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Early Cents Continue to Attract Devotees
By R.W. Julian, Coins Magazine
September 10, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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In the 1780s the American marketplace was flooded with underweight and poorly struck copper coins. Various states, as well as the Confederation government in 1787, saw such coinage as a way to earn much-needed funds. So many were made, however, that it was not long before the mints were closed down.

With the creation of the new federal government in the spring of 1789 the public soon began to urge the creation of a national mint for the United States. Funding the new government came first, however, and it was not until the summer of 1790 that Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was able to work on the scheme of coinage that the House of Representatives had asked him to prepare.

Hamilton presented his 15,000-word report to Congress in January 1791. He suggested two copper coins, one of which was to be the value of a hundredth part of a dollar. He indicated that the largest copper piece, the cent, would answer to the halfpenny sterling, seemingly an odd use of an equivalent coin until it is realized that prices in America at that time used the English system of pennies and shillings.

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After the report was in hand, the solons did little at first except to authorize President George Washington to create a mint. No written law was provided as guidance, merely the Hamilton report. During the summer of 1791 the president tried to do as he was asked but in the fall pointedly informed Congress that a written law was needed.

During the winter of 1791-1792 Congress wrestled with the coinage problem and length produced a bill signed into law by the president in early April 1792. One of Washington’s first acts was to appoint well-known scientist David Rittenhouse as the first director. Rittenhouse in turn persuaded the President to appoint Henry Voight as the first chief coiner.

As early as June 1792 the Mint director asked permission from Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the cabinet officer delegated to superintend the Mint, for permission to coin several denominations, including the copper cent. Jefferson consulted Washington, who granted permission for Rittenhouse to proceed. The only coins actually struck for circulation in that first year, however, were the famous half dismes.

At length, in late February 1793, regular coinage got underway with the Flowing Hair chain cent. Because no competent engraver had yet been found, chief coiner Henry Voight reluctantly undertook to prepare these first 1793 dies. The visual effect was not all that good and there was public criticism of the designs on the two sides.

The chain cent was soon followed by the Flowing Hair wreath cent, which was struck from April through June 1793. Half cents were coined in July, also from dies executed by the chief coiner. Voight by now was probably ready to throw in the towel in connection with his temporary duties as engraver. Rittenhouse and Jefferson were well aware of the problem and made every effort to find a competent artist and die sinker. It was not until sometime in August, however, perhaps around the middle of the month, that the highly skilled Joseph Wright was brought on board as the engraver. He had already created various dies, including the pattern quarter dollar dated 1792 and the medal dies for Col. Henry Lee.

Once Wright was at the Mint there were discussions about the new head of Liberty that was needed. No details of the decision-making have come down to us but it is likely that President Washington made the final decision to use the head found on the Libertas Americana medal that had been struck in Paris to the order of Benjamin Franklin in the early 1780s. It commemorated the end of the Revolutionary War and the creation of the United States, certainly a good omen for the head of Liberty now being discussed.

There was a secondary reason for the choice of a Liberty head accompanied by a Liberty Cap. Thomas Jefferson was a great admirer of the French Revolution then ongoing and the Liberty Cap was also a symbol of the revolutionary forces in that country. Wright was an artist of great skill and had little trouble executing obverse dies for the new Liberty Cap cent coinage.

Wright went to considerable lengths to improve the overall look of the cent. Not only was there now a fine rendering of a Liberty head for the obverse but also the reverse no longer had that cluttered look with small berries seemingly everywhere. The new engraver fully understood a measured approach to artistry on the coinage whereas Voight, though well meaning, tried to put too many minor details into the wreath.

How quickly Wright worked is not known because we do not know the day he began working at the Mint. Through some odd oversight there are no pay records for his stint as engraver. This may be due in part to the fact that he died in mid-September 1793 from the Yellow Fever, and the salaries of officers were paid only at the end of a quarter—in this case Sept. 30.

The matter of Wright’s employment is further complicated by the fact that the Mint closed, due to the yellow fever, on Sept. 19 and did not reopen for several weeks. Whether this hiatus contributed to the problem in payments to officers is not known.

Whatever the status of Wright’s employment, the Liberty Cap cent dies were ready by mid-September, just about the time the engraver died. It is possible, though not certain, that Wright’s fatal illness kept him from preparing the working dies and a Mint workman actually used the hubs prepared by the engraver to create the necessary dies.

It should be remembered that all of the Liberty Cap cents struck through the latter part of 1795 had an inscription on the edge reading “ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR.” The edge lettering was applied before the coins were struck and was intended to deter counterfeiting, a serious problem in the early days of the Republic.

On Sept. 18, 1793, a Wednesday, Voight delivered 11,056 Liberty Cap cents dated 1793, all that would ever be minted. These coins would of necessity have been struck over a two or three-day period as the Mint could not strike that many coins on one press in one day. Each planchet was placed in the coining chamber by a young boy, specially hired for that purpose.

The 1793 Liberty Cap cent has long fascinated collectors due in part to the small mintage and obvious rarity. One of the more interesting books recently published is that by Jim Neiswinter discussing a particular variety of this special mintage. It chronicles “Sheldon 15,” after the number system devised by Dr. William Sheldon in the 1940s and still in use today by collectors of the early copper coinage. (There are other numbering systems, including one devised by Walter Breen, but the Sheldon numbers are the most widely used.)

Neiswinter’s book is titled The Aristocrat after the name applied years ago to this famous coin. The variety has been avidly sought by copper specialists for well over a hundred years and the appearance of a new specimen would certainly generate widespread publicity in the numismatic world.

The day after the Liberty Cap cents were delivered the Mint closed its doors and the officers and men, if possible, left for safer climes. The dreaded yellow fever killed thousands in Philadelphia during September and October 1793, creating a virtual ghost town in parts of the city. Those who could not, or would not, leave often paid with their lives. It is believed that several of the Mint workmen, in addition to Wright and his wife, died in the ensuing weeks.

With the reopening of the Mint in early November a new engraver was on hand, Robert Scot. It took Scot a certain amount of time to learn the intricacies of die making as it was a very demanding and slow business in those days. By mid-December 1793 he was sufficiently acclimated to begin preparing cent dies using the old hubs originally made by Joseph Wright the preceding August.

There had been serious problems obtaining a steady supply of copper in 1793 but the logjam was broken in early 1794 when a major shipment of sheet copper was obtained from England. Sheet copper required only the planchets to be cut out, which speeded up the coining process. When the Mint workmen had to melt and then roll down the copper ingots to the proper thickness it was time consuming and very hard on the rolling machines.

The first Liberty Cap cents struck in 1794 used, as noted above, the old Wright hubs to create the dies. For this reason the cents struck in early 1794 are said to use the Head of 1793. The old hubs, however, were not all that long-lived and Scot was soon required to create his own hubs for making dies. Cents from the new hubs are described as having the Head of 1794. (Late in 1794 another Liberty head hub was executed, this one being called the Head of 1795, but there is little difference between that and the first Scot hub.)

Beginning in the latter part of 1794 Scot had the services of an assistant engraver, John Smith Gardner. Some specialists think that Gardner executed the Head of 1795 hub for the cent dies but this is somewhat speculative. It is perhaps more likely that Gardner was responsible for creating the working dies from the hubs while Scot concentrated on preparing the hubs.

Several collectors have specialized in the cents of 1794 and the celebrated John Adams Collection, sold by Bowers and Merena in the 1980s, was one of the best. Other fine assemblages have been sold in recent years by Heritage, Stack’s, and the Goldbergs.

Some of the finest specimens of the 1794 cents now in U.S. collections were, oddly enough, obtained in England. It appears that tourists of the 1790s, as is equally true even today, picked up choice specimens of the coinage as mementoes of their trips. Beginning in the 1860s these were repatriated by enterprising American numismatists visiting the United Kingdom.

It was popular in the 1860s and 1870s for numismatists to give names to varieties of the 1794 cents. We find such oddities as Split Pole, Office Boy reverse, Liberty with Apple Cheeks, and the Fallen 4 obverse. This no doubt helped collectors of that era acquire their coins but today the Sheldon numbers are more useful.

The most interesting 1794 cent for the modern collector is the one with 94 small stars around the reverse rim. Known as Sheldon 48, this extraordinary variety was discovered by coin dealer Henry Chapman in 1876. About 65 or 70 specimens are now known, mostly in a lower grade of preservation. The 94 stars on the reverse have been the subject of considerable speculation over the years, a necessary evil because surviving records of the early Philadelphia Mint do not mention the subject. The most likely answer is an anti-counterfeiting device which quickly lost favor because of the difficulty of marking and storing dies correctly as well as keeping track of their usage. With this in mind it is likely that 95 stars would have been on cents dated 1795, for example, had the idea not been scrapped.

In the late summer of 1794 cent coinage ground to a halt as the Mint workmen prepared for the beginning of the silver coinage. It is, of course, well known that silver dollars were first struck in October 1794 and half dollars a few weeks later. There were mechanical difficulties, however, and cent coinage resumed for a few weeks in December 1794.

The emphasis by Rittenhouse on silver coinage from early in 1795 meant that no copper coins would be struck at the Mint for several months. There were sufficient complaints about this hiatus, however, that a new mint director, Henry William DeSaussure, ordered the rough clippings on hand to be made into cents. Only 37,000 pieces were made, all in October.

Oddly enough there had been an earlier Liberty Cap coinage dated 1795 but these coins had been struck by John Harper. His January mintage was an attempt to obtain a contract to strike the copper coins privately but the government was not interested and the dies were seized to prevent further coins being struck.

In late December 1795, as the result of a rise in copper prices, Mint Director Elias Boudinot—who had replaced DeSaussure in late October—asked President Washington to reduce the weights of the two copper coins. After a thorough discussion, the president did just that, the cent weight being dropped from 208 grains (13.48 grams) to 168 grains (10.89 grams), a reduction of nearly 20 percent.

Cent coinage resumed during the last week of December 1795 using dies of that date. However, the new coins no longer had edge lettering and are thereby easily distinguished from the October coinage, which did use lettered-edge planchets.

The light-weight 1795 cent coinage continued well into 1796 as there was an urgency to such coinage, demand having built up since the last major copper coinage at the end of 1794. In due course the 1795 obverse dies were replaced with those of 1796; it is believed that the Liberty Cap cents dated 1796 were struck in May and June of that year. One estimate is that 500,000 cents dated 1795 were struck on the new standard and a lesser number, about 110,000, dated 1796.

One of the oddities of the 1795 cent coinage is that the lettered-edge pieces are not worth all that much more than the plain-edged specimens. Perhaps this is due to citizens at the time saving the heavier coins as mementos.

Once the Liberty Cap cent coinage had ended in June, Scot set about creating new hubs for a revised cent coinage. It is thought that the Draped Bust cents were first struck in October 1796. After that only the collector was left to appreciate the fine quality of the Liberty Cap cents.



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