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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 or corroded.

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 November 1793.

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 centuries.

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.

Disappointing

Complaining about the chain on the reverse, the March 26, 1793, issue of the Boston Argus said, "The American cent does not answer our expectations."

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 wrote:

"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, 1809."

Soft Cents

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."


Very Similar

"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 into 1796.

Missing Links

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.

First Money

"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 numismatists."

Varieties

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.



Edge Designs

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.

Auction Action

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 $85.

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 $26.

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 Association auction.

Record Prices

"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.

Finds

In 1965, a man looking for worms for bait turned over a stone near a pond. Instead he found a 1793 cent.

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.

Stowaway

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.



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