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Cents of 1794-1795 reflect changes

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Those collectors who specialize in the early copper cents often have a soft place in their hearts for coins dated 1794 and, to a lesser extent, 1795. The cents of 1794 in particular have been studied with great care by researchers for 150 years yet new information still comes our way from time to time.

The years 1794 and 1795 were an era of great change in the copper coinage, perhaps more so than at any other time in the history of the old large cents.

In 1793, against formidable odds that affect any new enterprise, the Philadelphia Mint managed to produce just over 110,000 cents in a variety of designs and styles. The Chain and Wreath cent dies were engraved by Chief Coiner Henry Voigt, but in mid-August 1793 the Mint finally acquired a regular engraver, famed artist and die sinker Joseph Wright.

Wright prepared the dies for the celebrated Liberty Cap cent of 1793 but fell victim to the Yellow Fever scourge in mid-September 1793, just as the first Liberty Cap cents were being coined. The Mint itself was forced to close on Sept. 18 as deaths from the fever reached into the thousands and all who could do so fled for their very lives.

2011 U.S. Coin Digest: Cents
2011 U.S. Coin Digest: Cents

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Once the danger was past, Mint officials reopened the institution on Nov. 12. The first order of business was to find a new engraver to replace Joseph Wright. Robert Scot was chosen in short order and took up his post on Nov. 22.

Because Scot had no great body of coin or medal dies to his credit, and had specialized in line engraving, it was long thought by researchers that he had little or no experience in cutting dies. It is now known, however, that he had done a certain amount of such work and was not a stranger to the business, though hardly on a par with Joseph Wright.

Born in Scotland about 1745, Scot had emigrated to the United States and earned his living by doing line engraving. He was perhaps best known in the 1780s as having executed printing plates for the State of Virginia.

Although Scot had a certain degree of knowledge regarding die work, there was still a learning curve as coinage dies have very tight rules governing their creation. In particular no part of the design can be very deep in the die as the screw presses of that time simply were not powerful enough to bring up all the details.

During the latter part of November and most of December 1793 Scot used his time well in learning the ins and outs of engraving dies to strike coins. The Liberty Heads prepared by Chief Coiner Henry Voigt for the Chain and Wreath cents were individual efforts, with no master hub to duplicate the head of Liberty from die to die. On the other hand Wright is known to have used hubs in preparing the Liberty Cap dies of 1793, a great step forward for the early Mint.

Even if Scot knew nothing about hubs being used for dies, there were workmen on hand in December 1793 who would have helped Wright with some of the busy work on the dies, such as lettering, and would have been able to give Scot useful die-making tips.

While Scot was learning the fine details of engraving work, Mint Director David Rittenhouse was struggling with his own set of problems, the principal one being finding a steady supply of copper fit for coining cents and half cents. In 1793 and 1794 it was the usual practice to purchase sheet copper of the correct thickness in England. Once received, the sheets were run through the planchet cutter, which punched out cent-sized blanks.

One such purchase was made through the American minister in London, Thomas Pinckney, who arranged with the firm of Taylor and Baily to send 30,000 pounds of sheet copper but it did not arrive until well after coining had ended in September 1793. This copper, however, proved invaluable in 1794 when copper purchases were not all that heavy.

Rittenhouse preferred to deal with American merchants, letting them import the copper. He was willing to pay a commission to those merchants with the expertise to find the necessary copper. In due course, however, President Washington decided that the Mint director should deal directly with the copper manufactories in England and the practice of using merchants ended in 1796.

By early in January 1794 Chief Engraver Robert Scot had managed to prepare a small number of cent dies with which to begin coinage. As time passed, however, he became more adept at creating the hubs used to execute the working dies and was able, with help from workmen not engaged on other tasks, to keep up with the need for dies except on rare occasion.

The first delivery of coined cents in 1794 came on Jan. 13, with 11,000 pieces brought by the chief coiner to the treasurer of the Mint. Coinage probably began on Saturday, the 11th, as we know that the maximum number of coins that could be made daily on a single coining press in 1794 was about 8,000. Coinage of cents was very heavy through the end of March 1794, when striking ceased due to a lack of planchets.

When the blanks were cut out of the sheet copper there was a certain amount of copper clippings left unused, called “scissel” or “shruf” in those days. The scissel was gathered up and taken to a furnace a few blocks from the Mint – in the Northern Liberties part of Philadelphia – to be melted down into handy-sized ingots. These ingots were then heated red-hot and forced through rollers which gradually flattened them down to the thickness of a cent or half cent.

There was an inherent problem with melting the copper and rolling down the ingots. In the words of Mint officials, such copper became “refractory,” meaning that it became progressively harder to work with each new melting. These operations were also very hard on the crude rollers of the time, which often broke down under heavy pressure for coinage.

The first cents of 1794, whose coinage lasted for perhaps only a short time, used the so-called Head of 1793. In other words Scot used the hubs created by Joseph Wright in early September 1793 for the Liberty Cap cent coinage. These hubs, however, soon wore out and in due course Scot was forced to create his own hubs to prepare the cent dies.

With roughly 280,000 cents produced in the first three months of the year, it appeared that 1794 might be a banner year. April would see a downturn, however, with no cents produced. (Some 10,000 half cents were struck in late February but after that it was June before mintage of the smaller coin resumed.)

It was perhaps during April that Scot prepared the famed 1794 starred reverse die. Coins struck from this particular die are the Holy Grails of 1794 cents; the recent discovery of a new specimen was well publicized among early copper enthusiasts.

The coin is so named because there are 94 tiny stars around the edge. Whatever the original intent, a decision was made to abandon the idea and dentils were punched over the stars.

In the 1790s there was considerable official concern about counterfeits of American copper coins flooding the marketplace. This was the reason for the lettered edge and heavy weight. Considering this concern, it seems likely that the 94 stars – on a 1794 reverse die – were intended as an extra layer of protection. It was no doubt scrapped when someone realized that it would have been difficult to keep track of such dies and make certain they were used only in the proper year.

Cent coinage resumed in May and continued at a strong pace for the next several months; more than one-half million cents were issued during this time period. The heavy minting was due to another shipment of English copper received in mid-June and which had been arranged by the American minister. The copper was again prepared by the firm of Taylor and Baily but this time was only for 4,000 pounds.

At the end of August the coining of cents came to a halt. Not only was there now a shortage of copper planchets but the beginning of the silver coinage kept official attention focused in this direction rather than at the copper. The original Mint Act of April 1792 had set impossibly high surety bonds for key Mint officials but these were reduced by Congress in March 1794, thus paying the way for the coinage of precious metals.

Silver coinage began with the dollar in October 1794, followed by the half dollar at the end of November. In the meantime Mint workers were able to prepare more planchets from the copper clippings on hand; some 20,000 cents were delivered by the coiner on Nov. 12. Another 100,000 pieces saw the light of day in December.

During the latter part of 1794 the Mint came under increasing public scrutiny because of a failure to circulate the copper coins to all parts of the Union. These pieces were reasonably plentiful at Philadelphia but not elsewhere. In late 1794 the House of Representatives appointed a special committee, chaired by Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, to investigate the Mint and report the findings.

The committee not only spoke with the Mint officers but also John Harper, one of the men who coined copper for New Jersey in the 1780s. In early 1795 he was living at Trenton and engaged in the saw-making business. He also had business interests in Philadelphia and was frequently in that city.

Boudinot sought out Harper and interviewed him as to suggestions for improvements at the Mint. Harper claimed that he could coin cents better and cheaper than done at the Mint and offered to prove his point. The committee told him that this was not necessary.

It was therefore something of a surprise when Harper contacted Boudinot and invited the committee to a demonstration of coining cents. The former New Jersey coiner had set up a temporary mint, presumably in Philadelphia, and asked them to make their own decision regarding his claims.

As he had promised, Harper proceeded to strike a small number of cent pieces on a coining press. The committee had no public funds to reimburse him for his labor or use of machinery but did cover the cost of the copper out of their own pockets. In an odd sense of timing, these were the first “cents” dated 1795 as the Mint did not strike copper cents with this date until October of that year.

At present collectors sometimes refer to these pieces by Harper as “Jefferson” cents because of some supposed resemblance to Thomas Jefferson. It is more proper, however, to call them “Harper cents.”

When Elias Boudinot became the third director of the Mint, in late October 1795, he received a letter from Harper asking for a contract to coin copper cents. The new director then realized that Harper still had his dies and seized them for the government; Harper’s coins – in Boudinot’s view – were counterfeits, no matter what the intention was in making them.

The dies were kept at the Mint for some years and were used to strike a few pieces on regular lettered-edge planchets, perhaps as souvenirs for officers or some local collector. All Harper cents are of extreme rarity, the lettered-edge piece very much so.

In January 1796 Harper submitted a petition to Congress, asking for reimbursement for making the cent coins as well as suggesting improvements at the Mint. Boudinot was asked for his opinion on the subject and recommended in early February that Harper in fact be paid for his useful ideas but nothing was done by Congress, so far as is known. Harper died in May 1796, however, perhaps allowing Congress to avoid considering the matter.

Rittenhouse resigned as director at the end of June 1795 and was replaced by Henry William DeSaussure. The second Mint director was determined to strike at least some copper coins (none having been made since December 1794) and ordered that the clippings on hand be used.

Roughly 4,000 pounds of scrap were melted and rolled down, producing about 38,000 cent and 15,000 half cent blanks. All of these were quickly coined and then delivered on Oct. 27, on DeSaussure’s next-to-last day in office.

Boudinot’s first day in office was Oct. 28, 1795, and he was immediately faced with problems in the copper coinage. The price of this metal had risen on the European markets and there was no domestic supply. In early December the director wrote a lengthy letter to President Washington concerning the need to reduce the weights of the two copper coins so that they would not be issued at a loss to the government.

On Dec. 10 the President responded with some carefully thought-out queries on the proposed change. The President had the authority, granted by Congress in March 1795, to adjust the weight of the copper coins without resorting to a formal law but was concerned over some of the details.

The answer by Boudinot, carefully laying out the costs, persuaded the President and in late December he ordered a reduction in weight for the cent to 168 grains, forty grains less than it had been. (The half cent was reduced proportionally.) On this basis coinage began almost immediately and several thousand pieces had been struck by year’s end.

These new cents were of course dated 1795 and that date continued to be used for several weeks into 1796, which made the 1795-dated cents more common than would otherwise be the case. The “new” 1795 cents, first struck in late December, are easily identified by collectors as they are plain-edged unlike the earlier pieces which have a lettered edge.

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