Featured An Introduction to the U.S. Large Cent, Part 1

Discussion in 'US Coins Forum' started by johnmilton, Jun 30, 2020 at 11:23 AM.

  1. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    United States large cents have been prime collectors’ items for more than 150 years. Ironically the coins were not popular when they were issued for general circulation. Many people found them to be too heavy and cumbersome, but when the mint announced that they would be replaced by the smaller copper-nickel cents in 1857, collector interest bloomed. Since then large cents have been called “the bellwethers of the numismatics,” which has encouraged many collectors and numismatists to write a number of significant books and countless articles about the “big pennies.”

    The authorization for the large cent was part of the Coinage Act of 1792 which many collectors call “Act One.” In that legislation the large cent was defined as a pure copper coin that weighed 11 pennyweights that was worth 1/100 of a dollar. Preparations for opening the first mint, which was to be located in the national capital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, began in the late summer of 1792. In the fall the mint produced its first pattern or experimental coins.

    1793 Chain S-1.jpg

    The opinions are that the 1793 Chain AMERI. Cent was the first regular issue cent to be made and issued by the U.S. Government. It has been speculated "AMERICA" was abbreviated to balance the spacing of the words on the reverse.

    From February 27 to March 12, 1793, the mint issued its first coins for circulation, 36,103 Chain cents. These crude coins featured a low relief profile of Ms. Liberty on the obverse with the word, “LIBERTY,” above her head and the date, “1793,” below her bust. The reverse featured a continuous chain made of 15 links with legend, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” (or “AMERI.” on what is believed to be first cent) surrounding it. In the center of chain were the denomination “ONE CENT” and the fraction “1/100.” The edge of the coin was imprinted with a design of vines and bars.

    Although the Chain cents are collectors’ treasures today, they came under considerable criticism from the contemporary press. The phrase, “Liberty in chains,” marked one characterization and another critic stated that the chain image sent an inappropriate message for the prospects of the survival of liberty. Embarrassed mint officials immediately went back to the drawing board to revise the design.

    1793 Wreath Cent.jpg

    The 1793 Wreat Cent was second cent design. The bust of Ms. Liberty was still to "unkept" for some. The coin shown above is Sheldon die variety 11-c. These pieces were made from generally low quality copper and this piece is a prime example of that. The planchet has a large defect that runs across the obverse, and the coin has a natural two tone coloration.

    In April the mint introduced a new design, the Wreath cent. The depiction of Ms. Liberty was strengthened in higher relief although her hair still had a wind-blown appearance. On the reverse the offending chain was replaced by a wreath consisting cotton and laurel leaves. The edge for most pieces continued to be the vines and bars although toward the end of the production run that device was replaced by the words, “ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR,” in incuse lettering.

    The reverse of the wreath cent silenced the critics, but the depiction of Ms. Liberty with her wind-blown hair brought sharp condemnations. One writer characterized her as, “a wild squaw with the heebie-jeebies.” Clearly another remake was needed as the run of 63,353 Wreath cents ended in July.

    1793 Cap.jpg

    One of the founders of the Early American Coppers Club (EAC), Herb Silberman told me that he thought that the 1793 Cap Cents were the most beautiful American coins. I prefer the 1907 High Relief $20 gold, but this attracive coin porvides some sopport for his opinion.

    In September newly appointed chief engraver Joseph Wright introduced his Liberty Cap design. His work was inspired by the Libertas Americana medal that had been executed by the French designer, Augustus Dupre. That medal celebrated the signing of the 1782 Treaty of Paris which ended the American Revolutionary War and granted The United States its independence from Great Brittan. The design had already appeared on the 1793 Half Cent that had been introduced in July, but for the large cents, Ms. Liberty faced right instead of left.

    1793 Half Cent.jpg

    The Pole to Cap design first appeared on the 1793 Half Cent.

    Libertas Medal.jpg

    The Libertas Americanas Medal, which commemorated American Independence and the American and French victory over the British, was the inspiration for the Pole to Cap design.

    Collectors have long admired Joseph Wright’s artwork for the 1793 Liberty Cap cents. Some even go so far as to say that the Head of 1793 Cap cents are the most beautiful large cents, and further that they are among the most beautiful of all American coins. Sadly Joseph Wright’s tenure at the mint was all too brief. In mid September he became one of many victims of a yellow fever epidemic that affected Philadelphia and all of the Americas and died. The mint would continue to use Wright’s Liberty Cap design through 1796 in a several modified forms.

    1794 Head 94 Cent.jpg

    The Pole to Cap design appeared from 1793 until 1796. Over that time, the artist, Robert Scot modified the design at least three times. This is a "Head of 1794" large cent.

    1795 Cap Cent.jpg

    The "Head of 1795" cents were in lower relief, which increased the useful life of the dies. This piece has a plain edge and was struck on the lighter planchets that Congress authorized in 1795. This variety, S-76, is also known on the heavier 218 grain planchet, with a lettered edge.

    In early 1795 there was a temporary shortage of copper that was brought on by production failures at copper mines on the British Isles. The shortage prompted Congress to pass legislation that reduced the weight of the cent from 208 to 168 grains. The timing of the implementation of this change was left up to President George Washington. Mint production priorities delayed the coinage of copper coins until the facility resumed the manufacture of large cents in October. In late December Washington issued the order to reduce the weight of the cent. Mint personnel experimented with a couple of edge designs but concluded that the coins did not need an edge device. From then on virtually all large cents would have a plain edge although a small number of pieces are known with devices such as the gripped edge coins of 1796.

    1795 Dr Bust Dollar.jpg

    Chief Mint Engraver, Robert Scot, introduced his beautiful Draped Bust design on the silver dollar in 1795. Ultimately it would appear on all U.S. copper and silver coins from the mid 1790s until 1807-8.

    1797 Large Cent.jpg

    The Draped Bust design was introduced on the cent in 1796.

    In the fall of the 1795 the mint began to introduce the Draped Bust design to all of its copper and silver coinage beginning with the silver dollar. In July 1796 the motif was adapted to the cent. Legend has it that the design was based upon a Gilbert Stuart drawing of Philadelphia socialite, Anne Willing Bingham, although numismatic scholars dispute that claim. The design featured a young Ms. Liberty, with her hair tied in bow with a drapery around her shoulders. The remaining design elements were essentially the same with the legally requited mention of the word, “liberty,” the date, the legend and the denomination.

    1798 Large Cent.jpg

    The "Style 2 Hair" was introduced to the design in 1798. The most obvious difference is the extra curl that appears to the left of Ms. Liberty's shoulder.

    To be continued ...
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  3. Conder101

    Conder101 Numismatist

    Two comments, and a typo.

    You mention the act of 1792 established the cent with a weight of 11 pennyweights. After the Birch cent pattern was produced it was realized that the weight was much too high and it was reduced to 7 pennyweight before the circulation cents went into production. The silver center cents were an attempt to reduce the size of the authorized cent without reducing the intrinsic value. Eventually it was decided this was not practical and the cent was released with a metal value well less then the face value.

    The proclamation reducing the weight of the cent in December 1795 was actually done in January 1796 and backdated to December 1795. Since the 1795 cents come on both planchet weights, the 1795's were produced for a good portion of the first half of 1796.

    In the caption for the head of 95 cent that should be 208 grain not 218.
  4. Chris B

    Chris B Supporter! Supporter

    I moved on from US coins quite a while ago now but Large Cents are still among my favorites.
  5. ksparrow

    ksparrow Coin Hoarder

    thanks for the history of these important coins, and the photos. I look forward to reading the next installment
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