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Expensive 1793s start cent type set

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Have you ever considered collecting cents by type? Of all of the denominations, this is probably the least asked question because for many years most collectors began collecting Lincoln cents by date and mintmark and the idea of collecting by type seems to be something that is too late to consider.

Well, just because you have collected Lincoln cents by date and mintmark doesn’t mean you can’t turn yourself into a cent type collector.

The story of the cents of the United States goes back to the April 2, 1792, authorization of the coins of the United States which included the cent. It was a definite “no brainer” as large copper coins were used around the world at the time and the only real question was what the large copper coins of the United States were going to be called and how large they would be. In fact, the matter of size would evolve as the size of the cent would be reduced over the years as keeping the cost of production under the face value has been an issue for the cent quite literally from the start.

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

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Once a Mint was actually established, which took until 1793, there was little doubt about the first denomination to be produced. Of course there were only two choices as a bond was required before they could produce gold or silver coins and those required to post the bond were balking at that. As a result, it was either a half cent or cent and the cent was the choice as would be the case virtually every year as there was a greater need for cents in commerce.

It has been suggested that when it came to the first cent of the United States, the 1793 with a Chain reverse, the goal was to keep it simple as Henry Voigt, the chief coiner, was not skilled. Whatever the reason, the obverse featured a head of Liberty while the reverse had a chain of 15 links – one for each state. In fact the chain idea had been seen on Fugio cents and other paper issues over the years so it was not new.

The first production of cents took place from Feb. 27 through March 12 of 1793. The first 5,000 to 10,000 had “UNITED STATES OF AMERI.” Which was changed to “AMERICA” for the rest of the issue. If you have the funds, you could acquire both although with type collecting there is no right or wrong way to assemble a collection. In this case having both would be nice, but as a G-4 Chain reverse is $6,950 for the AMERICA variety, most might be content with just one. A third variety involves a period after LIBERTY and the date.

The supply of the 1793 chain reverse is better than might be expected based on its mintage of just 36,103, but the vast majority of the coins available today are in lower grades. In fact, a number are so worn they have no dates but can be identified by the chain. There are a few Mint State examples, but nowhere close to enough to meet demand and in circulated grades the reverse is usually sharper and a grade or two higher than the obverse.

The Chain reverse 1793 did not last long. There were complaints about it, which was odd as the design had been in use for years on other coins and notes but officials quickly opted to make a change to what is called the 1793 Wreath reverse. In fact, although a wreath did replace the Chain there were other modifications as well. Liberty was restyled in high relief. Early examples have a vine and bars edge treatment while later ones have “ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR.”

The mintage of the Wreath reverse cent was 63,353, which makes it a $1,950 coin in G-4 although like the Chain reverse the demand is always much higher than the available supply. In MS-60 the Wreath reverse lists for $30,000 as opposed to $135,000 for the chain reverse reflecting the vast difference in available supply. Even with more examples in Mint State the 1793 with a wreath reverse is not a coin regularly found in grades of VF-20 and above. There are some in upper circulated grades but more often than not the examples encountered are in lower circulated grades and many have problems.

There was a third type of 1793 cent, but this one, the Joseph Wright Liberty Cap obverse design, would last into 1796, which is fortunate for type collectors as the 1793 Liberty Cap cent had a mintage of just 11,056, which makes it even tougher than the 1793 with a Chain reverse.

There is an assortment of differences within the type such as the fact that those of 1794 and 1795 have the edge lettered “ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR” while those of the last months of 1795 and 1796 are on thinner planchets and have a plain edge. Both start around $400 in G-4 while the most available MS-60 is about $4,750. In general and especially Mint State the 1795 is the most available date of the type.

In 1796 the new Draped Bust obverse of Robert Scot made its debut. The design was actually based on a drawing by Gilbert Stuart. It would last through 1807, making it an available type with G-4 examples in a couple cases being around $165 while an MS-60 of the most available dates would start at $2,250.

In the case of the Draped Bust large cents there is no difficulty in finding examples in lower grades. In Mint State, however, they tend to be in a range from MS-60 to MS-63 and are often lightly struck especially in the dentils. Usually dark brown the planchet quality can sometimes be porous or rough reflecting the problem of the time of getting quality planchets in the numbers needed. The type features the rare 1799 and elusive 1804, but there are enough examples of the higher mintage dates to make the type a relatively easy one to acquire.

Cent production would rise with the introduction of the Classic Head type of John Reich in 1808. There would continue to be problems especially with the copper supply, but the cent was vital for regular commerce so it was almost always a priority in terms of production. It was also an important source of income for the Mint. At the Mint at the time gold and silver coins were basically produced for those who supplied the metal with a small charge being added, but the charge was so small it barely covered expenses. The copper half cents and large cents, however, were much more profitable as the Mint owned the copper. As a result it kept all the profit from the production and at a time when the budget was very tight the profit from producing large cents and half cents was very important.

 The Classic Head large cent would only be produced from 1808 until 1814 but the mintages, which in a few cases topped 1 million, were large enough to make it an available type coin today at least up to grades of about MS-63. Quality, however, is not uniform. The 1813 and 1814 tend to be sharper than the earlier dates although the 1814 is on a darker and more porous planchet. The strikes are also suspect leaving many design details weak or even absent. That said, the price is not high with later dates potentially under $54 in G-4 and $2,800 in MS-60.

There were no cents in 1815 as there was simply no copper for a mintage. When production resumed in 1816 it would be the Coronet or Matron Head design that would last until 1835. The long period of production would make the type available, but it was also a type found in the Randall Hoard and that supply alone would make the type more available than those of earlier years. A G-4 can be found for about $20 while an MS-60 is in a number of cases as little as $270. The Randall Hoard dates from 1816-1820 and especially the 1818 and 1820 are generally the most available dates although throughout quality can vary widely even in Mint State coins.

There is a choice to be made when it comes to the dates from 1836-1839 as while generally similar to those since 1816 there were definite modifications including a beaded hair cord to tie the bun in Liberty’s hair along with modifications in the facial and head appearance, hair strand placement and shape of truncation on the neck. There were also varieties in 1839. The cost of considering these dates a different type is not high as a G-4 is just $25 while an MS-60 is around $300 with the 1839 being slightly more. That said, the choice is yours as they are different than the earlier dates but the differences tend to be small and numerous and not large and dramatic.

In 1840 the final large cent type would be introduced in the form of the Christian Gobrecht design Braided Hair cent. With mintages of the period now in many cases in the millions the type is readily available at $23 in G-4 and in the case of available dates as little as $165 in MS-60. The challenge here is not finding a Mint State coin but rather finding one in original red without flecks or spots.

Long before the last large cent was produced the Mint was working on an alternative. It was not easy as officials were concerned that the coin had to be close to its face in its metal content. That produced an assortment of patterns and experiments but no real answers. Finally the idea was advanced that it was the backing of the government and not the metal value that caused the public to accept and use coins. The idea of issuing a coin without or nearly full intrinsic value was electrifying.

Samples of the 1856 Flying Eagle cents were produced and shown to members of Congress and opinion leaders to get a consensus that a new smaller cent would work.

The answers seemed positive as the old large cents and half cents were increasingly the subject of complaints because of their size and how filthy copper could become. There were even complaints about odor. The concern of the Mint, however, was the cost of copper and the  possibility that it might eventually be producing large cents for a loss. The new Flying Eagle cent if accepted would solve all the problems and consequently it became an extremely important issue in U.S. numismatic history.

The Flying Eagle cent was first officially produced on copper-nickel planchets in 1857 and would just last through 1858. They are available and always in demand as an important type coin with a G-4 at $27.50 while an MS-60 is $320.

The new copper-nickel Flying Eagle cent was replaced in 1859 with a new design in the form of the James Longacre Indian Head cent. We frankly do not know why the change was made with the new design having a laurel or olive wreath for the reverse. There must have been a number of art critics at the Mint at the time as this design would last only one year with the laurel or olive wreath being replaced by an oak wreath with a small shield in 1860.

Being produced for just one year the 1859 had the potential to be a very difficult type coin, but thanks to a mintage of 36,400,000 it is not. The problem is that the 1859 is routinely more expensive than would otherwise be the case based on the mintage simply because there is such heavy type demand. In G-4 the 1859 is $13 while an MS-60 is $230 with an MS-65 at 3,650 and a Proof-65 at $5,200. In all cases the type demand makes a difference in price as numbers are available but the demand is always greater.

In 1860 the new oak wreath reverse with a shield was introduced but the type would only last through some of the 1864 mintage. It was simply a victim of the Civil War as a concerned public began to hoard gold and silver coins. That could have been predicted, but what was surprising was that the public also started hoarding the copper-nickel Indian Head cents to the point where they could not be found despite sometimes large mintages. The copper-nickel Indian Head cents of 1860-64 are available with a G-4 in a couple cases just $7.50 while an MS-60 can be as low as $75 while any MS-65 is about $1,000.

As the historic cents of the Civil War the type is popular, but in many cases was weakly struck especially at the tops of the feathers and ironically the lowest mintage date, the 1861, seemed to usually be the best in terms of quality.

After some copper-nickel cent production in 1864, the composition was changed to bronze in the hope that the new composition would not be hoarded. The federal government was actually matching tokens that were popularly used as cent substitutes at the height of the coin shortage. That seemed to work and bronze remained the composition of the Indian Head cent from 1864 on and later the Lincoln cent used it for decades. With a long period of production and many times with mintages over 50  million and once over 100 million, the Indian Head cent is readily available at $1.75 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $28 while an MS-65 is $165 for the most available dates.

The introduction of the Lincoln cent in 1909 was a break with a pattern stretching back to the first cents of 1793. The idea of putting George Washington on the coins as the President had actually been approved by the Senate back in 1792, but the House of Representatives objected that it would be too much like the practice of placing the king on the coins as was done in England. A debate had followed and finally George Washington weighed in on the side of not using the President. From that time until 1909 no American had appeared on a coin except commemoratives.

There was no law against using a famous American, but there was more than a century of tradition. The centennial of Lincoln’s birth was, however, a special event and Theodore Roosevelt of all the Presidents of the United States in history was probably the least concerned about breaking a tradition. The Lincoln cent was approved and released in 1909.

There are realistically many choices to be made as to what you want to include in a type set of Lincoln cents. Certainly the 1909 VDB and 1909-S VDB were the only examples of coins with the designer’s initials on the reverse. They can be called a type and even if you do not opt to consider them a type, I would select the 1909 VDB as my example of the Wheat-back reverse especially at its current price of $25.50 in MS-60 or $195 in MS-65 simply because of its historical importance as the first Lincoln cent.

The rest of the 1909 production had no initials and that would remain the situation until 1917 when a “B” was restored so technically with no initials the dates until 1917 would be another type and those starting in 1918 still another type.

There are similar considerations in terms of the composition. The one type most readily included are the special 1943 zinc-coated steel cents that were produced in an attempt to preserve copper as it was potentially needed in the war effort. With a different color and weight the 1943 zinc-coated steel cents are clearly different and they are certainly historic as they are legitimate souvenirs of World War II. They are also inexpensive with the most available 1943 from Philadelphia being just $16 in MS-65.

Other composition changes were not so visible and once again its your collection and you get to make the choices. The cents of 1944-1946 were slightly different from the historic bronze composition as they too are World War II souvenirs being made from recycled shell casings, but not being clearly different few include them as a type.

Certainly the Lincoln Memorial reverse introduced in 1959 is a different type, although the cost of an example even in the highest grades is minimal. The Lincoln Memorial reverse, however, would see composition changes as well. The first was in 1962 when the historic bronze composition was changed slightly as tin was removed making the cent 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc. Few include this changed composition which lasted from 1962-1982 as a different type. The copper-coated zinc composition introduced in 1982 is, however, more widely seen as a type but one where there is virtually no premium over face value for an available date.

In 2005 Congress approved four new types for the 2009 issues to mark the bicentennial Lincoln’s birth. Collector versions for sets were authorized in the bronze alloy of 1909.

A type cent collection is your collection and that means every choice you make is the right one. With the cents of the United State whatever dates you include will ultimately result in a great collection of what were the most heavily used of all coins of the United States from 1793 to the present. That makes for a fascinating collection reflecting the history of a great nation through the coins most often found in the pockets of its people.

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