Thoughts on the Nation's First Cents
By Tom LaMarre
Large cents dated 1793
have attracted collectors for at least 150
years. They were the first coins struck by the
new U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, a city with a
population of about 40,000 at that time.
Nothing involving the first cents came easily.
Finding a skilled engraver was a challenge. So
was the acquisition of the copper needed to
strike the coins. Many 1793 cents are found dark
Coming up with the right design for the cent was
also difficult. It was a hit-or-miss effort
involving a lot of trial and error. Designed by
Henry Voight, the earliest cents had an obverse
depicting Liberty with windblown hair. One
critic said she appeared to be "in fright."
The reverse was equally controversial. Its
circular chain of 15 links - one for each state
at the time - was supposed to symbolize unity.
But the chain's association with slavery made it
a poor choice for a cent which had the
inscription "Liberty" on the obverse.
The letter punches used for the inscriptions on
the cent were made by Jacob Bay. On the first
cents, struck from Feb. 27 to March 12, 1793,
"AMERICA" was abbreviated as "AMERI." The next
chain cent variety spelled it out in full.
Adam Eckfeldt soon redesigned the cent,
replacing the chain with a wreath and
strengthening the modeling of Liberty's face and
hair. Eckfeldt also added a three-leaf sprig
above the date. But the revised cent was only in
production a few months before it gave way to
the more successful Liberty Cap cent. Its
designer, Joseph Wright, died from yellow fever
later the same year. He was one of 5,000
Philadelphia residents who died during the
yellow fever epidemic that lasted from August to
By then, 1793 cents were already making the
news. Early comments in newspapers were
concerned with the alleged shortcomings of the
design. By 1870, however, 1793 cents had caught
on with collectors. Even non-collectors were
astonished that an old "penny" might be worth a
few dollars or more. Prices realized were
occasionally mentioned in newspapers across the
country. Record prices still make a good story,
and so do the discoveries of 1793 cents that are
still being made occasionally. Following are
some 1793 cent highlights spanning more than two
First Regular Return
On March 1, 1793, the chief coiner turned over
to the treasurer the first "regular return of
coins," according to Sylvester S. Crosby in The
United States Coinage of 1793, Cents and Half
Cents, published in 1897. The first batch
consisted of 11,178 cents.
Complaining about the chain on the reverse, the
March 26, 1793, issue of the Boston Argus said,
"The American cent does not answer our
The March 18, 1793, issue of The Mail, published
in Philadelphia, said, "The chain on the reverse
is but a bad omen for liberty."
The March 1793 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette
claimed, "Liberty appears to be in a fright."
Cents and Steamboats
Criticism of the Flowing Hair chain cent wasn't
Henry Voight's only disappointment. He also
failed in his effort to become known as the
inventor of the first practical steamboat.
Voigt and his partner John Fitch patented a
steamboat in 1791. They did build a steamboat,
and it made a trial run. But when the patent
expired, Robert Fulton used some of the concepts
of Voight and Fitch. In a pamphlet published in
Washington in 1814, "A Short Account of the
Origins of Steamboats," Dr. William Thornton
"The noise of Fulton's experiments seems also to
have aroused Henry Voight, the old companion and
partner of Fitch, who, during many years had, in
his comfortable office as chief coiner of the
United States Mint, forgotten his struggles and
losses in the steamboat scheme.
"Applying his inventive genius to work, he
produced an improved method of navigating
steamboats by three rows of paddles at the
sides. The blades were fastened to beams, moved
by levers and cranks, so that one set of the
paddles was always in the water. This plan was
laid before the American Philosophical Society,
with a curious drawing, on the 21st of July,
According to the Jan. 23, 1890, issue of the
Indiana County Gazette, the preparation of each
die used to strike early cents cost "a neat sum
of money." So, the newspaper said, the
government must have regarded the "penny" an
important coin. The writer added, "Those coined
in 1793 were so soft they wore out, and
first-class specimens are expensive."
"The first American cent was struck off and put
in circulation in 1793," the March 19, 1908,
issue of the Warren (Ohio) Evening Mirror said.
"The cent of 1793 was very similar to the large
copper cents of later date." The Liberty Cap
design used on the last 1793 cents was continued
Collectors often assume the chain on the reverse
of the first cents has 13 links symbolizing the
original 13 colonies or states. "There are
several kinds of the cent of 1793," the March
15, 1881, issue of the Marion Daily Star noted.
"One has on the obverse a long flowing hair
portrait of Liberty and on the reverse a chain
with thirteen links Another kind has a liberty
cap and wreath of a different device."
Incidentally, future president Warren G. Harding
and a friend purchased the Marion Star in 1882.
Harding was the editor of the paper and expanded
it into a major political force after he married
a wealthy widow.
However, the Star was wrong in its description
of the chain on the reverse of the first cents.
There are 15 links in the chain, as pointed out
in the May 2, 1904, issue of the New York Times.
The Streaming Hair Cent
In 1887, someone wrote a letter to the New York
Times and enclosed an impression of a "copper
cent of 1793, the head of Liberty having full,
streaming hair." Coin collectors, however,
prefer to call it the Flowing Hair cent instead
of the Streaming Hair cent.
"The first money coined by authority of the
United States was copper cents in 1793," said
the Jan. 15, 1881, issue of the Stevens Point
Journal. "Specimens of them are to be seen at
the mint in Philadelphia, at the Smithsonian
Institute, in the cabinets of several state
societies and among the collections of American
In 1903 the New York Times said at least a dozen
varieties of cents were minted in 1793. The
rarest and most valuable is the so-called
Strawberry Leaf cent, a variety of 1793 Flowing
Hair wreath cent named for the unusual shape of
the leaves above the date. The reason it was
made is a mystery. Long ago it was called the
Cotton Leaf or Clover Leaf cent. David Proskey
named it the Strawberry Leaf cent in the 1890s.
Only four Strawberry Leaf cents are known, all
heavily worn. One of them was rediscovered in
2004 when it was brought to a Maine coin shop.
The rare cent had been off the market for more
than 60 years and had been in the collection of
Lorin Parmelee in the 1800s.
Graded Fine-12, it is the finest known
Strawberry Leaf cent. At a November 2004 auction
it realized $414,000.
Chain cents and early wreath cents have a vine
and bars edge design. Later the cent changed to
a lettered edge reading "One Hundred For A
Dollar," followed by a single or double leaf.
Newspaper coverage of coin auctions in the 1800s
did not always identify 1793 cents by type.
Grading was also haphazard because there was no
standard system. As a result, prices paid for
1793 cents could range from not much more than
face value into the hundreds of dollars.
At a Philadelphia auction in 1870, two 1793
chain cents described as being in Poor condition
realized 15 cents apiece.
In June 1871, a 1793 cent realized $4. Another
example brought $6.
At a rare coin auction in May 1888, a 1793
Liberty Cap cent realized more than $80. At the
Parmelee sale in 1890, Pennsylvania collector
Charles Steigerwalt paid $167 for a 1793 cent.
Four other examples realized $75, $79, $80 and
Another 1793 cent brought $8 at the Haigh sale
in Boston in October 1901. At an auction in New
York in 1906, a 1793 wreath cent sold for $82.
In October 1906, two 1793 cents sold for $25 and
Strong bidding for a 1793 cent occurred at an
auction of early large cents in New York in
November 1935. The historic copper cent was
hammered down for $200. Thomas Elder auctioned
more than 4,000 large cents, beginning with
1793s. Two years later, also in New York, an
auction included 19 large cents dated 1793. Many
were described as rare varieties.
In 1963, at the sale of the Wolfson collection,
a 1793 Liberty Cap cent sold for $1,250.
At a Bowers and Ruddy auction in May 1978, a
"choice and lustrous" 1793 cent with vine and
bars edge realized more than $5,000. In Cherry
Hill, N.J., in December 1983, a 1793 wreath cent
sold for $2,600 at the Great Eastern Numismatic
"Many record prices for United States coins have
been made in 1910," the Jan. 29, 1911, issue of
the Oakland Tribune said, "but especially
remarkable have been the prices which have been
paid for certain varieties of the old-fashioned
cents that were issued from 1793 to 1857. These
are now the highest priced series according to a
statement recently made by one of America's
leading numismatists. The highest price ever
paid for a cent was for an uncirculated specimen
of a Liberty Cap cent dated 1793."
Large cents remained the most popular coin
series for years. "Maybe the dollar bill
dwindled in value and the modern penny, too,"
the March 14, 1920 issue of the Modesto Evening
News said. "But the old-fashioned penny, the big
round copper coined by the government from 1793
to 1857, is hitting new high records."
Records, however, are made to be broken. At a
November 1973 sale, a 1793 cent realized
$16,000. In 1980 a 1793 chain cent realized a
record price for any copper coin, $115,000. Coin
Prices currently lists a Mint State-60 chain
cent at $135,000.
In 1965, a man looking for worms for bait turned
over a stone near a pond. Instead he found a
In 1995 Sotheby's auctioned a 1793 chain cent in
London. The catalog said it was "from a little
old lady who carried the coin in her purse."
Mark Khosravi was using a bulldozer at a Civil
War campsite in 1997 when he found a 1793 chain
cent in Fair grade.
In 2007, while working in her garden, a
Pennsylvania woman found a 1793 cent.
In 1972, NASA revealed that a 1793 cent had been
hidden aboard the Gemini 7 space flight. It was
the farthest one of the first cents had ever
strayed from Philadelphia, where they were
struck when George Washington was president.