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Copper devalued as weight reduced

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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In 1794 the Philadelphia Mint produced almost exactly one million copper coins, nearly all of which were cents. Considering that each blank had to be fed into the die chamber by hand, the total was not all that bad. Unfortunately matters went downhill in 1795 with only a few tens of thousands of coppers falling from the presses.

The problem in 1795 was two-fold. First there was a lack of copper, problems having arisen in obtaining the metal in sheets from Great Britain, the best source. The other problem, which was worse, was that the rollers, which flattened the ingots of copper (made from the clippings), were in poor condition and always breaking down at the wrong time; moreover they were needed for the coinage of gold and silver, considered more important than the lowly copper.

No copper at all was struck in 1795 until October and even then it was hardly a drop in the bucket compared to what was required by the public for small change. Another few thousand pieces, all half cents, were coined in early December but then a third problem arose: the price of copper was rising in Europe due to the upheavals caused by the French Revolution and its violent aftermath.

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

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From 1793 to December 1795 copper was struck on a fixed standard of about 34 cent pieces to the avoirdupois pound. By late 1795, however, the rising cost of copper meant that the Mint would lose money after the expense of coining had been figured into the costs. Mint Director Elias Boudinot, in office only since the last days of October 1795, turned to President Washington for help.

In March 1795 the President had been authorized to reduce the weight of the copper coins should that become necessary. Boudinot wrote a lengthy memorandum for the President, pointing out the costs in detail and the Chief Executive studied the paper with care. Washington had a few more questions on Dec. 10 for Boudinot, beyond what was in the paper, but the Mint director was able to show that he had mastered the topic and a change was a necessity.

Within a short time the President had made up his mind and, towards the end of December, approved the reduction in weight suggested by Boudinot. The new standard meant that 41.7 cent pieces equaled an avoirdupois pound, which was enough to show a reasonable profit for the government. Each new cent was to weigh 168 grains, compared to the old standard of 208 grains; the half cent was in proportion.
In the meantime the director had been able to purchase sheet copper through a Philadelphia merchant, Joseph Anthony. The roughly three tons of copper came in good time and enabled Boudinot to resume the coinage of copper without the expensive and time-consuming melting and rolling of the ingots prepared from the scrap copper.

Once the President had indicated that the necessary ruling would be issued, Boudinot began the copper coinage on the reduced standard even though Washington did not actually sign the authorization until Dec. 26, 1795, five days after the new coinage had begun. The coining department started with the cent, which was the copper coin most in demand by the public, but at first matters went slowly until the workmen became used to the revised standard.

The first of the new cents was delivered to the Mint treasurer on Jan. 1, 1796; in that era the first day of the new year was not a holiday. Within a short time, however, assistant coiner Adam Eckfeldt – who was in charge of the copper coinage – was able to deliver an increased number of coins. One reason was that the press used for cents had been refitted with an automatic feeding device. In 1794 the coining department had been doing well to get 8,000 cent coins in a working day of 10 hours, but the improvements made in 1795 enabled a rate of well above 10,000 to be obtained. (By 1800 the rate was at 14,000 per day, where it stayed for some time.)

Although the first cents on the new standard were not delivered until January 1, they were all dated 1795 and that date would remain in place for several weeks. The “new” 1795 cents of late 1795 and early 1796 may be easily distinguished from those on the heavier standard in 1795 by simply looking at the edges. Those on the old standard had lettered edges while the new ones were plain.

There are lightweight 1795 cents that have edge markings, usually a form of reeding, but this was an experiment that did not work out in practice; the planchets were too thin. The reasoning behind this attempt is clear, however, as Mint officials were always concerned with possible counterfeiting and a properly marked edge was difficult to duplicate.

Most of the late December and January cent coinage derived from the December purchase of sheet copper though it is believed that the clippings on hand were reluctantly melted and rolled down for a portion of the new coinage. Although somewhat tentative at first, cent coinage grew stronger in February and March. This strong showing was aided by a further purchase of sheet copper – five tons, that arrived in February. At the same time there was a small beginning in the striking of half cents.

There had been a coinage of nearly 26,000 half cents in late 1795, all with lettered edges. The first lightweight half cents were coined about Jan. 22, 1796, and, like the cent pieces, carried the old 1795 dating. For some odd reason, despite having been struck, the January half cents were not delivered by assistant coiner Adam Eckfeldt until March, perhaps due to a temporary lack of public demand.

During March the minting of cents and half cents was relatively heavy with about 80,000 of the smaller coins and more than 100,000 of the larger. As was true in January, however, the date of 1795 was still being used.

Though much of the March cent coinage did come directly from the sheet copper, the director did allow the rollers to be used sparingly because of the strong public demand for cents. There had been a scandal in late 1795 over the fineness of the silver coins, shaking public confidence, and Boudinot no doubt thought it a necessity to use the rollers for a few weeks to produce as many copper coins as possible.

Although the fresh February sheet copper was critical to the heavier March cent coinage, it actually had little to do with the half cents being struck. In April 1795 the Mint had purchased nearly 1,100 pounds of Talbot, Allum, and Lee cent tokens, struck in England for a New York firm.

These TA&L tokens were flattened in the rollers and then the half cent planchets cut out. These were the blanks that were heavily used in the March 1796 coinage of half cents. (In late 1796 the Mint again purchased TA&L tokens and this second group was used for half cent coinage in 1797.)

Once the heavier half cent coinage of March had ended, assistant coiner Eckfeldt oversaw only a small number of pieces the rest of 1796. In mid-April 3,350 pieces were struck and another 1,740 in June. It is generally assumed, though without any definitive proof, that the 5,090 half cents of April and May were the 1796 half cents with pole.

On Oct. 14, 1796, Eckfeldt delivered another small batch of half cents, this time a mere 1,390 pieces; no more coins of this denomination were struck in 1796. It is believed that these were the half cents dated 1796 that did not have the Liberty Pole. Whatever the true mintages of both varieties, the date 1796 in the half cent series is an extreme rarity and the crowning point of a half cent collection.

In the meantime the assistant coiner was completing the run of 1795-dated cents. By the middle of March 1796 Eckfeldt had delivered to the Mint treasurer just over 500,000 cents. For the time being the Mint was out of sheet copper and the rollers were in such a fragile state that Director Boudinot decided that they could no longer be used to roll down ingots of copper made from the leftover clippings.

From March 12 to April 18, 1796, there was no cent coinage although plenty of clippings were on hand. However, during April 1796 the Mint obtained another two tons of sheet copper imported from England. This fresh influx of metal allowed the coiner to resume cent coinage and over the next month about 110,000 cents were delivered to the Mint treasurer for distribution to the public.

It is believed that the resumption of cent coinage in April also signaled a change of obverse dating. Now the Liberty Cap cents dated 1795 were being replaced in the coining presses by 1796 Liberty Cap coins. It is also thought that these 110,000 coins were the sum total of 1796 Liberty Cap cents that were struck.

The last of the 1796 Liberty Cap cents was struck in mid-May and after that there was a long silence at the coining press for this denomination. Copper, in the form of clippings, was on hand in considerable quantities, but Director Boudinot still refused to use the rolling mills to flatten ingots of copper. In point of fact, with a few minor exceptions, Mint rollers would not be used again for copper coinage through the end of the series in 1857.

Director Boudinot, from the time that he became director in October 1795, had made efforts to obtain a steady supply of sheet copper. This was done primarily through American merchants with trading contacts in England. President Washington, however, directed Boudinot to import the copper directly from the English companies and not use merchant middlemen.

Boudinot first approached famed English private coiner Matthew Boulton of Soho (near Birmingham) but the latter was unable to do anything for the Philadelphia Mint in 1796. Boudinot had asked Boulton to prepare ready-made planchets, which would have gone directly to the coining press, a great savings in time and money over sheet copper.

At the suggestion of Thomas Clifford of Philadelphia, Boudinot turned to Governor & Company of Copper Miners, also headquartered in Birmingham. This copper firm was headed by William Coltman, Clifford’s father-in-law. In March 1796 Boudinot ordered 10 tons of sheet copper from Coltman’s firm with the stipulation that part of the order, if possible, was to be in ready-made planchets.

During the early summer of 1796 the Governor & Company workmen duly prepared the sheet copper and planchets. The entire lot was shipped in mid-July but did not reach Philadelphia until the early days of October. It was safely unloaded and inside the Mint by Oct. 15.

In the meantime Engraver Robert Scot and his talented assistant, John Smith Gardner, had prepared new cent dies carrying the famous Draped Bust head of Liberty. When the Governor & Company copper arrived these dies were ready for use.

Unfortunately the promises made by Clifford and Coltman about the quality of the copper proved illusory. Boudinot was less than pleased when he saw what had been shipped.

In response the director wrote a stinging letter to Coltman about the shipment. He pointed out that the copper planchets, far from being ready to strike, had been “cut out of coarse rolled sheet copper, and almost as rough as sheet iron – and as we have them all to clean and scour there is almost as much expense in coining as before …”

Boudinot went on to say that “The sheet copper we are obliged to have rolled over again which adds exceedingly to the expense, labor being very high at present…” The director apparently meant that he was forced to put each copper sheet through his temperamental rollers in order to give them a better finish. How much damage this caused the rollers is not known but the Mint officers were certainly unhappy over the turn of events. A year had now been lost in the search for a steady supply of good material for the presses.

Despite the poor quality of both sheet and ready-made planchets, Boudinot had little choice in the matter. The planchets, after being cleaned, were sent to the cent press in late October 1796, producing the first of the 1796 Draped Bust cents. Some 363,365 cent coins were made from the planchets sent by Coltman, but that coinage ceased in late November.

The Coltman blanks were not only rough, which required cleaning by hand, but were also convex rather than flat as they ought to have been. It is for the latter reason that many of the 1796 Draped Bust cents did not strike up well. (Cent coinage resumed in late January 1797 using the Governor & Company sheet copper.)

The year 1796 had been a difficult one for all concerned at the Mint when it came to the copper coinage. This is perhaps slightly balanced out by the many varieties to be found on the cents and half cents dated 1795-1796 and the pleasure which these have brought to collectors of the modern age.


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