If you had arrived at the United States Mint in 1796 in Philadelphia to evaluate how the facility was doing when it came to coins and coin production, you might well have come away with a somewhat negative reports, although one that perhaps saw some light at the end of the tunnel.
Certainly based on the cent production since 1793 you could have easily come to the conclusion that there had been what might have diplomatically been called growing pains.
The size of the cent as originally authorized back in 1792 had been changed a couple times since the original authorization. The design of the cent had even more changes, reflecting the public reactions, which in the case of the 1793 with a Chain reverse had been strongly negative. There were concerns over counterfeiting, which saw lettered edges that in 1796 had just recently been changed. The level of skill in preparing designs and dies was, however, improving although other problems, which seemed to be many, such as a lack of copper, were not.
As 1796 dawned there was a new Mint director in the person of Elias Boudinot who had moved over from being involved in a congressional investigation of the problems at the facility to becoming responsible for the situation himself. At the time, while producing the old Liberty Cap design for the cent, preparations were under way to change the look of the cent yet again to a new Draped Bust design.
The Draped Bust design was engraved on steel dies by Robert Scot at the Mint, but the story of the design is less clear. The legend, however, is that a rather discouraged President George Washington, who had seen and heard the complaints about the early large cents, was approached by the famed early painter Gilbert Stuart with an offer to help with the cent design.
Stuart suggested that he would bind up Liberty’s hair and make her a more dignified figure. In light of the critics who had been having a field day with the early coin designs of the United States, it was likely that Washington was more than happy to take up Stuart on his offer, but the design was not first used on the cent as in 1795 it would first be tried on silver dollars.
Part of the delay in producing the first Draped Bust large cent was perhaps not that the design was not ready for use, but rather that there was no copper to use it on. Boudinot was quickly learning that the job of Mint director was closer to a position as chief copper buyer for cents and half cents as the most recent purchase had been some material that was not living up to expectations.
In May of 1796, the supply of copper sheeting ran out and what copper there was on hand was scrap, which might create a problem with the rollers. A later October shipment was apparently also not the quality desired.
The Mint, however, had no choice. There was a national coin shortage and the cent was especially needed for commerce. That saw the first Draped Bust large cents produced in November and December of 1796 on ready made planchets. The mintage was 363,375 pieces.
The 1796 is available to collectors today thanks to that large original mintage, although it ranks as one of the tougher Draped Bust large cents with a price of $350 in G-4.
Moreover, it is very tough in Mint State. There are numerous varieties, but no matter what one you pick it is likely to be very tough in Mint State as combined Professional Coin Grading Service reports around 25 Mint State examples of the 1796.
The most famous variety of the 1796 shows LIBERTY looking more like LIHERTY because the die maker cut the “B” into the die facing in the wrong direction initially. He then discovered his mistake and cut the “B” again, this time correctly. The result is a letter that looks more like an “H” than anything else. It is a tough coin to find with PCGS reporting only 15 examples in all grades combined.
Committed large cent collectors put sets together by Sheldon numbers and these include various varieties that easily go beyond the scope of an article.
The situation in 1797 seemed to involve all the elements that made a Mint director’s life miserable. There was the eternal copper shortage as the year started out and only poor quality copper on hand. By February, with no new copper on hand and complaints that cents were needed, the substandard copper started to look pretty good and by mid-March about 400,000 cents had been produced. At that point, however, the Mint was truly out of usable copper and things had to wait.
Things went from bad to worse as yellow fever struck in the early fall, causing the Mint to close. A number of employees died, including the Treasurer Nicholas Way, but once the scare was over there was a new supply of copper on the Philadelphia docks.
Coming from different sources, the copper was not all perfect ,but the demand for coinage was such that the copper that could be used immediately was put to good use, starting in early November when the facility reopened.
By the time 1797 ended, a reported 897,510 large cents had been produced, making the 1797 more available than the 1796 at $130 in G-4 as compared to $350. There are, however, no significant numbers of the 1797 in Mint State, although the numbers are better than in the case of a 1796.
The 1797 had a number of varieties, with the most popular today being one with a “stemless” reverse. The engraver simply forgot the stems on the reverse design. The stemless 1797 is available for $300 in G-4, which is probably a good price as it is much less available than the regular reverse based on PCGS reports.
While there are not large numbers of either the 1796 or 1797 in Mint State large cent, the situation could be much worse were it not for the famous Nichols find, which was distributed in the late 1850s and early 1860s. The find was apparently sold by a David Nichols of Gallows Hill near Salem, Mass., and traced its origin back to an original bag of cents obtained by Benjamin Goodhue, who was both a representative in Congress and a senator during the period 1789 to 1800.
The belief is that Goodhue obtained a bag of cents from the Mint probably in late 1797 as cents were only delivered on Nov. 21, 1797. It is believed the bag would have contained 1,000 coins, which he is believed to have given to his daughters.
The coins would have been high quality as the planchets used at the time were the best the Mint would have . They were purchased from Matthew Boulton of Birmingham, England. Precisely how David Nichols came to be the one selling the coins for the going price, which ranged from $1 to $3 or $4 by 1863, is unclear, but any 1796 or 1797 large cent in Mint State is likely to be from the find. Most are a glossy brown with somewhat prooflike fields.
Why there are not more examples of the two dates in Mint State is hard to explain if the bag as assumed contained 1,000 coins. It might well be a simple reflection of the fact that relatively few found their way into the hands of serious collectors and it could also well be that after selling some, demand dried up and the rest were simply spent. It is typical of famous hoards as the stories and the reality are often hard to reconcile, but the fact remains that in the case of Mint State 1796 or 1797 cents, the general feeling is that they can be traced to that bag reportedly obtained by Benjamin Goodhue in the closing days of 1797.
At the time Goodhue would have obtained his bag of cents, there were apparently enough cents in the marketplace to meet the commercial demand for a period of time. The lull in demand would not last long and production would begin a few weeks later at the Mint. This would continue until July of 1798 when there was yet another delay before another copper shipment arrived, but this delay was short.
Coinage of cents resumed only to be halted on Aug. 17 when the nearly yearly yellow fever attack began. The Mint closed until November. The official records suggest just under 980,000 cents were produced in 1798, but the reality may well be double that total as dies with a 1798 date were used throughout 1799 and even into 1800.
The result is that the 1798 ranks as one of the most available Draped Bust large cents. It is under $90 in G-4 and $3,100 in MS-60. Realistically, there are relatively few Mint State examples that have been reported by grading services and the ones there are include many different varieties.
The 1798 that attracts the most attention is the first overdate in the cent series, the 1798/7, which starts at $200 in G-4. It might actually be even tougher than the price suggests as PCGS reports only 21 examples graded while all the other 1798 varieties combined have been seen close to 300 times.
Conditions at the Mint in 1799 resulted in a significant rarity. Precisely how the 1799, which also included a 1799/8, came to have a mintage of 42,540 seems to be a combination of factors. First, there were the usual problems as in early 1799 there was no copper.
Finally, copper arrived in July, which was just in time to have the yellow fever epidemic close the facility for a period. It was well into the fall of 1799 when the Mint was both open and had enough copper on hand for significant cent production. To that fact be added another and that is that there is little doubt that many of the cents actually produced in 1799 were dated 1798.
The whole thing leaves us with many questions. Some have suggested the official 1799 mintage total may be low, although not over 100,000. The problem with that theory is simply to ask where are the coins? The 1799 has historically been a key if not the key large cent.
Low mintage would have tipped off early collectors that the 1799 was better, and realistically it was seen very early on as the key large cent. In The American Numismatic Manual in 1860 Montroville Dickeson said of the 1799, “The cent is deemed by numismatologists as being very rare and valuable; fine specimens of which will command a greater premium than those of the cent of 1793 of the same condition of preservation; to which, from their extreme scarcity, much value is attached.”
Dickeson was a fountain of information on the 1799, explaining why it was so tough. He said that many had been shipped by a Salem, Mass., firm to the coast of Africa where according to Dickeson, they were, “bartered away, probably to the chiefs ... and subsequently used as ornaments by the natives, being suspended from the neck by a string.”
Some of Dickeson’s information might have been suspect, but his conclusion that the 1799 was valuable certainly was not. In 1867 the Joseph Mickley Collection was auctioned in New York and the 1799 in the collection, which realized $32, was described as “very fine indeed, having been but little in circulation, one of the best ever offered for sale, the rarest of American cents.”
The years did nothing to tarnish the reputation of the 1799. In the August 1897 edition of The Numismatist, it was described as, “the rarest of copper issues of the United States Mint.” The writer went on by asking, “Why the 1799 cents are so rare ... is a question which has never been satisfactorily answered. Rare they are, and rare they will always be. The reason why will always be a mystery.”
The situation with regard to the 1799 is very similar today. We still cannot explain what its actual mintage might have been if it was different from the official 42,540 and we can also not explain why it is so tough with a price of $2,750 in G-4 while an XF-40 is at $58,500. The PCGS total shows about 85 examples of the regular date and 18 of the 1799/8 graded, but none called Mint State, making the 1799 a very special coin today as has been the case literally from the start of widespread interest by collectors in large cents.
The 1800 would have a large 2,822,175 mintage and that would translate into many varieties, but with the basic date being readily available at $50 in G-4. The varieties, however, are the story, with overdates like the 1800/1799 and 1800/179 as that one featured a die without the last digit, which was actually very normal at the time.
The overdates bring a strong price premium and usually are found only in lower grades as at the time collectors were not searching every new coin looking for varieties and overdates, so most were discovered many years later at which time they were usually heavily worn.
Anyone looking for an interesting coin would have had a great time in 1801 as that was the year of one of the more famous errors in early U.S. issues.
The last part of 1800 had seen another planchet shortage, but when supplies arrived in July of 1801 the Mint made up for lost time by eventually producing a total of 1,362,837 cents in 1801. It was very heavy production for a short period of time and that allowed a coin now known as the three errors to escape into circulation unnoticed.
The 1801 large cent with three errors starts with a fraction of 1/1000 instead of 1/100, while having no stems and IINITED instead of UNITED. Apparently a large number were produced as it is a relatively available listing at $225 in G-4 and going to $5,500 in XF-40. At PCGS they have graded about 68 examples of the regular 1801 and about 25 of the three errors. It is a case where it would be expected that there are many more lower grade examples of the 1801 that have not been graded as the 1801 is not very costly otherwise, so the cost of grading can be a large percentage of its final price in lower grades. That discourages grading but even with that fact in mind the 25 total for the three errors suggests it was certainly made in some numbers.
The remaining few years of the Draped Bust large cent would generally feature solid mintages, with the 1802 being nearly 3.5 million pieces while the 1803 would be about a million fewer. Those from 1805-1807 were all below 1 million, but none was below the 348,000 of the 1806 and even with that total it is still available to collectors who want one today for very reasonable prices.
The one date from the period that is not available is the 1804. Ding, ding, ding go the internal alarm as collectors hear that date made famous by the silver dollar. The 1804 cent had a total mintage of 96,500. In the case of the 1804, it appears it was one of the very few cases where half cent production was given a higher priority than the production of large cents as the half cent of 1804 had a total mintage of over 1 million.
It also appears that the one die prepared for the 1804 cent began to shatter quickly, creating an instant rarity. That is seen in the 1804 price today as it lists for $1,400 in G-4 with an XF-40 at $7,000. At PCGS they report just over 90 examples graded, but only one of the total was called Mint State, so the 1804 is not only tough in every grade but almost impossible in Mint State.
Throughout the final years concluding in 1807 there would continue to be varieties and other interesting coins such as the 1807/6 overdate, which interestingly enough had two dies, making it more available than would normally be the case although there are also examples with large and small “7” in the date with the small being seen much less than the large “7” at PCGS.
For the collector, the Draped Bust large cent is a fascinating set. In their ranks are key dates and available dates and enough varieties to keep a collector busy for years. Not only are the coins good value, but they allow you to trace the adventures or misadventures of the early United States Mint as it tried to overcome a number of problems to combat a national coin shortage and to keep pace with commercial demand for the most heavily used denomination at the time.