Life in 1793 at the United States Mint had to be exciting. It is unfortunate that there were no recordings or other ways of saving what went on that year. For historical reasons, it would be nice to determine exactly what happened and why.
We know things got off to a rocky start. The U.S. Mint was open and ready for business, but it turned out that the business it could do was, to say the least, very limited. There was a legal problem in that a bond had to be posted before there could be any production of gold or silver coins. Those who were required to post the bond were apparently not able or willing to do so, causing Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to spend time working out that matter and, in the meantime, the facility could only produce copper large cents and half cents.
Then again, something is better than nothing. With the nation having a severe national coin shortage back in 1793, any coins were at least a help. The large cent would be produced first. It appeared with a Flowing Hair obverse and a Chain reverse, representing the work of Henry Voight.
There is at least one and possibly a couple more extremely nice 1793 Chain cents, which suggests the possibility of special strikings. Some have gone further, believing they were proofs, but a more conservative view of the situation tells us that calling them proofs may be going too far.
The 1793 Chain cents were called other things, and none of them were good. Artistic critics of the day – and some who were critics of just about anything – did not like the new coins at all. They did not like Liberty on the obverse, saying in one case that she seemed to be in a “fright.” They especially did not like the reverse. The problem was the linked chains, which is ironic because the basic design goes back to 1776 when it appeared on the Continental dollar; it was used on paper issues printed by Benjamin Franklin, and it had been used on Fugio cents – always without problems. But in 1793, everyone was up in arms about the chains.
Apparently, officials were not up for giving the critics a history lesson on American coin and paper money design, so they huddled quickly and decided to produce another 1793 large cent. This time it would bear a Wreath reverse prepared by Adam Eckfeldt, possibly with some suggestions from Mint Director David Rittenhouse.
The 1793 Wreath cent had a mintage of 63,353, and it is definitely more available than the lower-mintage 1793 Chain reverse cent. The Wreath cent is seen readily in prices of $2,800 in G-4 as opposed to $9,575 for the Chain cent, and $49,500 in MS-60 as opposed to $170,000 for the Chain cent. In fact, at such steep discounts when compared to the 1793 Chain cent, it appears that it was the later Wreath cent that was saved at the time, not the Chain cent.
There may be some truth to the idea that the 1793 Wreath cent was treated like the first coin of the United States. There are a number of extremely high-quality examples of the Wreath cent in 1793, including one graded MS-69 by Professional Coin Grading Service. That coin is nearly flawless, and there are a couple of others in extremely high grade. This raises the debate over whether or not these coins are proofs. Walter Breen, in particular, seemed to feel that there were proofs of the large cents being produced. A lot may depend on your view of proof. Some may have been early strikes that received unusual care.
It is important not to overlook the fact that the average 1793 Wreath cent is not proof or MS-69 or whatever you want to call it. The average 1793 Wreath cent was made on poor-quality dies made of inferior steel and was produced with a technique that would be later seen as crude.
But it was not just the Mint. The average 1793 Wreath cent was placed into circulation at a time when there were virtually no collectors. A few might have been saved, but most received hard wear before being spotted. Assorted varieties such as the “Strawberry Leaf” variety were not noticed for years. All known examples are badly worn.
This all makes for a special challenge on what is a special-date large cent.