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The First Cent that Stirred an Angry Mob

1793 Flowing Hair Wreath reverse cent. (Images courtesy of usacoinbook.com)

It was probably a case where back in 1793 working at the U.S. Mint might not have seemed like the sort of career opportunity as it had seemed like back when everyone was hired. When you consider that the facility had just started coin production early in 1793 it was probably an ominous sign.

There were many problems at the Mint in 1793. The facility could only make copper large cents and half cents because the officials had balked at the idea of a required $10,000 bond, which they had to post before making gold and silver. When you consider the sort of buying power $10,000 had at the time you might have balked at the requirement as well. The situation would require considerable diplomatic skills of Thomas Jefferson to straighten out and even Jefferson would take all year in that task.   Jefferson could end a war faster than that.

The glorious first coins of the United States were a very diverse problem. In fact, the first 1793 with a chain reverse ran into immediate trouble. It’s easy to see why but a little tougher to explain. Certainly, the chain reverse used on the first cents could imply bondage and that was the basic gripe about them. That was fair.

What was not fair was that the chains had been used on a number of things including Continental currency and Fugio cents, all of which had circulated without complaints, or any incident as the linked chains were symbolic of the unity of the 13 colonies. Of course, that was then, and this was now which all goes to prove that public opinion can turn on a dime, or in this case, on a cent.

Now the officials of the period were the bravest of the brave, having stood up against the mightiest power on earth in a conflict which was extremely bloody to gain their independence. They had risked their lives for freedom standing up to the king of England, but they also knew a suicide risk when they saw one and they were not about to stand up to explain to the mob in the streets of Philadelphia that the chains meant unity. It was better, apparently, to switch than to fight.

Henry Voight was given the task of changing the reverse and he did, replacing the chain with a wreath. He also made changes to the reverse, but they were far less obvious. The main point was the wreath so that no one would get lynched over a coin design.

There were some interesting varieties in the 63,353 mintage of the 1793 Wreath reverse. The initial examples came with a vines and bars edge while the later ones have a lettered edge which says, “ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR.” The obverse would show a normal sprig above the date but on four known examples it is a spray of trefoil leaves and small blossoms called the “Strawberry Leaf” variety. No one precisely knows how this happened, but it is very rare with just four well-circulated being known.

For most, however, any example of the 1793 will do. It had a low mintage in part because it was discontinued very quickly this time in favor of a new obverse. The new Liberty Cap 1793 would have a low mintage of just 11,056 and it is very tough. With the Liberty Cap being tough and the chain reverse also being tough, the 1793 with a wreath reverse turns out to be the most available of the three different types of the 1793 cent.

The current prices of the wreath reverse 1793 cent show a G-4 at $3,000 while no other type of 1793 can be found in G-4 for less than $6,500. It is similar in MS-60 where the wreath reverse 1793 is at $50,000 but that is more than $100,000 less than you are likely to spend for either of the other types.

This can make the reverse 1793 seem available but while there might be a couple thousand in all grades combined, the vast majority have problems or were heavily circulated. After all, there were virtually no collectors and the cent received a lot of wear in circulation. There are only a small number in Mint State and even a VF-20 would be far better than an average example.

Under the circumstances, for a nice coin, you cannot expect much of a discounted price for a wreath reverse 1793 cent. They are in great demand and have a small supply. That is the way it usually is for historically important coins and the 1793 cent is certainly no exception. 

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