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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 coinage.

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 in 1794.

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 September 1793.

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 several months.)

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 years.

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.


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