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Cents of 1793 evolved at U.S. Mint

Anyone interested in United States coins knows the significance of the 1793 cents.  The first year of cent coinage saw three distinct varieties, all enjoyed by specialists, type set collectors and historians.  Each design is lovely in its own way, if not classically beautiful. The dies were engraved by hand, ensuring different varieties and providing a wealth of collecting fun and research for specialists.

The first large cent of 1793 was the famous Chain cent, Ameri variety. Designed by Henry Voigt, these cents were struck in February-March 1793. The Liberty head on the obverse has been described in non-flattering ways; “showing Liberty in a fright” as one contemporary description stated. The name of the country was abbreviated, as the engraver supposedly was not sure the entire name “America” would fit on the reverse. This coin also featured a vine and bars on the edge. Besides all these features, a chain appeared on the reverse. What kind of device was this for a new country?  Instead of seeing the chain of 15 links as a symbol of the 15 states making up one nation, many saw this as a symbol of slavery, “an ill omen” as one contemporary wrote.

The large copper cent now seems old-fashioned and quaint. The design controversy long ago passed out of common knowlege.

Who could have guessed in 1793 that this coin would be in high demand by numismatists years later?  36,103 Chain cents, including all varieties, were struck, with probably a few thousand still in existence.

Many Chain cents are found in well-worn condition.  I have seen some so worn that the chain is just about the only recognizable feature. Others show more detail, but are nicked, scratched, or abused in other ways. I once saw one with a scratch right across the date, and another with scratches across Liberty’s face. A small number of Chain cents exist in higher grades, showing detail on Liberty’s hair and face. And a handful are choice, with clean surfaces, even some mint luster.

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Two Chain cents are known as Specimen strikes – beautiful coins and wonderful examples of the best the Philadelphia Mint had to offer in 1793.  The Mickley coin is graded Specimen-65, with the Naftzger coin grading Specimen-67 and known to large cent lovers as “The Coin.” Variety specialists know that the Mickley coin is the Ameri variety, while the Natzger coin shows periods after the word “Liberty” and the date.

The Wreath cent, also designed by Henry Voigt, appeared later in the year. Miss Liberty sported long flowing hair, perhaps a bit more attractive than her predecessor, with the reverse completely different. A laurel wreath took the place of the chain. Of the three types of 1793 cents, the Wreath cent is the most common, but the word “common” is relative. Only 63,353 were struck, according to Mint records, and how many of these 218-year-old copper coins still exist, in all grades?  Maybe a few thousand, in demand from type collectors, large cent specialists and fans of early federal coinage.

Over a dozen varieties are known of the Wreath cent, including differences in the edge devices. Besides the lettered edge, “one hundred for a dollar,” some cents have a vine and bars edge.

Most Wreath cents I have seen show a good amount of wear. They went out into circulation and did the job they were meant to do. Wreath cents in higher grades are lovely, leaving collectors to admire the work of the Mint even in its earliest days. One Wreath cent grades MS-69 brown. This coin shows remarkable detail on Liberty’s face and hair, the leaves in the wreath and the dots around the obverse and reverse.  The surfaces are choice and a rich brown color.

There is also a Specimen strike of the Wreath cent, with a vine and bars edge.  This coin grades Specimen-68 and is known as the Atwater-Naftzger coin.

Rarest of the three 1793 types is the Liberty Cap design. More attractive than the previous two types, the Cap cents were designed by Joseph Wright, a talented engraver who, sadly, succumbed to yellow fever in 1793. The Liberty Cap does not receive as much publicity as its two sister cents, probably because the design was used for a few more years, until 1796, when it was replaced by the Draped Bust design.  Type collectors can obtain a 1794, 1795 or 1796 coin to represent the Cap design, but large cent specialists put the 1793 Cap cent near the top of their want lists.

Just over 11,000 1793 Liberty Cap cents were struck, making it the scarcest of the three. Many of these coins, too, are found well circulated. Copper experts guess that about 150 or so of these coins still exist.

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A choice 1793 Liberty Cap cent is indeed a joy to behold. I once saw one at a major show. This cent graded AU-50 and showed mint red on the obverse. The finest known is graded MS-64 brown – by far the best.

The Cardinal Collection, shown at the 2011 World’s Fair of Money, featured two beautiful 1793 cents.  A Chain cent graded MS-65; a Wreath cent was the amazing MS-69 coin.

Numismatists can drool over the high grade and specimen cents, but the average collector who wants 1793 coins for a date or type set may be happy to locate any of these coins for his set. A well-worn 1793 Chain cent can lead off a set of large cents belonging to a collector who would be proud to own one of these historical coins.  The wear could make it more interesting.  What stories could this coin tell?

A type set collector could purchase a circulated Chain cent from his favorite dealer, or find one at a major show, one that isn’t exactly pretty, but that would fit into a deluxe type set.  The pride of ownership is there, for the average or well-heeled collector.

Wreath cents are a bit easier to locate than Chain cents, for the type collector who wants one of each design. But the type collector who wants a Liberty Cap cent will most likely obtain one of the later years, not the 1793.

These early copper coins, besides showing wear and age, can also be porous or show other defects.  The color of the copper can range from a dull brown to black, to a nice medium shade, to the old copper color beloved by large cent lovers. Some can bear signs of an old cleaning.

Large cent lovers who plan to collect by Sheldon number have quite a task ahead, if they want to pursue the different 1793 varieties. The most obvious variety are the two 1793 Chain cents of the “Ameri” and “America” reverse inscriptions.  The “America” cents come with and without periods after “Liberty” and the date.

A real challenge awaits those who want each variety of the Wreath cent. The Strawberry Leaf type, featuring a sprig of strawberry leaves above the date, was called “non-collectible” in the Sheldon book, as only four are known, all in low grades.  One grades Fair-2, two more grade About Good-3, and the best grades all of Fine-12.

Yes, the Liberty Cap cent also has a number of varieties. The serious collector – with a serious coin budget – can search for these varieties. Such a collector can look for years, keeping in touch with his favorite dealers, attending major conventions, even bidding at auction, and may never complete his set. Such is the rarity of this coin.

The cents of 1793 are scarce, historical and highly collectible. Whether a numismatist is a large cent specialist, a type collector, a date collector, or just a student of early United States coinage, these three distinct types appeal to all, and the ownership of any or all three, in any condition, is quite an accomplishment.

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