The half cent is the lowest denomination that the United States government has ever struck for circulation. It was introduced with the Liberty Cap Half Cent type in 1793. The coins were struck in two different subtypes with Liberty facing left or right. The final coins of the series were dated 1797, although coins bearing this date would continue to be struck until 1800 when the next design was introduced. This was a common practice at the Mint during this era.
The obverse of the Liberty Cap Half Cent shows Liberty, with flowing hair, facing to the left. A pole with a Phrygian cap is behind her. LIBERTY is placed above the head and the date is placed below. The Phrygian cap, a symbol of freedom and liberty was first used on this design, and would become a prominent feature for many coin designs to follow. By the end of the 18th century it had become a symbol of the revolution, in both the United States as well as other countries.
The designer of the first subtype with Liberty facing left has not been confirmed. The Red Book lists Joseph Wright or Henry Voigt, and Walter Breen has suggested Adam Eckfeldt. The later suggestion is based on the fact that he designed the 1792 half disme, which features a head of Liberty with many of the same or similar features. Some references simply list the designer as unknown. An inspiration for this obverse design appears to have been the Libertas Americana medal, struck at the Paris Mint during the previous decade.
Starting with 1794, a new obverse was designed by Robert Scot with Liberty facing to the right. Different details in the face and hair were also apparent. For the remaining years of the series, the obverse would show minor differences in detail, relief, and placement. Some of these are listed in the Red Book and are seen as subtypes. Most noticeable is the much smaller head of the issues from 1795 to 1797 compared to that of 1794. Others only have minor differences, and are usually only collected by specialists of early copper coins.
The reverse design derives originally from the Birch cents of 1792, and had first appeared in a somewhat modified form on the Wreath cents struck in the early summer of 1793. The appearance on the first half cents is basically the same, with a small laurel wreath, and the denomination HALF CENT inside. The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surrounds the wreath, with the additional indication of the denomination “1/200” appearing at the base. The numbers of the fraction are divided by a horizontal bar. This reverse would be used with only minor differences until a new type was introduced in 1800.
All Liberty Cap Half Cents are scarce, with the majority of the known examples in lower grades. High grade examples are occasionally available, but are often priced relatively high due to the demand from type set collectors and specialists.