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Early mint worked to get large cent right

There are probably no more historic and interesting coins of the United States than the first large cents.

There are probably no more historic and interesting coins of the United States than the first large cents.

As the first coins produced in the new U.S. Mint, and as the one denomination that saw regular production for an extended period of time, the first large cents give us a chance to not only better understand the early Mint but also to get a feel of what it was like for the public and the very few collectors of the day to see - and in some cases save - the first coins of the United States.

From the very start the large cent would be a problem. The first authorization of U.S. coinage included both copper half cents and large cents with the initial weight of the copper large cent put at 264 grains. Had the United States been ready on the spot to create cents, we might have seen a very different and certainly larger cent than we find today. As it was, no one was ready to begin production.

Officials had authorized the first coins but they had not authorized the purchase of copper from which to make the new coins. Even after that happened, there was still the matter of where and how the new coins would be made. The problem of creating a new mint where the coins could be produced fell to the secretary of State of the time, Thomas Jefferson. Although acquiring the land, machinery and preparing a building would take time, it actually moved ahead fairly rapidly.

While the progress was rapid, it was not rapid enough to keep pace with the price of copper, which was rising. The initial large cent authorization had called for large coins, for a variety of reasons. The most logical of these reason was probably that a large coin was less likely to have a counterfeiting problem. It is also possible that the lawmakers of the day, understanding that the new coins would be circulating next to coins of other lands, wanted to be certain that the coins of the United States did not seem second-rate in terms of their value. That was especially important in light of the fact that Continental Currency, used in part to finance the Revolutionary War, had become basically worthless or at minimum "not worth a Continental," as the phrase at the time suggested. Under the circumstances, producing anything other than full-value coins was risky politically and maybe even risky for the newly formed nation as the country had been far from unanimous in support of the war.

The rising price of copper created a potential problem with the size of the large cent as authorized. That saw the production of several patterns, as well as discussion over the possibilities of a cent with a silver center or billion issues with silver mixed in, but those ideas were not approved.

In the meantime, Henry Voight, who was the first Chief Engraver but who actually knew relatively little about engraving, was working on dies. That work took on added urgency when a reduction from 264 to 204 grains in the large cent was approved by the Congress in January 1793. A design had to be finalized. Mint Director David Rittenhouse and Secretary of State Jefferson apparently agreed on a head of Liberty taken from Libertas Americana medal but without the cap. The reverse would be the chain taken from the 1787 Fugio cents and also seen on earlier paper issues and the 1776 Continental dollar.

By the third week in February 1793, the whole slightly crude production was ready. The first cents of the United States might have been struck on the birthday of President George Washington although we cannot prove that. All we can prove is that on March 1, 1793, a total of 11,178 cents were delivered. They were the first coins of the United States and would be followed by an additional production that would bring the year's total to 36,103 pieces. At that point coinage was halted because of a lack of planchets, which was only the first time that problem would rear its ugly head. In the years that followed, copper supplies would prove to be one of the most troublesome of the Mint's many difficulties.

Those first 1793 cents with the chain reverse ran into an immediate criticism that probably took everyone by surprise. The linked chains, symbolic of unity, had been used a number of times without problems, but apparently the Americans of the day suddenly saw something very different in those chains. The most often repeated observation of the time really says it all, "The American cents do not answer our expectations. The chain on the reverse is but a bad omen for liberty, and Liberty herself appears to be in a fright."

Officials who had risked everything in a war with England were not about to take their chances with the American public. A decision was made to change the design. The obverse was basically the same, though with a few features modified and a slightly higher relief. The reverse, however, was changed dramatically. The offending chains were eliminated, replaced by a wreath that had been proposed for a silver-center cent concept of 1792.

All was ready for the next effort, which began on April 4, 1793, with production continuing until April 19 when once again the planchet supply was exhausted, causing another delay until June 27. This break in production may have been part a planchet supply problem and part a decision to work on half cents. There might also have been some equipment problems. Whatever the real reason, production of the wreath reverse 1793 cent picked up again in late June with the total production of the wreath reverse reaching 63,353 in mid-July, at which time it was decided to begin half cent production.

Sometime, we suspect in August, Joseph Wright became engraver. Unlike Voight, Wright was experienced at engraving. He went to work on a new obverse. He still used the Libertas Americana model although he did add the Liberty Pole which had been absent from the first design. A total of 11,056 of the new design were produced before the facility was forced to close because of an outbreak of yellow fever, an outbreak that unfortunately claimed Wright as one of its victims.

The three original 1793 large cent types are certainly an interesting and historic group. They are all unique problems when it comes to obtaining an example today. In the case of the first with the Chain reverse, there were two distinct reverses, the first one having AMERI while the later one had AMERICA fully spelled out. We cannot be precisely sure of the AMERI mintage although it would certainly stand to reason that they would have been that first 1793 delivery of just over 11,000 pieces.

As the first, the type with AMERI is slightly more valuable in the minds of some, but realistically any Chain cent is seen as a significant coin and a tough one. A few Mint State examples exist but most of them are in collections and the owners are unlikely to part with their treasures. Circulated examples tend to be well worn and sometimes even damaged, making the 1793 Chain cent a significant challenge.

The 1793 Wreath cent is more available in all grades thanks in large part to its larger mintage. It is, however, tough in any grade, and it too has varieties. The early examples have a vine and bars edge while the later and tougher examples are lettered ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR. Like the earlier Chain cents, circulated coins are usually F-12 or below although there are a few examples in a grade like Very Fine or Extreme ly Fine, but they are not seen on the market with any regularity. Damage remains an issue as the treatment large cents received at the time was not at all careful.

The low-mintage Liberty Cap cent of 1793 is actually the toughest of the three. Moreover, it is especially tough in Mint State. It would probably be much more expensive than it is, but it is not the only year of the type. That makes a significant difference as type collectors can obtain an example from a later year, which is not the case for either the Chain or Wreath 1793 cents.

The three 1793 cent types are all collector favorites. Along with the 1793 half cent, which is also tough, these are the only coins available from the historic first year of operation of the U.S. Mint. The most expensive is the chain reverse. It lists for $7,750 in G-4 with an MS-60 priced at $135,000 and even that may be low as we have recently seen some very high prices for historic issues. Both a 1794 dollar and a 1796 no stars quarter eagle have topped the $1 million mark. While the no stars quarter eagle was the finest example known, the 1794 silver dollar was probably not although it is among the top few. Such prices, however, suggest a truly exceptional 1793 Chain reverse cent might potentially produce a surprising price if offered. The AMERI variety could potentially bring even higher levels. It is also tougher, as Professional Coin Grading Service reports certifying 303 of the AMERICA reverse but only 67 of the AMERI. In the case of Mint State examples, PCGS had graded 11 coins and there are a few reported in MS-65 or better, suggesting the potential for one of the truly top examples to reach a surprising price.

In the case of the Wreath reverse, the current G-4 price is $1,700 while an MS-60 is listed at $30,000. This may be a case where the 1793 Wreath reverse is sometimes taken for granted as the available 1793 cent. That may seem hard to believe when you consider its importance, small mintage and a lack of saving, but the numbers tend to indicate it is possible.

It must be remembered that the first group produced had a vine and bars edge. PCGS has seen a total of just over 375 examples with the vine and bars edge with just under 30, including a couple spectacular examples in the MS-68 and MS-69 range being called Mint State. The couple truly extraordinary examples, along with an MS-67 Chain reverse, raise questions we are unlikely to answer. Were such coins made with special care as presentation pieces? In the normal course of business, the facility at the time just did not routinely produce MS-68 coins. The presence of a couple does raise some interesting questions.

The 1793 Wreath reverse also came with a lettered edge, seen less often. PCGS reported seeing roughly 100 examples, calling only one Mint State, an MS-63. There is also a very hard to explain variety, a 1793 with lettered edge that has a small strawberry leaf on the obverse. It has been called various things over the years since possibly being discovered by Sylvester S. Crosby in 1869. He called it the Clover Leaf cent, which became the Cotton Leaf cent, with strawberry leaf being popularized later. It is a very rare variety. We do not know precisely what happened to create this variety, but we know it is extremely rare and never seen in high grades. PCGS reported grading only two examples of the strawberry leaf 1793, and that may be a high percentage of the total as the best estimates are very few known. There is some suggestion that tthere are only four examples, making it one of the least known great rarities of the United States.

The 1793 with a Liberty Cap had a mintage of 11,056, which raises some very real pricing questions for potential buyers. So far PCGS has seen just 51 examples with only two being called Mint State. That makes the 1793 Liberty Cap cent far tougher than any other 1793 including the AMERI reverse of the 1793 Chain cent. Despite that fact, the 1793 Liberty Cap lists at $5,000 in G-4, which is $2,750 less than the 1793 cent with Chain reverse. It can be said that the historical importance of the 1793 Chain cent justifies the price difference, and that may be true, but a couple years ago the two were at the same price and there have been times when the 1793 Liberty Cap was more costly than the Chain.

Another reason for the Chain cent being more expensive is that it is a one-year type coin, which means additional demand. That is certainly true, but the situation remains one that is seemingly subject to change depending on the demand from collectors at the time. We really have a say in just how the historic 1793 Chain reverse and scarce 1793 Liberty Cap cents should compare in prices.

The Liberty Cap design would continue in use until 1796. There were significant mintages, including 918,521 examples of the 1794 along with 501,500 of the 1795. That makes the type available with the most available examples being $350 in G-4 and as little as $4,750 in MS-60. The most likely date to be found in Mint State is the 1795. While seen most often, it is still hardly common as PCGS reported around 25 Mint State examples including all major varieties.

Nothing was straightforward back at the Mint in 1793 as there were any number of varieties. In 1794 as a likely measure against counterfeiting, much like the lettered edges, Robert Scot is believed to have executed a reverse die with 94 stars punched around the rim by the denticles. With enough striking problems already, there were only a small number of the "stared reverse" produced, and that makes them very popular today. The problem is there is basically no supply. PCGS reported only 20 graded, and none of those were considered Mint State.

There would be other variations, notably on Liberty's head, and even one that has taken on something of a life of its own despite the fact that it was not produced at the U.S. Mint. John Harper was attempting to explain to Congress some of the problems he apparently saw in the Mint's operations. Harper cut his own dies, prepared planchets and converted a saw-making machine to strike coins that we now call the "Jefferson Head" cents of 1795. He went so far as to make them with plain or lettered edges. There is no reason to think he was depicting Thomas Jefferson, but the name was applied to them in the 19th century and has stuck.

The Jefferson Head cents are popular today but very elusive. PCGS reports seeing only four with the plain edge and one with the lettered edge.

Nor was it only the design which was being modified as things progressed. The price of copper continued to rise, and that saw President Washington reduce further the size of the large cent to 168 grains in late 1795. The lettered edge was also discontinued. Apparently it was decided that counterfeiting was no longer a serious problem, at least with the cents of the day, and that resulted in both plain and lettered edge examples of the 1795. The plain edge has appeared more often at PCGS.

The final Liberty Cap large cent would be produced in 1796 with a mintage of 109,825. While the 1796 lists at available-date prices in circulated grades, it lists at $21,000 in MS-60 as PCGS reports about a dozen in Mint State. Perhaps so few top-quality examples survive because there were so few collectors at the time to save the last examples of the design as it was being replaced. Of course, with the parade of varieties they had seen over the few short years, it is very possible that they did not view each change in design as being as important as we view them today.

Whatever the view at the time, the first large cents are an interesting group and also a very tough group. The varieties and changes came regularly, and that reflects accurately the situation at the U.S. Mint at the time. This was a facility struggling to find the right combination in terms of design for what was to be its most heavily produced denomination, the cent.

It may be a challenging collection, but in a sense that is appropriate. Getting the right cent was a major challenge for the Mint, and its efforts produced what is today a great collection that reflects the attempts to make the right large cent for the United States.