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The Early Cent Coinage, 1793-1796

Mint Director David Rittenhouse

In the 1850s, when coin collecting arose as a national hobby, among the first coins sought were the large copper cents of the 1790s. The cents of 1793 through 1796, which are covered in this article, were the most heavily collected series at that time.

Mint Director David Rittenhouse had planned to begin the coinage of copper cents in the opening year of the new mint, 1792, but was unable to do so. In June 1792, he had received permission to begin striking silver and copper coins, although only the half dimes were actually produced in quantity.

Cent dies were made by an unknown artist, but in the end only a handful of trial strikes were made. There were problems obtaining a steady supply of copper, so Rittenhouse delayed starting such coinage until early in 1793. Even then, with several months to go, fresh difficulties arose.

Coining room in the London Mint, as it appeared in the 1790s. There were two kinds of screw presses, the lever press (on the left) and the wheel press (on the right). Both kinds of presses were in use at the Philadelphia Mint.

The first of these problems, and one that would plague mint directors for several years, was a regular quantity of copper fit for coinage. Rittenhouse attacked the difficulty head-on by arranging for merchants to import sheet copper from Britain. This copper began to arrive late in 1792 and was on hand for the start of coinage in February 1793.

The situation was compounded in late 1792 by rising world copper prices. Rittenhouse did his homework and discovered that the Mint would soon be issuing copper coins at a loss. Through Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the Cabinet officer appointed by President George Washington to oversee the Mint, Rittenhouse appealed to Congress to lower the weight of the cent from 264 to 208 grains. In mid-January 1793, the legislators agreed, opening the way for full-scale coinage.

A third difficulty was equally serious: there was no engraver at the Mint. Rittenhouse had persuaded Henry Voight, the chief coiner, to cut the dies for the trial silver center cents of December 1792, but he was reluctant to do full-time engraving. In civilian life, however, Voight had been a watchmaker and therefore knew the rudiments of engraving.

The silver-center cent dies of December 1792 were a learning experience that prepared Voight for executing the Chain cent dies of February 1793. By an odd quirk, Voight, though born in Pennsylvania, had served in the small German mint of Saxe-Gotha but, according to a statement he later made, had not been involved in the engraving department.

It is unlikely that Voight conceived the chain design and was merely following directions from Rittenhouse, Jefferson, and the President when it came to matters of design. The reverse chain was clearly modeled on the Fugio cent of 1787; the Fugio design had been dictated by the Confederation Congress and everyone assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that it would be an acceptable motif in 1793. The chain was meant to symbolize the indivisibility of the Union as well as its strength when combined into a federal government.

There may well have been a first-strike ceremony on February 22, Washington’s birthday, in honor of his well-known interest in the early Mint. A few days later, regular coinage commenced, and the first Chain cents were delivered by the chief coiner on March 1. There were additional mintages over the next several days, the last delivery of Chain cents being made on the 12th. In all, 36,103 cents were struck over a two-week period.

1793 Chain cent with AMERI.

The first cents struck had UNITED STATES OF AMERI on the reverse (above), but the next coinage had UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (below). THE AMERI version is the scarcer of the two kinds.

1793 Chain cent with AMERICA spelled out.

Although the chain on the reverse of the first cent coinage was supposed to represent the strength of the new union, others saw it instead as a reminder of our colonial past under British rule. In addition, Liberty appeared to be in a fright, a natural result of Voight’s inexperience in engraving. The controversy over the first cent design sent the government back to the drawing board. A wreath replaced the chain, and a better Liberty was prepared for the obverse. Again, Voight was the engraver.

1793 Wreath cent.

Flowing Hair (the wreath reverse) cents of 1793 were first struck in early April and continued to be made until July. The revised design, while far from ideal, showed that Voight was becoming more skilled.

Voight also cut the dies for the half cent coinage of mid-July 1793. The work is much better than his earlier work on the cent dies. He would do no further die work, however.

Sometime in mid to late August 1793, famed artist Joseph Wright agreed to become engraver; the details of his employment, as well as the exact date he began, are unknown, however. There are no pay records in his name, but some of the fiscal records for this period are missing.

Wright soon completed the dies for the 1793 Liberty Cap cent. The head was clearly modeled on the obverse of the famous Libertas Americana medal, struck at the Paris Mint in 1783 by the direct order of Benjamin Franklin. It commemorated the end of the Revolutionary War, and what better profile to put on the cent? Moreover, had there been any complaints, the fact that the design had been created by the venerable Franklin would have silenced the critics.

1793 Liberty Cap cent.

With the arrival of Joseph Wright, it is likely that Rittenhouse felt that his search for a good engraver was over. Wright’s Liberty Cap cent features a complete change from the earlier head of Liberty but is equally symbolic. We now have the cap of freedom, meaning the victory of the Revolution. He retained the reverse wreath but made it artistic instead of cluttered with little branches and berries.

The Liberty Cap is also likely to have been partially done at the request of Secretary of State Jefferson. This Cabinet officer was a supporter of the ongoing French Revolution, and the cap was a well-known symbol of that conflict. The French struggle, however, later turned into the Terror, and the Liberty Cap was quietly dropped from our coinage after 1797.

Sickness in the work force, as well as problems with the rolling mills, created difficulties for Chief Coiner Voight in trying to prepare a reasonable number of planchets. On Sept. 18, 1793, the coiner delivered 11,056 cents and 3,400 half cents, the last coinage for the year. The delivery came just as the Mint was shutting its doors because of the Yellow Fever, a killing machine that was to destroy thousand of lives.

These Liberty Cap cents, like the earlier coppers, were quickly paid out to the public once the Mint reopened in early November. Engraver Joseph Wright, however, had died from the Yellow Fever in mid-September 1793 and was replaced in late November by Robert Scot.

Voight spent the remaining weeks of 1793 putting his machinery in order, as it was subject to frequent breakdowns. The gears on the rolling mills, for example, were made of copper, which often broke without warning, but at least the replacement part could be easily cast again.

Coinage of copper cents resumed in January 1794 with dies made by Scot but that used the head punch executed by Joseph Wright for the 1793 Liberty Cap cent coinage. These dies were used in January and February 1794 and are generally referred to at present as the “Head of 1793” coins. These are strongly sought after by copper collectors.

The demand for copper coins was so strong in 1794 that more than one coining press was in use for cents during that year.

Robert Scot then engraved his own head punches for the cents of 1794, but each working die was usually retouched by hand to bring up details not found in the hubs. (Hubs, or punches as they are sometimes called, have the Liberty head or wreath in relief, exactly like the finished coin, and are punched into a softened piece of steel to create a working die.)

Some of the dies for the 1794 cents have been attributed in the past to assistant engravers such as John Smith Gardner, who served at the Mint from the latter part of 1794 until his resignation in 1796. It is much more likely, however, that Gardner merely prepared the working dies while Chief Engraver Scot executed the original hubs from which the working dies were made.

There are numerous varieties of 1794 cents, and several eminent collectors have specialized in just this one date. Well before 1880, pioneer numismatists gave names, some humorous, to many of the 1794 cent varieties, such as Office Boy Reverse, Fallen 4, and Split Pole. These nicknames are still occasionally seen in modern auction catalogs featuring early cents.

In the past, specialists in the early cents almost always used the work Penny Whimsy by Dr. William H. Sheldon. Today, however, there are also books available by Walter Breen and William Noyes; one suspects that all three references will be used by copper collectors for many years to come.

The famous 1794 Starred Reverse cent.

The most interesting of the 1794 cents is the famous starred reverse. Ninety-four tiny stars were punched around the edge and then later partially blocked out by the usual border dentils. Considering that the year was 1794, it is very likely that the 94 stars were an anti-counterfeiting device that was abandoned as impractical in mass coinage.

Reverses with stars could only have been used in the proper year had that system been adopted. It would seem to show, however, that there was still serious concern about counterfeiting even though the edge lettering should have been sufficient to deter most of the criminally minded.

During the summer and fall of 1794, cent coinage fell off as Mint officers and workmen made preparations to begin silver coinage. Silver dollars were coined in October 1794, followed by half dollars in late November. Due to an interruption of the silver coinage in December, however, there was time to execute a small coinage of cents that month to meet the ongoing public demand.

Because of pressure from the government and depositors to strike as many silver coins as possible, during most of 1795 there was no copper coinage. The Mint concentrated on silver for the first few months (through the middle of July) and then on both silver and gold. This left little time for copper coinage, and it was not until the arrival of Henry William DeSaussure in July, replacing David Rittenhouse as director, that copper coinage was once more considered.

Although the Mint itself did not strike any copper coins until late in 1795, there was a small “coinage” of cents in January of that year. Congress had ordered an investigation of the Mint, as there were complaints about not enough coins being struck for the public, and the Congressional committee interviewed John Harper, one of the men involved in striking the New Jersey State coinages in the 1780s.

The “Jefferson Head” cents were struck by John Harper in early 1795.

To prove that he understood the problems facing the Mint, Harper engraved a pair of dies and struck “cents” for the committee to examine. Later, collectors thought that Harper’s head of Liberty resembled Thomas Jefferson, and the pieces were given the name of “Jefferson cents.” Today, these pieces are in strong demand from collectors specializing in the early copper coins.

In early 1795, Mint officers had avoided copper coinage not only because of the precious metals coinage but because copper was very hard on the rollers. These rollers were also used to flatten the silver and gold ingots to coin thickness, and Rittenhouse ordered that the precious metals take precedence over copper; he had little choice if the Mint was to survive its many critics.

Despite the need for increased coinages of gold and silver, new director DeSaussure decided that copper coinage had to resume even if there was damage to the rollers. To this end, he ordered the chief coiner, probably in late September, to execute a coinage of copper by melting and rolling the scrap metal on hand. On October 27, some 37,000 cents were delivered.

This October 27 delivery of cents is rather special in that it was the only coinage of cents dated 1795 on the standard of 1793, 208 grains (13.48 grams). All of these coins have lettered edges. For some unknown reason, the 1795 lettered-edge cents are not as rare as the tiny mintage would seem to show.

Mint Director Elias Boudinot

Coincidental with the October 27 delivery, DeSaussure resigned his post and was succeeded as director by Elias Boudinot. The new director ordered an additional coinage of copper, delivered in early December, but it was composed entirely of half cents. He also took a close look at the copper coinage and found that the cost of copper was again so high that the government was losing money when cents and half cents were coined.

The new director asked President Washington to reduce the weights of the copper coins, and the President did just that, in an executive order of late December 1795. The chief executive had been given this authority by Congress in March 1795.

The new standard was 168 grains (10.98 grams) for the cent. Striking of the thinner planchets began almost immediately but the new coinage did not have lettered edges, making them easy to distinguish from the October mintage. Cent dies of 1795 were used for several weeks into 1796, perhaps striking as many as one-half million plain-edge pieces.

Liberty Cap cents were struck in 1795 and 1796.

It is uncertain when the coinage of Liberty Cap cents dated 1796 began, but early May 1796 has been suggested and may well be correct. Only about 100,000 pieces were actually dated 1796, and these are seen much less often than cents dated 1795.

1796 Liberty Cap cent.

The 1796 Liberty Cap cents were apparently last struck in June of that year; after this, the government decided that the copper coinage was to have the same Draped Bust head of Liberty as currently seen on the silver coinage. The Wright Liberty Cap design had breathed its last on the cent, but his artwork would circulate for many years to come in the United States. Today, they are still very much appreciated by those who collect the early copper coinage of this country.

 

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