The history of the Seated Liberty Half-Dollars series, issued from 1839 to 1891, is virtually identical to that of the Seated Liberty Quarter series struck during the same period. Six similar, but different types were produced. These are:
- 1839 Liberty Seated, No Drapery Type
- 1839-1853, 1856-1865 Liberty Seated, No Motto Type
- 1853 Liberty Seated, Arrows and Rays Type
- 1854-1855 Liberty Seated, Arrows Only Type
- 1866-1873, 1875-1891 Liberty Seated, With Motto Type
- 1873-1874 Liberty Seated, With Arrows Type
During the period between 1851 and 1853, full-scale mining of gold in California effectively lowered the world market for gold reckoned in silver coins. The gold rush increased the demand for large silver coinage since the melt-value was worth more than face value. Bullion dealers bought up the surplus of the Mint’s silver coin production, only to melt the surplus down and to sell the bulk to the West Indies and Latin America. The result is that coins struck between 1848 and 1852 are all much rarer than their mintages would indicate.
In 1853, in an attempt to cease the melting and exportation of silver coinage, the Mint added arrows on each side of the date and rays surrounding the eagle on the reverse to signify a reduction in the coin’s weight and silver content by approximately 7%. Over 4 million coins were struck in 1853, easing the demand for gold coinage at the time. Although the Arrows and Rays Half Dollar is popular with Variety collectors as a one-year only Variety, it is more expensive than other, lower mintage issues, and is generally not too difficult to locate.
The weight of subsidiary silver coinage didn’t increase until 1873. Once again, arrows were added to each side of the date to signify the change. These changes were necessitated by the disruptive effect the Western gold and silver discoveries of the period between 1845-1875 had on the value of precious metals.
One of the rarest coins of the series, and perhaps in all U.S. numismatics, is the 1853-O, minted without arrows and rays. The authorities apparently destroyed most by melting soon after they were coined because they were worth more as bullion than as coins. Today, only a few survive, all in worn condition. Among the scarce Philadelphia Mint issues are the coins struck from 1879 to 1890. It was during these years that silver production reached such frantic levels that coinage of subsidiary issues dropped sharply. During that period, only 102,304 Seated Liberty Half-Dollars were coined at the Philadelphia Mint, an average of less than 9,000 coins per year.