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1792 Birch Cent
By CoinLink

The patterns of 1792 are among the most intriguing stories in the history of U.S. numismatics. Carl Carlson published an extensive article about them in the March 1982 Numismatist. In this lengthy and worthwhile article, he brought together findings from previous researchers who had examined the series, and led in a methodical fashion queries into when the pieces were struck, by whom, and where they were manufactured. The article leaves open several questions, some of which have yet to be resolved. One is the question of which Birch the coin refers to.

There are two varieties of Birch cents: The “regular” design has BIRCH on the bust truncation and is represented by 15-20 pieces today (including both Judd-4 and Judd-5). The other design is a unique white metal specimen with GWPt on the reverse, an abbreviation for “George Washington President.” As superficially different as these two coins appear, they are actually different engraving states of the same die. The two designs are punch-linked, indicating the same person engraved both at about the same time. The obverses are closer in treatment, but the reverses show evidence of considerably more drastic die work.

The half disme and the Birch cent are definitely related and from the same engraver. The half disme is virtually a mirror image of the Birch cent, with Liberty facing left rather than right as on the cent. Carlson’s article makes a clear case for the time frame of the striking of these coins from a December 1792 letter written by Thomas Jefferson. In this letter he implies there were no cents struck in the Mint itself before December, which leaves production of these coins to sometime before October, when the Mint presses were first operational. This leaves only one possibility for the location of the production of the Birch cents: John Harper’s coach house.

The question of just which Birch was actually responsible for these pattern cents has since proven to be not Thomas Birch, previously believed to have engraved the dies. Thomas Birch was born in England in 1779 and was only 13 years old in 1792. It is more likely that William Russell Birch, a famous Philadelphia miniaturist, visited Philadelphia in the spring and summer of 1792, although he only moved his family there in 1794. Carlson lays out the most logical origin of the Birch cent:

“Were the original ‘GWPt’ dies engraved in Philadelphia, or were they prepared in England prior to Birch’s departure for America to serve as a sample of his work to show Mint officials and Harper upon his arrival? He would certainly have had the necessary contacts at the various private Mints in England to have cut the original dies there and made some trial strikes in white metal as samples. The punches for the cent … were of British origin and do not appear on any dies over here other than the cent. The revised version of the cent required recutting but not punches.”

Questions remain today about the specific origins of the Birch cent. Although we have evidence, we still do not conclusively know: Exactly which Birch was the engraver? Did Birch himself modify the GWPt die? Can these coins be punch-linked to British tokens of the period to identify exactly where the dies were engraved? Nevertheless, the Birch cent shares a prestigious spot in the birth of U.S. coinage, along with the silver center cent, half disme, disme, and Eagle on Globe quarter, all highly interesting and historic issues from the first year the Mint was established.

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