introduced in 1866. In 1892, Charles Barber’s new half dollar coin design replaced Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty.
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