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First cents by less skilled engraver

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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The cents and half cents struck in 1793 have long fascinated collectors, the cents in particular because of the design changes. As early as July 1792 Mint Director David Rittenhouse had asked for permission to coin both denominations, and this request had been granted, but a lack of copper spelled an end to this idea until February 1793.

According to the original mint law of April 1792 the cent was to weigh 264 grains (17.11 grams), more than twice the weight of two current Presidential dollars, an interesting commentary on the value of money in 1793 as opposed to that of 2010. Unfortunately, Director Rittenhouse discovered in the fall of 1792 that the price of copper had risen on the European markets and there was now a growing concern that the Mint would thereby issue cents and half cents at a loss.

President George Washington had appointed Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson as the Cabinet officer responsible for Mint affairs and the rising price of copper certainly was a key topic when the Mint director met with the Secretary. It was decided to approach Congress and ask that the weights of the copper coins be reduced.

In the meantime Chief Coiner Henry Voigt came up with an alternate suggestion and it was approved by Rittenhouse for trial. This involved preparing a smaller planchet with a hole in the center. The idea was to put a small amount of silver in the hole and then strike the piece normally; the expansion of the metal then firmly locked the silver in place. The coiner also prepared billon planchets, in which the silver was mixed with the copper.

These silver-center cents were tried but in the end came up wanting because of the technical difficulties in preparing the bi-metal planchets rapidly enough for full-scale coinage. The billon mixture was also quickly rejected because counterfeiters could easily have imitated the alloy and the public would have been none the wiser.

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The approach to Congress was successful; on Jan. 14, 1793, the President signed the bill which lowered the weight of the cent – and the half cent in proportion – to 208 grains (15.43 grams). This law now gave the green light to the Mint officers to begin the coinage of copper.

Immediately after the Jan. 14 law was passed, Director Rittenhouse had further conferences with Secretary Jefferson and, almost certainly, the President. Designs were needed for the copper, starting with the cent. There was an added problem in that no regular engraver for the Mint had yet been found.

Chief Coiner Voigt is known to have engraved the dies for the silver-center cent; the artwork is good, though not outstanding, but did persuade Rittenhouse that Voigt was the only available person for the die work. Voigt agreed, presumably with a stipulation that the designs be kept as simple as possible, in line with his limited engraving experience.

Jefferson and Washington jointly agreed that the obverse head of Liberty would be based on the famous Liberty head found on the Libertas Americana medal struck at Paris in 1783 to commemorate the end of the Revolutionary War. (The vignettes may, of course, have been suggested by the Mint director, but there is little doubt that the final decision was made at the highest level.) The designs had been created under the direct supervision of Benjamin Franklin, then the American Minister to the French court.

It is generally accepted, though there is no definitive proof, that the Fugio copper coins of 1787 were also based on designs by Franklin and in his honor. The reverse of the Fugio coinage has interlocking rings to symbolize the strength of the national government at that time, little better than wishful thinking under the Confederation, however.

The new Federal government was another matter when it came to symbolism. The interlocking rings were actually a good choice but one which did not work out in practice as members of the public saw the rings having a second, and less pleasant, meaning.

Because of his other duties Voigt engraved the dies as time permitted and no doubt submitted soft metal examples of the work as it progressed. Jefferson would have furnished drawings for the obverse and reverse designs but no information has been found on the artist who did these sketches.

Just when the designs were approved and given to Voigt is not known but this surely came by the end of January or early in February. At the same time the Mint workmen were learning their roles in preparing planchets for this first cent coinage.

The process of making planchets is relatively straightforward but in the conditions that existed in 1793 it was very much a learning curve as workmen struggled to get the machines working properly. The first step is to melt the copper into ingots, which are then run through a rolling machine to flatten them to the proper thickness.

Once the ingots have been forced down to the exact thickness, the blanks are punched out for further treatment. Each blank was forced through a set of parallel bars on the Castaing machine to force a design into the edge. For the Chain cents the edge is a vine and bars; this same edge was used for the earliest Wreath cents but later changed to a lettered edge reading ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR.
While the edge marking was primarily meant as a deterrent to counterfeiters, it also had another function. The mere act of squeezing the blank between the Castaing machine bars raised the edge, which was meant to protect the coin from wear when used in the marketplace. It has been traditional to call this finished blank a “planchet” though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

It is unknown which of the two main ingredients to coinage, the dies or the planchets, were ready first but both parts of the equation were surely complete by the third week of February 1793. It is tempting to suggest that a trial coinage was held on Feb. 22, Washington’s birthday, a milestone celebrated even during his lifetime.

On Friday, March 1, the first copper coins of the new Mint – 11,178 cent pieces – were delivered by Chief Coiner Voigt to Mint Treasurer Tristam Dalton. Judging from what we presently know about the striking rates in those days, this occupied at least four days of work and possibly five, indicating that full-scale coinage may have begun as early as Monday, Feb. 25. If the latter date is correct then the 22nd for a special ceremony in honor of the President is even more of a possibility.

The first reverse die – perhaps used only on Feb. 25 – for the Chain cent design carried the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERI rather than UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The abbreviation seems to have been done in order to balance the legend around the chain elements but this apparently was rejected fairly quickly as only one such die is known. That this die was used at all shows the difficulty under which dies were made at this time.

Although we know from a Congressional document of February 1795 that Voigt engraved the dies for the Chain and Wreath cents, it does not seem likely that he did all of the work. It is probable that a workman, perhaps Jacob Bay, actually punched in the lettering and date.

It is thought that the maximum coinage rate in February and March 1793 was about 4,000 pieces in a 10-hour day, or roughly seven coins per minute. This may indicate that the planchets were hand-fed into the coining chamber but it also may mean that the feeding mechanism for the planchets was either poorly designed or else frequently broke down.

It is worth noting that, in February 1794, Mint Director Rittenhouse stated that the ideal coinage rate per day – from one press – was about 8,000 pieces, a distinct improvement over 1793. It is doubtful, however, that this 8,000 figure was met, however, except perhaps on rare occasion when all went according to schedule and the dies did not break too often.

The last of the Chain cents was delivered on March 12 and for the next several weeks there was no coinage. Tradition says, backed up by some minor newspaper comments, that there was public dissatisfaction over the Chain cent designs. The head of Liberty appeared to some to be in a fright while the reverse chain reminded others of British rule prior to the Revolution.

Whatever the direct cause, Voigt was instructed to use a new set of designs when again preparing cent dies. The Liberty head of the Wreath cent, as the next design is known, is much better and shows that Voigt had matured in his engraving skills. The reverse is a wreath, hence the collector name, clearly derived from a nearly identical wreath on the reverse of the silver-center cent.

Cent coinage resumed on Thursday, April 4, 1793. The coiner was still struggling to get a good rate of return from the screw press but this proved illusory and only 12,000 coins were delivered on Tuesday, the 9th of April. As these were coined on five different days, it is doubtful that even the best day saw more than 3,000 struck.

Coinage rates improved over the next few days, probably from improved planchet production, and it is believed that as many as 7,000 coins were turned out on at least one day in mid-April. In general, however, it appears that about 6,000 to 6,500 was a good average at this time, well above the Chain cent output.

Wreath cent coinage abruptly halted on April 19, almost certainly due to a lack of planchets. The machinery, especially the rolling mills, often broke down and it took time to repair them. The Wreath cent coinage resumed on June 27 and was intermittent over the next several days, the last major delivery of these coins being made on July 6. Except for an odd delivery of 176 cent coins on July 17, the Wreath cent would never again be struck.

Among the most interesting Wreath cents is the so-called Strawberry Leaf obverse, of which only a few are in existence and all in poor condition. Mint records do not shed any light on these pieces and perhaps the odd leaves are the result of someone wishing to place something different above the date. It may simply have been the case of one of the workmen helping Voigt finish a given die and signing his work in this way.

It seems likely that Rittenhouse intended to resume the Wreath coinage. It was general practice, though not always observed, to deliver more or less an even number of coins and perhaps the 176 cents were just being held over for the next delivery when it was decided to end cent coinage for the time being.

The disruption of the Wreath cent coinage was caused by Rittenhouse’s decision to begin striking half cents. Minting of this denomination began on July 18 and continued through the 25th. Nearly 32,000 half cents were delivered on two days, July 20 and July 26. The dies were again prepared by Henry Voigt, apparently the last engraving work that he did.

The half cent coinage rate was relatively good. The roughly 32,000 pieces were struck over a period of six working days (between July 18 and July 25), giving an average of about 5,000 per day. The best day might then have approached upwards of 6,000 pieces, about 10 half cents per minute. (By 1800 there had been sufficient improvements made to the coining presses so that 14,000 cents per day was a normal rate.)

After July 26 there was no coinage for several weeks. It is known that the Mint director was actively seeking a skilled engraver and with Joseph Wright the search was ended. Wright was eminently qualified for the post but it has long been a mystery as to the exact date that he began his Mint service; for whatever reason there are no fiscal records for his employment. (What little evidence there is indicates that Wright began his duties in mid-to-late August.)

There is little doubt, however, that Wright was responsible for the Liberty Cap cents regardless of when he began. The sole delivery of cent coins after July was on Sept. 18, just as the dreaded Yellow Fever was raging throughout Philadelphia, killing several thousand. Even Wright and his wife fell victim to this vile scourge in mid-September. The Mint was, by necessity, closed and all who could fled for their lives.

The Liberty Cap cents are a clear improvement over the earlier dies by Voigt and there is little doubt that Voigt was more than pleased to be rid of this extra duty. Unfortunately the death of Wright meant that another engraver had to be found and this resulted in the hiring of Robert Scot, not long after the Mint reopened in November.

The exact number of Liberty Cap cents delivered on Sept. 18 has been a matter of some dispute. The official ledger (of coins received from the chief coiner) maintained by Treasurer Tristam Dalton shows that 12,756 cents were delivered on that day, a rather clear statement. However, an official report dated Sept. 30, 1794, shows that 142,534 half cents had been struck to that time. (The latter statement was based on a special ledger of coinage no longer in existence.)

The 142,534 figure does not square with known deliveries in 1793 and 1794, as there is an error of 3,400 pieces. The only date for which this error could have occurred is Sept. 18, 1793; in the hurry to leave the city because of Yellow Fever, the 11,056 cents and 3,400 half cents were apparently counted as cents. It is also possible that the Sept. 18 entry was not made until November and Treasurer Tristam Dalton simply confused the nature of the coins delivered.

This revised figure for Sept. 18 means that 35,334 half cents were made in 1793, the number presently used in the Red Book and elsewhere. Mintages for the 1793 cents are known to be as follows: Chain – 36,103, Wreath – 63,353, and Liberty Cap – 11,056.

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