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Fewer bumps for copper after 1796
By R.W. Julian
May 18, 2017

(Editor’s Note: This article is the fourth of a five-part series on the copper coinage of the United States from 1793 to 1857. Read the first part here, the second part here, the third part here, and the fifth part here.)

Mint Director Elias Boudinot was not a satisfied man during 1796 when it came to the copper coinage. There were serious problems in obtaining a sufficient amount of copper for the coinage and much of it had to be flattened on rollers that often broke down.

In late 1795 Boudinot had made arrangements with Philadelphia merchants to import sheet copper but President Washington had decided that this method of obtaining copper was no longer acceptable. In early 1796 the director was ordered to purchase the copper directly from European sources.

Samuel Bayard, a relative of Boudinot’s but also the American Claims Commissioner in Great Britain, was there to settle outstanding claims arising from the Revolutionary War period. He was asked by Boudinot to approach Matthew Boulton, as well as other copper manufacturers, about obtaining sheet copper or ready-made planchets.

Bayard was unable to persuade Boulton to send any planchets in 1796 but did make an arrangement with the Governor & Company of Copper Miners in England (abbreviated as “Gov’r & Co.” in Mint records) to send both sheet copper and ready-made planchets. These were received in October 1796 but the quality was very poor and Boudinot wrote a stinging letter to the owner, William Coltman.

There was no choice except to use the Gov’r & Co. copper and by year’s end all of the ready-made planchets had been struck into cent coins. In February 1797 additional cent planchets were punched from the sheet copper and sent to the coining room where they were soon struck.

The last of the October sheet copper was struck at the end of March 1797 but in the meantime half cents were struck. In 1795 and again in 1796 the Mint purchased a large quantity (2990 pounds) of Talbot, Allum, & Lee tokens. (These had been struck in England for the New York firm to circulate as cent coins until the United States Mint was able to provide such coins.) Some of the TA&L tokens had been used for the half cents struck in early 1796 and it is therefore not clear how many of these tokens were available for use in early 1797.

The TA&L tokens were rolled down and half cent blanks cut from them. In addition misstruck cents from the latter part of 1796 and early 1797 were also rolled down and half cent blanks cut out. Roughly 107,000 half cents were then struck by the end of April 1797, the last significant coinage of this denomination until 1800.

Although minting stopped for both the cent and half cent by April 1797, there was still a considerable quantity of rough copper on hand. Boudinot then made the decision to sell this copper to local metal dealers rather than melt and roll it down to coin thickness. The reason was simple enough: the rolling machines needed to be preserved for the silver and gold ingots; rolling down copper was especially destructive to the machinery and the officers felt that there was no other choice.

At this point, and very reluctantly, Boudinot again ordered copper from Gov’r & Co. The October 1796 delivery from that company was poorly done and clearly the director hoped that his letter pointing out the problems would lead to better results. This time, however, only ready-made planchets were wanted. At the same time Bayard was again urged to persuade Matthew Boulton to send planchets as well.

This time the appeal to Boulton worked and a shipment of four tons (about 415,000 planchets) was received in late August 1797. This was followed by 390,000 planchets from Gov’r & Co. in late October.

In a letter to William Coltman, of Gov’r & Co., Boudinot reported that the planchets just received were no better than those of October 1796. As far as the director was concerned there would be no more orders sent to Gov’r & Co.

On the other hand the shipment from Matthew Boulton could not have been better made. The Boulton planchets were sent immediately to the coining presses while the Gov’r & Co. blanks were used afterwards, once the Boulton pieces were gone.

Boudinot now made the obvious choice to use nothing but ready-made cent planchets from Matthew Boulton. It was the only decision that could have been made under the circumstances but there was a problem in that Boulton was not all that dependable in getting the planchets shipped to America in a timely manner.

Boudinot now ordered 10 tons (about 925,000 planchets) from Boulton but this shipment did not arrive until early July 1798. Once in the Mint the planchets were sent immediately to the coining room, where they were struck into cents. The 1798 Boulton shipment served the Mint well and it did not become exhausted until March 1799.

Although no Boulton planchets were on hand from April through June 1799 nevertheless the coiner, probably to keep workmen occupied, used a few hundred pounds of copper purchased from Arthur Blayney in 1798 to strike 8,235 cents and 12,167 half cents during this hiatus of Boulton supplies.

The half cents struck in 1799 long fascinated 19th century collectors, who unsuccessfully sought one of the rare 1799 half cents for their collections. In due course it was determined that this 1799 coinage was all dated 1797.

The 1799 date for cents is also well known to collectors of the early copper due to its rarity. As early as the 1850s this date was eagerly sought and even the Mint was asked to furnish specimens. About 800,000 cents were actually struck in 1799 but nearly all of them were dated 1798, due to an excess of dies with that date. The Mint did not waste dies in those days and serviceable dies were sometimes used two or three years later.

On July 3, 1799, a Boulton shipment of 930,000 blanks was received at the Mint and this was followed in late September by 1.6 million cent blanks. For the first time since the Mint began striking copper coins in 1793, there was an abundance of planchets on hand ready to strike and distribute to a waiting public. The more than 25 tons of blanks received from Boulton in 1799 would last until well into 1800.

In April 1800 Boulton was able to ship another 900,000 cent blanks, which arrived at the end of June. Included with this shipment, for the first time, was about 190,000 half cent blanks. Both were highly welcome and meant that the Mint would not have to worry about planchets for the next several months.

The April shipment had been delayed but not due to any problems at Soho, the site of Boulton’s manufactory near Birmingham, England. There had been a bill in Parliament to regulate the price of copper, which would have caused great problems for both Boulton and Boudinot. The bill failed to pass, however, and Boulton was then free to ship the necessary planchets.

The cent planchets that arrived in late June were in fact to last until September 1800, when the last of them was sent to the coining room. The demand was fairly high at this time and two presses were frequently used for the cent coinage, the regular cent press and the half dollar press when it was not in use for the silver.

The heavy 1800 cent coinage, even if no planchets were on hand after September, served the Mint well and the institution was able to pay out cent coins for some months afterwards. Once the cents were out of the way, however, the half cent planchets were sent to the coining room and all of them were struck by December 1800.

With the last of the planchets from the late June delivery being struck, the Mint suddenly went from feast to famine. In early 1800 it was thought that the planchets on hand (plus those on the way) would last well into 1801 but this belief proved illusory and there were no ready-made Boulton planchets, for either the cent or half cent coinage, on hand at the beginning of 1801.

By the spring of 1801 Boudinot was increasingly concerned about the copper coinage. He wrote Boulton on more than one occasion, urging him to ship – with all due speed – as many planchets as could be sent. On July 11, at long last, 1.9 million cent blanks (20 tons) were received and this was followed, in early October, by another 2.3 million cent planchets (25 tons). The situation had reversed itself, and the Mint had now gone from famine to feast. The prospects for 1802 looked very good except for the half cent, for which no planchets were on hand.

For practical purposes the Mint was in good shape for cent planchets over the next several years. Almost 30 tons of cent blanks were received from Boulton during 1802 alone, which meant that supplies would be good for the foreseeable future. As a result, cent coinage was very heavy during this same time period.

The rosy picture for the cent coinage was not mirrored for the half cent in 1802 and most of 1803. Boulton did not send any blanks for this denomination until the fall of 1803 and in the meantime there was a certain demand from the public for half cents.

The answer by Boudinot was to roll down the misstruck cents, which had been accumulating for the past several months, and cut out half cents from the resulting blanks. About 14,000 half cents were struck from this source during 1802, followed by another 5,900 in August 1803; all were dated 1802, using dies overdated from 1800.

This special 1802 half cent coinage was to be the last such undertaking at the Mint. After August 1803 the Mint struck half cents only from planchets provided by Boulton and the misstruck cents were no longer employed as planchets; instead they were used as alloy in the striking of gold and silver coins.

In 1801 and 1802 we find reverse dies with errors. In particular the fraction is found as 1/000 rather than 1/100. It is believed that workmen, nervous because of the ongoing efforts in Congress to abolish the Mint and their jobs, made these mistakes.

The year 1803 would see another large number of planchets received from Boulton. Two deliveries, received in mid-October and mid-November, contained in all 30 tons of blanks, 1.9 million planchets for the cent and about the same number for the half cent. Boudinot was now in the best position ever.

This large number of blanks on hand enabled the Mint director to keep all hands in the coining department busy. When gold or silver coins were not being made it was easy enough to switch the pressmen from one metal to another.

Oddly enough the surplus of planchets on hand for both copper denominations created an unexpected problem for Boudinot and, after June 1805, his successor Robert Patterson. It seems that not enough silver and gold was being struck and the workmen were increasingly used to strike copper coins. This created a surplus. At the end of March 1805, for example, some 480,000 half cents were on hand as well as 134,000 cent pieces.

One solution to the problem of too many copper coins on hand came in April 1806 when the director reported that the cent press had broken down and needed repairs. The repairs were not in fact completed for some months and cent coinage therefore did not resume until February 1807.

Although there seems to be no doubt that the cent press did suffer some kind of accident, Mint Director Patterson was apparently less than forthcoming in the matter. Prior to 1806 it had been common practice, when cents or half cents were in strong demand, to use two presses at the same time. The other press could easily have been pressed into service (when not striking half dollars) but was not, leading to the obvious conclusion that Patterson was simply balancing planchets on hand against public demand.

The year 1807 is also noted for the design changes undertaken by John Reich, newly hired as an assistant engraver at the rather low salary of $600 per year. (The regular engraver, Robert Scot, received $1,500 per year and on several occasions had tried to have the amount increased.) The Classic Head design appeared on the cent for the first time in 1808 while that for the half cent followed in 1809.

The last shipment of planchets from Boulton, all for the cent, was received in the spring of 1812, just a few weeks before the outbreak of the War of 1812. The shipment had actually been completed by Boulton some months earlier but due to a problem with payment had not been shipped until the financial matters were sorted out.

In the early days of the Boulton shipments payment had been sent after the planchets were received but sometimes these payments were delayed, leading Boulton to require that all shipments be paid for in advance. The 1812 problem appears to have been connected with the Bank of the United States, which had been forced by Congress to shut down in 1811.

With war breaking out in June 1812 it was clear to Director Patterson that the planchets on hand would have to serve for some time. Coinage was relatively heavy in 1812 (1.1 million pieces) but declined to 418,000 in 1813. The 1813 mintage appears to have been paid out but there soon developed a problem.

On Nov. 13, 1813, the Treasurer of the United States, Thomas T. Tucker, notified the Mint through his Philadelphia agent (Tench Coxe) that “he judges it advisable at present to abstain from any further distribution of copper coin...” It is important to note that the Mint was not forbidden to strike copper coins, but only prevented from issuing them to the public. For this reason there was no copper coinage throughout most of 1814.

The reason for this odd edict was that copper prices rose dramatically in 1813 and 1814 due to the War of 1812. The price of ingot copper on the New York market reached 70 cents per pound at one point, which meant that one could melt current copper coins and make a tidy profit. How widespread the melting was is uncertain; inquiries by the Mint director in 1814 and 1815 found little evidence of the practice.

Although he could not legally issue copper coins, nevertheless Patterson ordered, beginning in the late summer, that the remaining cent planchets be struck in order to keep some of the hands employed. On Oct. 27, 1814, the coiner formally delivered 357,830 cent pieces, all that would be coined in 1814. (The sometimes seen report that these were used to pay employee wages is not true.)

The 1814 cent coinage was released by the Mint once permission had been received from Washington, a few weeks after striking. The distribution of these coins, however, meant that the Mint was, for the first time in over a decade, completely out of planchets with which to strike copper coins. It would be late in 1815 before the Mint could again strike cent coins.

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