The second type for half dimes, the lowest silver denomination authorized by the Mint Act of 1792, was the Draped Bust Half Dime. The series is divided into two different subtypes, identified by the reverse design. The first subtype was produced in 1796 and 1797, and portrays a small eagle on the reverse. The second, introduced in 1800 and struck until 1805, portrays a large heraldic eagle on the reverse.
The obverse design for the entire series features the bust of Liberty, designed by Robert Scot. The image is said to have been proposed by Gilbert Stuart and based on Philadelphia resident Ann Willing Bingham. While this statement is accepted as fact by some, others consider it to simply be numismatic rumor. The image of Liberty is facing right with hair lightly bound in a ribbon. Her bust visible and partially draped, hence the name given to the design. The inscription “LIBERTY” appears above and the date below. The design is completed by stars representing states in the Union, either fifteen in number (1795, 1796 and some 1797 varieties), sixteen (some 1797 varieties after Tennessee was admitted as the 16th state to the Union) or thirteen (a minority of 1797 dated half dimes).
The so-called “small eagle” reverse issued from 1796-1797 features an eagle viewed from the front, in a somewhat natural state, inside a wreath bound with a ribbon at the bottom. The only other design feature is the inscription “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA”, which runs in a circle from the bottom left, around to the bottom right of the coin. No denomination is expressed, a feature on much of the early American coinage.
Production of Draped Bust Half Dimes would be halted in 1797 and not resumed until 1800. In the meantime, the small eagle reverse had been replaced on the other silver denominations, so it was also altered when the production of half dimes resumed. The so-called “heraldic eagle” reverse featured an eagle which was more stylistic and less natural in appearance. A large shield is placed at the eagle’s breast and a ribbon in its beak, with the inscription “E PLURIBUS UNUM”. In one claw there is a bundle of arrows, and in the other is an olive branch. A cluster of clouds is placed above the eagle, with an arrangement of thirteen small stars between the clouds and the eagle. The inscription “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” surrounds the image.
Many different varieties exist throughout the Draped Bust Half Dime series, both major and minor, with several listed in the Red Book. While variety collecting for this series is not as widespread as the larger denominations, some rarer varieties trade at substantial premiums. The scarcest regular issue occurred in 1802 when a mintage of only 3,060 pieces was produced.