On rare occasion one sees a 1795 “Jefferson” cent offered for sale and, in fact, the head of Liberty on the coin does look like Thomas Jefferson. It is not that president, however, and the background of this piece is one of the most interesting in American numismatics.
It all began in the mid-1780s, when John Harper was involved in the New Jersey copper coinage. Harper worked with Albion Cox, one of the contractors who struck copper cents for New Jersey beginning in 1786. Cox was in charge of the Rahway mint, while Harper handled the mechanical end of the coinage, including the actual striking of the cent pieces. The work ceased in 1788, however.
Harper then established a profitable saw-making business in Trenton, across the river from Philadelphia. Cox, however, fled to his native England to avoid being imprisoned for debt. They would not meet again until 1793.
After 1788 Harper had little to do with coinage but in 1792 the U.S. Mint was established in Philadelphia and Harper sold the institution several items, mostly equipment from the Rahway operations.
Harper owned a building at Sixth and Cherry streets in Philadelphia and allowed the infant mint to be temporarily housed on the first floor. In July 1792 the first silver coinage took place in Harper’s building when about 1,800 half dismes were struck. In September 1792 Mint Director David Rittenhouse and chief coiner Henry Voight superintended the move to the new mint on Seventh Street, then nearly finished.
In May 1793 Albion Cox returned from England, having been hired as the first assayer of the new mint. He soon got in touch with Harper.
The Mint began striking copper coins in February 1793 but there was criticism during 1793 and 1794 over the quality and distribution of the coins. The designs were even changed more than once due to public complaints.
There were so many complaints that in late 1794 Congress appointed a special committee to investigate the Mint. The chairman was Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress.
Boudinot personally interrogated all the Mint officers and also asked them to answer certain questions in writing. Cox’s reply proved of great importance as he suggested that the committee interview John Harper.
Cox noted that Harper was an expert in coining and could point out defects in the new mint as well as make suggestions for improvements. Boudinot soon saw Harper and was intrigued by what he learned. Harper then met with the full committee and made several very useful suggestions.
Boudinot asked the mint officers to meet with Harper to consider the suggestions made to the committee. Harper’s reception, however, was distinctly cool and he left feeling that his time had been wasted. Harper then decided to prove that he was the better man. He created a makeshift coining press from a saw-making machine and proceeded to cut dies for a cent coinage.
Harper invited the Congressional committee to visit him again, which they soon did. For the coining demonstration, Harper had rolled his own copper and punched out cent-sized blanks. The “cents” were quickly struck and Harper easily convinced his guests that he was a master of his trade. A few dozen pieces were struck and given to the committee.
Little was then heard from Harper until late 1795. In the meantime Rittenhouse had resigned and was replaced in July 1795 by Henry DeSaussure. The new director also soon resigned and was replaced in October 1795 by none other than Elias Boudinot.
When Boudinot became director he discovered that Harper still had the dies which he had prepared in early 1795. The director seized the dies, but offered Harper a post as assistant coiner. The latter declined because the salary was too low.
Harper submitted a petition to Congress asking that he be reimbursed for his experiments and suggestions. In response the House of Representatives asked the director to provide a written statement and it is from this February 1796 document that most of the facts are known. Boudinot supported Harper’s request but the latter died a few months later and the matter was quietly dropped.
There is no doubt that the famous “Jefferson Head” cents are, in fact, those struck by Harper in late January 1795. The known weights do not agree with the legal standard of 208 grains but he was more interested in technique and not the precise weights.
During the 1860s there was considerable debate over the actual status of the Jefferson Head cents. Many collectors believed that they were a pattern issue that for some reason was not adopted. It was not until recent years that researchers determined that they were not an actual Mint product.
The name “Jefferson Head” was created by coin dealer E.L. Mason in the 1860s because of the resemblance to Jefferson. The portrait does resemble the third president, but Harper would have been more interested in copying the 1794 Liberty head and the Jefferson look would have been purely coincidental.
At present the Harper cents are of the greatest rarity. For the lettered-edge specimens (struck at the Mint after the dies had been seized) only a few are known. For the plain-edged pieces, perhaps as many as 25 exist. The cent collector interested in owning one of these historic pieces will pay well for the privilege.
This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.
More Collecting Resources
• Are you a U.S. coin collector? Check out the 2017 U.S. Coin Digest for the most recent coin prices.
• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1601-1700 is your guide to images, prices and information on coins from so long ago.