The First of
the Large Cents
By R.W. Julian
The old large
cent, last struck in 1857, has long been a
favorite of American collectors. In fact, it was
the abolition of this large copper coin that led
directly to a growing interest in U.S. coins
during the late 1850s. Today the collecting
fervor for the large cent is as strong as ever,
with a considerable body of literature to aid
the beginner and the specialist.
Once the basic mint law had been signed into law
by President George Washington in April 1792,
newly appointed Mint Director David Rittenhouse
had many problems to contend with in creating a
new institution. The Mint director had
considered—as early as June 1792—striking small
silver coins as well as cents and half cents,
but in the end was forced to settle for a trial
coinage of 1,500 half dismes.
Silver was not all that difficult to obtain, but
copper was another matter and was the primary
reason Rittenhouse was unable to begin the
coinage of cents in 1792. To this end he
contacted importers and asked them to obtain
sheet copper of the proper thickness.
Making matters more complicated was the rise in
the price of copper during the fall of 1792. The
Mint director decided that either the cent had
to be reduced in size or some other way found.
One of the ideas tried—and rejected —was the
famous silver-center cent.
The first shipment of copper from England
arrived in October 1792 but the rise in the
price of copper meant that it could not be used
advantageously for coinage under the current law
setting the weight of the cent at 264 grains
(17.11 grams). Another shipment came in
November. With these two deliveries the Mint had
enough copper for about 150,000 coins.
By late December 1792 Rittenhouse knew that the
solution to the dilemma was to reduce to the
weights of the copper coins. He approached
Secretary of State Jefferson, who had been
appointed by the president as the cabinet
official over the Mint. Jefferson notified
Congress of the impediment and on Jan. 14, 1793,
the weight of the cent, and the half cent in
proportion, was set at 208 grains (13.48 grams).
In the meantime Rittenhouse faced the problem of
not having an engraver.
He persuaded the talented chief coiner, Henry
Voight, to do the engraving of the Liberty head
and the reverse.
The lettering and dentils on each die were then
added by workmen from the coiner’s department.
Once Congress had reduced the weights of the
copper coins, the way was now open to begin
coinage. Voight probably began his die work in
early February 1793 after the basic designs had
been decided upon.
By the latter part of February 1793, all was in
readiness. The most likely day for the symbolic
first coinage would have been Friday, Feb.
22—Washington’s birthday. His particular
interest in the success of the new Mint, and the
fact that public celebrations of his birthday
were held during his lifetime, make this date
the most likely choice. Little would have been
done on the Feb. 23, but on Monday, Feb. 25,
coinage would have proceeded as fast as the
machinery and skill of the workmen would allow.
The first reverse die abbreviated “AMERICA” to
“AMERI” in order to balance the lettering but
this was not repeated on succeeding dies.
Because the AMERI die came first, however, many
advanced collectors obtain a specimen of this
The first delivery came on March 1 when Voight
brought 11,178 coined cents to Mint Treasurer
Tristam Dalton. If Rittenhouse thought the Mint
was now on an easy path, he was very much
mistaken as the design on these first cents was
controversial. The head of Liberty was
criticized as being in a fright while the
reverse chain motif smacked of slavery in the
view of some citizens. (The chains were meant to
symbolize the strength of the new federal union
but the concept was lost in the public outcry.)
Due to the controversy, the president ordered
that new designs be created. While this was
under discussion, the Flowing Hair chain cents
continued to be struck and just over 36,000
pieces were produced through March 12.
Voight, in his dual role as engraver and coiner,
wasted little time in preparing revised dies,
this time with a much improved head of Liberty
accompanied by a wreath on the reverse. The
first Flowing Hair wreath cents were struck on
April 4 and coinage was maintained at a strong
pace for the next two weeks. There was then a
problem with preparing more planchets, partly
due to a shortage of copper, and the coiner was
not able to resume coining wreath cents until
late June 1793.
The last of the wreath cents was delivered in
mid July, making in all just over 63,000 pieces
that were coined. At this point the Mint decided
to concentrate on the half cent and coinage of
that denomination began on July 18. The half
cent coinage effectively ended a few days later
and it would be several weeks before striking of
any kind resumed.
While the coiner was marking time, the director
was seeking a full-time engraver with the
necessary skills to produce high quality
designs. In due course, Joseph Wright was
engaged as the first engraver. It is not quite
clear when Wright began work but it seems likely
he arrived sometime in mid to late August 1793.
Wright produced the famed Liberty Cap cent of
1793, arguably one of the best cent designs. Due
to the dreaded yellow fever, however, only about
11,000 of the new Liberty Cap cents were coined
by mid September when the Mint was forced to
close. Wright and his wife unfortunately both
contacted the fever with fatal results.
Yellow fever raged for several weeks, killing
thousands, before it finally began to weaken.
The Mint was able to reopen in early November
1793 but the remainder of the year was spent in
preparing for a resumption of the copper coinage
Robert Scot became the engraver in November and
used the time to learn the intricacies of making
dies. His first cent dies, however, used the old
Liberty head punch created by Wright in
There would be changes in 1794. Only copper had
been struck in 1793 because chief coiner Henry
Voight and assayer Albion Coxe had been unable
to find the necessary sureties for the high
bonds ($10,000) demanded for each post before
gold or silver could be coined. In March 1794,
at the urging of Rittenhouse, Congress lowered
the bonds to more reasonable levels and both men
soon posted their sureties.
The initial cent coinage in January and February
1794 used dies with the old Wright Liberty head.
It was not long afterward, however, that Scot
executed his own Liberty head. The crude
technology of the time dictated that each die
had to be touched up by hand as all of the
details from the hub were seldom present.
The most interesting cent of 1794 is the one
with the famous “Starred Reverse.” This was
first discovered by collectors in the latter
part of the 19th century and has been sought
ever since as the premier collectible of the
1794 cent series. There are 94 tiny stars
punched around the rim but partly covered by the
dentils as if someone had second thoughts.
Since it was first discovered the Starred
Reverse has been the subject of speculation. It
is the opinion of this writer that it was an
anti-counterfeiting device that proved too
complicated for use. (That the early Mint
officials were concerned about counterfeits is
seen in the fact that cents and half cents of
1793-1795 had lettered edges for protection.)
Cent coinage fell off during the fall of 1794 as
the Mint prepared to begin regular silver
coinage. Dollars were first coined in October
1794, followed by half dollars in November. Due
to an interruption of the silver coinage,
however, there was a small mintage of cents in
December 1794 to meet ongoing needs.
Because of the demand for silver coins, the Mint
concentrated on dollars and half dollars during
most of 1795, leaving little time for the
copper. Gold was first coined in July and this,
too, disrupted any plans for copper coinage.
At the end of June 1795 David Rittenhouse
resigned as director and was replaced by Henry
William DeSaussure. He ordered a small
resumption of copper work in October, with a
mere 37,000 cents being produced. The October
cents are the last coinage of this denomination
with lettered edges.
Immediately after this small October coinage,
DeSaussure resigned his post and was followed by
Elias Boudinot, a former New Jersey congressman.
Boudinot found himself faced with two problems—a
lack of copper and rising prices for the metal
when it could be found. The first problem was
solved when Boudinot was able to purchase a
supply of sheet copper from England but the
second required a legal change.
The new director met with the president and
asked him to exercise his legal authority,
granted by Congress in 1793, to reduce the
weight of the cent and half cent. Washington did
just that at the end of December 1795 and the
cent was now set at 168 grains (10.98 grams).
Striking of the thinner planchets began almost
immediately but the new cent coinage does not
have lettered edges, making it easy to
distinguish from the October mintage. For
reasons of economy, cent dies dated 1795 were
used for several weeks into 1796, meaning that
coins of this date are relatively easy to find.
At some point Liberty Cap obverse dies of 1796
were put into the coining press but the exact
date is lost. It is thought that about one-half
million plain-edged Liberty Cap cents were
delivered in 1796 but perhaps only about 100,000
of these carried the 1796 date.
The Mint ran out of copper in May 1796, putting
an end to coinage for the time being. Boudinot
had been corresponding with various firms for
several months to assure a steady supply but the
negotiations were tedious. In due course he
accepted proposals from Governor & Company of
Copper Miners, an English firm, for both sheet
copper and planchets ready for the coining
press. (Boudinot had also asked famed English
private coiner Matthew Boulton for ready-made
planchets but this effort did not bear fruit for
While Henry William DeSaussure was still in
office there was a change of design on the
silver dollar. It is thought that the Draped
Bust head of Liberty was pre-pared by famed
artist Gilbert Stuart and was used for the other
silver and copper coins as time permitted. The
turn of the cent came in October 1796 with the
arrival of the Governor & Company copper.
Boudinot was less than thrilled when he examined
the October delivery. The sheet copper had to be
scoured before it could be used and the
ready-made planchets were not much better. The
copper was used, from October through March
1797, because there was little choice due to
heavy public demand for coined cents.
Cent coinage halted in March 1797 because the
Mint was out of copper or so the officials said.
Actually Boudinot sold the clippings to local
metal dealers because the Mint rollers often
broke down from just the gold and silver coinage
and he did not wish additional risk from the
copper ingots being rolled down.
Because of strong need for good copper supplies,
Boudinot once more appealed to Matthew Boulton
but also asked a relative in England (Samuel
Bayard) to press Boulton for ready-made
planchets. At the same time he reluctantly
ordered four more tons of planchets from
Governor & Company.
Yellow fever struck again in the fall of 1797
and once more a key official was struck down by
the disease. In this case it was Mint Treasurer
Dr. Nicholas Way, who chose to minister to the
sick as best he could. His replacement was
another medical doctor, Benjamin Rush—a signer
of the Declaration of Independence.
While the Mint doors were locked, copper from
both Boulton and Governor & Company arrived at
the Philadelphia docks. The Boulton planchets
proved ideal but the Governor & Company work was
just as bad as before and there were no further
orders. Boulton, on the other hand, would
produce ready-made planchets for the next 40
Due to the strong public demand for cents, all
of the planchets from both shipments were sent
to the coining room. The heavy coinage, however,
was able to meet public needs by mid-December
1797 and provided the Mint with some breathing
space. Coinage soon resumed and the last of this
copper was used in July 1798. (By a stroke of
luck a shipment from Boulton was received just
as the other copper was exhausted.)
Yellow Fever came back with all its fury in the
late summer of 1798, forcing the Mint to close
its doors yet again. It reopened in early
November and copper coinage soon resumed in
force. The cents of 1798 are rather common
because that date was used throughout 1798 and
1799. Cents of the latter date were struck in
small quantities, perhaps 100,000 pieces, and
have long been known as rare.
The Mint ran out of copper during the winter of
1798-1799 and Boudinot sent several letters
imploring Boulton to ship the necessary cent
planchets on a more timely basis. In July 1799
10 tons of copper were received, equal to about
930,000 planchets, enough to keep the press busy
for several weeks. The shipment became exhausted
in late August, just as yellow fever returned.
The Mint reopened on Nov. 6, 1799, and
immediately began coining a fresh shipment of
cent planchets from Boulton, almost 20 tons. It
was not until June 1800 that the last of these
was coined and distributed to the public. By
coincidence another 10 tons were received at
just this time; these were sent to the coining
room and all struck by October 1800. The massive
coinages of 1800 mean, of course, that this date
is relatively common.
The end of the planchets the fall of 1800 was
not met by a fresh Boulton shipment. The next
delivery of planchets (20 tons) did not arrive
until March 1801. After that Boulton was timely
in his shipments and it was not until 1811 that
the coiner was temporarily out of cent planchets.
The cent coinage of 1801 is perhaps best known
for its errors. The most interesting such piece
has three errors: the fraction 1/000 (instead of
1/100), no stems to the wreath, and “IINITED”
instead of “UNITED.” In the last case, the
letter U was first punched upside down and then
corrected, thus giving the appearance of II
rather than U.
From 1802 through the end of Draped Bust coinage
in 1807 there are only a few varieties and dates
of note. For some obscure reason only one pair
of dies with the correct date was used in 1804,
making this date as desirable as the 1799.
Although the last date of the Draped Bust cent
coinage is 1807 it is possible that these dies
were used for a time in 1808, until replaced
with the new design by John Reich. It was the
end of a good design and after 1807 appreciated
only by future collectors.