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Classic Head Cent Subject of Rumors
By R.W. Julian, Numismatic News
October 03, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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With the demise of the old large cent in early 1857, there arose among some citizens a desire to collect this series of coins. Most dates, especially after 1815, were easily obtained while the earlier ones were increasingly difficult, particularly those in the 1790s.

As collecting interests broadened, the early numismatists began to specialize in the various types of the large cent, the Draped Bust version being a particular favorite. Over the past few decades, however, the continuing popularity of the large cent has created a strong demand for all dates, not just the favored few.

The Classic Head cents dated from 1808 to 1814 have not escaped this growing interest. It is sometimes reported that this series does not come in the best of condition due to a lesser quality of copper being used. There is some doubt about the claim of poor copper and the fault perhaps seems to lie elsewhere.

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The head of Liberty that is found on the cents of 1808 through 1814 has an interesting background, which really dates back some years before the coinage began. In 1801 Chief Coiner Henry Voigt was instrumental in freeing an indentured servant, John Reich – a newly-arrived immigrant from Germany. Reich had learned the art of engraving from his father, who was well known in European artistic circles.

Reich had decided to try his luck in the New World, chances for work of his type of skill being relatively thin in Europe. The only way he could afford to travel to America, however, was in bondage to the ship’s captain, who sold the indenture to a Philadelphia resident upon the ship’s arrival.

Voigt bought the indenture, and freed Reich, in exchange for use of the newly freed engraver’s skills. In particular Reich was set to work on a medal honoring not only the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as president in March 1801 but the 25th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, signed in July 1776. The medal is especially well done and shows that Voigt had chosen wisely in freeing Reich from the status of indentured servant.

Mint Director Elias Boudinot, who provided part of the sum needed for Reich’s freedom, considered hiring Reich as an assistant to Chief Engraver Robert Scot but the extreme economy under which the Mint operated in those days meant that the government would not have been all that interested.

Reich’s status would change once a new Mint director, Robert Patterson, arrived on the scene in early July 1805. Patterson was a close friend to President Jefferson and was able to persuade him in the late winter of 1806–1807 that Scot’s advancing age meant that an assistant was more or less a necessity. Jefferson, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, agreed to the suggestion and Reich was hired at an annual salary of $600, one of the better bargains accomplished by the early Mint.

The salary, even by standards of that time, was not all that good. The chief engraver was paid $1,500 per year and some of the workmen earned not all that far from $400 each year. It was, however, steady income and Reich was permitted to do outside work to supplement his wages.

Although we tend to think that national politics played little or no role in the early Mint, such was not quite the case. Chief Engraver Scot was considered a Federalist in politics while Jefferson and Patterson were Republicans (now called Democrats). Patterson felt that Reich could create new coinage designs to reflect the change of politics that arrived when Jefferson became President in March 1801.

Patterson also seemed to have felt that the designs of the 1790s, executed under Federalist Presidents George Washington and John Adams, had to be scrapped. Scot of course, under this scenario, could not be trusted to replace his own work and thus the changes fell under Reich’s wing.

Once Reich had arrived at the Mint, on the first day of April 1807, Director Patterson lost little time in discussing with him the new designs that were wanted. The director told Reich that all three metals – gold, silver and copper – would get the proverbial facelift with new designs for the head of Liberty appearing in each metal.

The first work undertaken by Reich was the redesigning of the half dollar, the most important coin then being struck by the Mint. (The next two denominations, in order of importance, were the cent and gold half eagle.) Patterson not only wanted a new Liberty head to grace this coin but also insisted on a revised eagle for the reverse.

For some obscure reason it later became an accepted fact among the Mint officers that Reich had used his “fat mistress” as the model for the new head of Liberty on the half dollar. The claim is first found on an internal Mint memo of the Civil War era but was of course based on earlier rumors.

The claim about the mistress is of doubtful validity and probably arose during the early 1830s when Mint Director Samuel Moore made it plain that he did not care for the Reich designs of 1807-1808. Moore’s dislike could easily have translated into a belief that the Reich designs were flawed because of the model. In 1835 a new director, Dr. Robert M. Patterson, liked the old designs even less and was responsible for the new Liberty Seated motif that first saw the light of day on the coinage in 1836.

The most telling point about a mistress being used on the coinage is that, had this been true in Reich’s case, polite society in Philadelphia would soon have known of the fact. That would have been a serious blow to Patterson’s efforts to improve the looks of the coinage and almost certainly never happened.

Once the new half dollar dies were ready for coinage, Reich turned his attention to the half eagle. Then came the turn of the lowly cent. The heads of Liberty on the three metals are not all that different although the details of each bust vary to a certain degree.

The first cents in the new Classic Head design, as they are termed today by collectors, were dated 1808 although it is not clear exactly when the new coinage began. It is quite possible, and even likely, that the old 1807 Draped Bust cent dies were used for a certain period of time in early 1808. As the Mint did not keep records of the dates on the coins that were delivered by the chief coiner, we will never know for certain just when the Classic Head cent coinage began.

As noted earlier in this article, it has long been claimed that the Classic Head cents were struck from softer copper, which would have worn down more quickly. This is possible but there are problems in accepting this theory. In the first place all large cents struck from 1800 through early 1816 were from planchets made by Matthew Boulton of Birmingham, England.

There is no reason to believe, based on the exchange of letters between the Mint director and Boulton, that any change occurred in the planchets sent over from Britain. There was a delivery of planchets at the Mint in October 1807 but these had been prepared some months earlier.

With the delay in coining the new Classic Head cents until perhaps the spring of 1808 these planchets were on hand for a period of time at Birmingham, then went on a lengthy sea voyage where they were exposed to salt air. Upon arrival at Philadelphia the planchets were presumably exposed to the humid air of that seaport. All in all, the planchets were not stored under ideal conditions which may well account for some of the charges of inferior copper.

The second reason for uncertainty of the quality of the copper is that the design on the cents had been changed. They do not seem to have been struck up as well as the Draped Bust cents. It may well be in this regard that instructions were given to lessen the pressure slightly on the new cent pieces, thus increasing die life in an economy-minded Mint.

One of the more interesting of the new 1808 cents has only 12 stars on the obverse, compared to the normal 13. The mistake, however, was not that at all but rather a failure of the die steel which meant that the star slowly disappeared from the coins that were struck. As a general rule the dies of this period were fairly well prepared, especially in the hardening, but there were always exceptions.

For 1809 the mintage is a relatively low 223,000 pieces and there is only one die variety. Cent specialists make up for this lack of different dies for 1809 by collecting die states. In such cases the deterioration of one or both dies provides cracks and other defects on the finished coin. Each new crack effectively merits a new die state for dedicated collectors.

For 1809, as is true for 1808, the quality of the surviving coins is not all that good on average. Collectors of lesser means have to settle for lower quality because the finest pieces bring strong prices at auction or in private sales.

There are essentially two kinds of 1810 large cents, those bearing an overdate (1810/09) or having a normal date. Even though overdates are strongly collected in this country, there is little difference in values between the two varieties, leading to the obvious conclusion that the number of overdate specimens in existence for this date is about the same as the regular date pieces. It is thus one of the few early overdates that can be obtained by the numismatist of more moderate means.

The cent coinage of 1811, at about 220,000 pieces, is just a bit more than one-seventh of the number struck in 1810. One would think that this would mean that cents dated 1811 would be worth considerably more than those of 1810 but such is not the case. They are worth more, but not by all that much.

As in 1810 an overdate and regular date exist for 1811. The 1811/10 coin is somewhat scarcer than the regular date in the better grades though in the lower states of preservation is worth somewhat less.

The low mintage of 1811 was not the result of lessened public demand for copper coins but rather the simple fact that the Mint ran out of planchets. The planchets for the 1811 coinage had been delivered in 1807, giving the sea air plenty of time to damage the Boulton shipment.

The next shipment of planchets, weighing some 20 tons, arrived in the late spring of 1812, just before war with Britain erupted. These planchets, however, had been made by Boulton in the summer of 1811 but not shipped due to the difficulty the Mint director had in prying money out of the U.S. Treasury to pay for them. Boulton refused to ship unless the work was paid for in advance.

The money problem was in due course solved and the shipment left Liverpool in early 1812. Once more the planchets had been exposed to salt air while being stored at Liverpool and on the long sea voyage.

After the planchets had arrived at the Philadelphia docks and then brought into the Mint, cent coinage was able to resume. However, Director Patterson ordered that only a reasonable number of pieces be struck, to meet public demand. No one knew how long the war would last and the planchets on hand would have to last until peace was declared and more could be obtained from Boulton.

In all during 1812 some 1.1 million large cents were struck. This left a little less than 800,000 planchets for use in the following years. The relatively large cent coinage in 1812, however, means that specimens of this date can be obtained by collectors of lesser means without too much difficulty. Moreover, there are no significant varieties for this year, such as an overdate.

For 1813, which also has no overdate to collect, the director permitted the coinage of about 420,000 pieces. The coins were not released, however, due to an unexpected order from the Treasurer of the United States, Thomas Tucker, banning the distribution of copper coins.

The Tucker order seems odd until one realizes that the war had driven up the price of copper. There were no domestic mines and all such metal had to be imported. (In 1814 the price copper reached 70 cent per pound in some markets whereas cents were struck at the rate of just under 42 cents per pound.) Tucker was concerned that the coins might be melted for manufacturing purposes and thus lost to the public as circulating coinage.

Cents of 1814, of which about 360,000 were struck, have long been subject to numismatic rumors. One such story was that workers had not been paid because of a shortage of government funds in local banks and Director Patterson ordered the cent coinage in 1814 to pay the workers in these coins. The story is not exactly false as there is a grain of truth involved.

Workers had in fact not been paid but there were gold and silver coins at the banks under Mint control and Patterson asked permission to use them for wages. The Treasury refused, on technical grounds, but sent Treasury Notes instead for payment. Patterson used the notes to buy silver coins and was able to pay off the workers in a reasonable time. In late 1814, with the end of the war in sight, the Treasury allowed the cents to be paid out normally.

In the summer of 1832 a strange rumor arose in Massachusetts about the 1814 cent coinage. A few collectors putting together date sets were unable to find the 1814 date and asked some employees handling money on the toll roads to be on the lookout for them and offering several cents each. The word soon got out and the ill-informed somehow got the strange idea that in 1814 gold had accidentally been mixed with the copper and the collectors were reaping a bonanza by obtaining these coins. Newspapers soon ridiculed the rumors but the belief in the gold cents was occasionally resurrected for the unwary.

Word of the peace treaty ending the war reached the United States in early 1815 and Director Patterson lost little time in contacting Matthew Boulton for a fresh supply of cent planchets. It was not until mid December 1815, however, that the first 5 tons – about 475,000 planchets – were received at the Mint. These went directly to the coining press but were not dated 1815, the date 1816 being the most likely though 1814 is possible.

The year 1816 would bring a revised design to the cent. The Classic Head cent was no more and in the future would be appreciated only by dedicated collectors.

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