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Large Cent - 1793 Large Cent

Large Cents - Cents and Half Cents were the first coins struck for circulation under the authority of the United States government. Coinage began in 1793 with laws specifying that the cent should weigh exactly twice as much as the half cent. Large cents were coined every year from 1793 to 1857.

1793 Flowing Hair, Chain Reverse Large Cents - 1793 Chain Cent

Flowing Hair Large Cents Chain Reverse (1793), Flowing Hair Large Cents Wreath Reverse (1793).

Liberty Cap Large Cents (1793-1796)

Draped Bust Large Cents (1796-1807)

Classic Head Large Cents (1808-1814)

Liberty Head Large Cents (1816-1857)

In January 1791, Alexander Hamilton made a “Report on the Coinage.” In this report he spoke about the unequal values given in different parts of the Union to coins of the same intrinsic worth, defective coins, and “dissimilarity in the several moneys on account” are problems that would be remedied by the establishment of a national coinage. The first proposed coin was to show the president’s portrait. However, the House of Representatives voted against this proposal because it would be too much like a Royal showing his portrait. In the end they settled for “an impression emblematic of Liberty.” The first cent, minted in 1793, had a head of liberty and ONE CENT above a tiny 1/100 within a circle of chain links, reminiscent of the Fugio cent. The design was criticized because the public took the chain to be a symbol of slavery. The second design was a similar portrait of Liberty with a wreath reverse instead of the chain. The third, a Liberty Cap, was minted from 1793 to 1796. It has Liberty facing right with a pole behind her and a Phrygian cap atop the pole. The Draped Bust cent was next. First struck in 1796, it was the second design type for the year. The design by Robert Scot was from a drawing by Gilbert Stuart that was first used in 1795 for a silver dollar. In 1800 it was also used on the half cent.

Today we look at large cents as beautiful and romantic. The people who used them would probably have disagreed. The coins were almost half dollar sized and heavy. Their size and weight made them impractical to use in any volume. A pocket full was inconvenient, but one only needed a few to buy a pound of veal in Kentucky in late 1801. The workers at the Mint also probably didn’t like them. They were counted by men who put the coins into wooden trays that had cut-outs for 500 coins. When all the cut-outs were filled, he had counted out 500 coins and would start over again. A full tray weighed about 15 pounds, and the Mint workers had to keep moving quickly. Sometimes later date large cents were sent out from the Mint in barrels. Some of these kegs remained in bank vaults, and later they provided collectors with large numbers of uncirculated coins. Many old coppers were melted for industrial purposes.

The Liberty Cap Large Cent was designed by Joseph Wright and modified by John Smith Gardner. It was minted from 1793 to 1796. It shows a head of Liberty in profile facing right. Her hair falls in separated strands behind her shoulder. The wavy hair from her forehead is brushed back. A Phrygian or Liberty cap is in on a pole over her left shoulder. The end of the pole is visible alongside of the bust. The reverse shows an open wreath of laurel tied with a bow. Within the wreath, on two lines, is the denomination, ONE CENT. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surrounds the wreath at the periphery. At the bottom, between the ribbon ends is the fraction 1/100. There are dentils on both sides of the coin, and the edge is plain or the edge lettered ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR, followed by a single leaf.

Joseph Wright was a skilled engraver, painter, and sculptor. He painted several portraits of Benjamin Franklin that were lost at sea when a ship he was on ran aground during his return voyage to America from France. When he returned home, he created a bronze bust of George Washington. Later he moved to Philadelphia where he began working at the Mint in 1792. He was commissioned as a draughtsman and die sinker; although, everyone considered him to be the Chief Engraver. Unfortunately both he and his wife died in September 1793 as a result of the yellow fever epidemic that annually plagued Philadelphia.

John Smith Gardner was an Assistant Mint Engraver from 1794 to 1796. Very little is known about his personal life. He was never fully commissioned, and it is not known how much engraving work was done by Gardner and how much was Robert Scot’s. Some researchers feel that Gardner did most of the work during this time. Gardner resigned from the Mint in March 1796 and was rehired for a short time in the summer.

The early mint had several problems. At the end of the eighteenth century Philadelphia had recovered from the British occupation and the Revolutionary War. It was the second largest city in the English-speaking world, but it could do nothing to protect its citizens from the mosquito-borne epidemic of yellow fever. Its wealthy citizens went to the countryside to escape, and the poor grimly waited their fate. Of course these annual epidemics caused havoc with all manufacturing that required continuity, such as a coinage sequence. A second problem was that those who worked at the Mint, designers, engravers, and press operators, were not professional mint workers but came from other fields. Coin manufacturing was a new trade for them. In addition other problems caused chaos at the Mint. Bonds were unrealistically high and became impediments to engravers working with precious metals. Because of the non-existent or low production numbers in the early years of the Mint, foreign copper, silver and gold circulated along with American made coins for many years until they were later demonetized. There were chronic bullion shortages, coin dies that would wear out and had to be re-engraved because they were not taken out of production until they failed completely, difficulty rolling sheets for planchets, and a Chief Engraver, Robert Scot, who was in his seventies and had failing eyesight.

One place that had much copper and the ability to turn it into blanks was Great Britain. Early in 1796 Mint Director Elias Boudinot was preparing to ask for help. Britain responded and three firms participated in supplying planchets for cents and half cents. The favored company was Boulton, Watt & Company. Matthew Boulton had a relationship with America that went back to the 1760’s. In 1790 Boulton proposed to Thomas Jefferson that he furnish Congress with his best minting machines and instruct American workmen in his style of coin making. In return he asked for a contract for the copper coinage. His proposal to make the copper coinage was rejected, but since his planchets were of the best quality the Mint agreed to let him be a primary supplier of blanks. John Harper’s proposal was also rejected. The 1795 “Jefferson Head” cents that he made are not actually United States coins. Harper made them as patterns to win a contract with the Mint that he did not get.

Large Cents - United States Large Cents (1793-1857)

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