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The First Cent Coinage

By R.W. Julian


With the coming of peace to America in 1783, a sense of relief came to a land whose economy had been shattered by years of warfare. The national government, however, was weak and each State was free to pursue its own ends without thinking of the common good. By the mid-1780s it was clear that something had to be done to get the nation moving again. The Constitutional Convention met during the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia; the result was the Constitution of 1787 and by the spring of 1789 the new federal government was a reality. It was not until a year later, however, that Congress attacked the question of a monetary system with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton being asked to prepare a report on coinage to guide the lawmakers.

Hamilton submitted his report in late January 1791 and in early March Congress passed a resolution asking President George Washington to take the necessary measures to create a mint and coinage. Although attempts were made to carry out the Congressional resolve, not much was accomplished and at length it was realized that only a formal law would provide the proper framework.

There were lengthy Congressional debates over the form the new coinage was to take but at last, in early April 1792, the coinage bill was signed into law by the President. Washington, even before the law took effect, had asked David Rittenhouse, the most eminent scientist in the country, to accept the directorship of the new mint establishment. Rittenhouse, in poor health, was difficult to persuade but finally accepted with reluctance. He in turn asked an old friend, Henry Voight, to accept the post of chief coiner. Voight, although born in Pennsylvania, had received practical experience at a German mint and was well qualified for his responsibilities.

Temporary quarters were obtained in the basement of a building at Sixth and Cherry Streets in Philadelphia; men and equipment were housed here until the regular Mint buildings were ready for occupancy in September 1792. Rittenhouse then asked the President for permission to begin coining small silver as well as cents and half cents. Washington quickly gave his approval and the Mint Director set an engraver named Birch to work. Little is known about the first engraver, but he probably came to the attention of authorities in late 1791 or early 1792 by submitting a pattern cent for approval.

Despite the crudity of this pattern, it appeared to Rittenhouse that Birch was the best qualified for the time being and employed him to cut the first dies. Birch began with the half disme and some 1,500 of these small coins were struck in July 1792. Tradition says that the President furnished the silver for this coinage.

Birch then took his pair of cent dies, which had been used to strike soft-metal patterns only, and ground them down. They were re-engraved with similar designs, but there was a new legend on the reverse, along with a better wreath. This time the dies were hardened and patterns made in copper. It was intended to strike cents in quantity but the plan failed for lack of copper.

High bonds demanded of key officers by the 1792 law prevented silver coinage until October 1794 and Rittenhouse had no choice except to concentrate on the copper. Unable to obtain enough metal locally to begin coinage, he contracted with merchants to import sheet copper from Great Britain.

Rising copper prices in October and November 1792 forced the government to consider reducing the weights of the cent and half cent. A suggestion was made to use billon (less than half silver) coinage for the cent. Voight had seen this form of alloy in Germany and thought it could be adopted for American use. At first he tried a tiny plug of silver in the center of the coin (the silver-center cent) but this was then modified to a purely billon mixture, where the silver was mixed with the copper.

For unknown reasons, Birch was no longer connected with the Mint and Chief Coiner Henry Voight engraved the dies for the silver-center cent trials. These special patterns were struck in December 1792 (along with a small number of full-sized cents from the revised Birch dies) for examination by government officials.

As a result of these patterns, it was decided to stay with the full-sized copper coin, but to lower the weight so that the government would not sustain a loss because of the increased price of copper. Congress duly reduced the weight of the cent (and the half cent proportionally) from 264 grains to 208 on January 14, 1793. With this act, the coinage of copper could now begin on a regular basis.

With no other engraver in view, Rittenhouse chose Voight to cut the first regular dies. Because the designs of the 1792 patterns were not quite all that could be desired, Rittenhouse was directed to come up with better ones. This occasioned serious discussions and the final decision was to use elements from the Fugio cents of 1787, which in turn had been based on the Continental dollar of 1776.

For the obverse someone, possibly Rittenhouse-who had been involved in designing Continental currency, sketched a head of Liberty. It does not seem to have a particular prototype, but is close enough to the Liberty head on the 1792 silver-center cent to show Voight's involvement in the final choice.

The reverse has a chain design, meant to emphasize the strength of the new federal union. No one was aware of any criticism that had been made of the earlier use of this motif so officials agreed that the chain device was a good one. About the middle of January Voight began to engrave the obverse and reverse dies necessary for this first copper coinage.

During January and February, after the weight for the cent had been set at 168 grains (13.48 grams), Voight oversaw the sheet copper being run through iron rollers in order to flatten it to the proper thickness. The copper strips were then put in the machine which punched out the planchets.

The next step was to use the Castaing machine on each blank; for the first coinages in 1793 the edge received a vine and bars motif, but this was changed later in 1793 to the inscription ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR. The edge-lettering was designed to foil those who wished to engage in private competition with the Mint (i.e. counterfeiting). The planchets were then heat-treated (annealed) to make them softer and also carefully cleaned with a solution of acid to remove impurities from the surface.

With all in readiness, Rittenhouse formally notified the President and others that coinage was about to begin. The interest of our first president in the coinage is well-known and his residence was but a short distance from the Mint. Tradition is very clear that he was a frequent visitor to the institution. Also, even at that time, Washington's birthday-February 22-was widely celebrated by fellow citizens.

February 22 fell on a Saturday and what better way to end a week of frantic preparation than by holding a formal ceremony to strike the first copper coinage? The following week saw increased amounts of coinage being made and on March 1, the following Saturday, the chief coiner delivered 11,178 Chain cents.

Since the earliest days of collecting American coins, the Chain cents have been very popular. The value of such coins is in line with demand and even in the rather low grade of Good-4, one can expect to pay abut $2500. Coupled with the fact that many of the early cents have porous surfaces, the collector cannot expect an ideal specimen to be found with ease. In the higher grades, prices advance strongly, reaching $19,000 or more to bring home a specimen in XF-40. (The Chain cent variety reading AMERI on the reverse brings slightly higher prices.)

Over the next several days, the coiner struck an additional 25,000 Chain cents, so that when coinage ceased on March 12, some 36,103 coins had been made for circulation. These were sent to local banks, where citizens were able to obtain them for use. If the Mint officials thought that all was well, they were in for a rude shock.

When coinage ceased on March 12, it was because the Mint was out of planchets; Voight had started to make more but had barely begun when public criticism struck hard at the first coinage. Little has been preserved in print, but one such complaint is known from a newspaper: "The American Cents do not answer our expectations. The chain on the reverse is but a bad omen for liberty, and liberty herself appears to be in a fright..." With public and private criticism of the Chain cents being uncomfortably common, the government ordered Rittenhouse to come up with new designs to overcome the problem. Serious discussions were held in mid-March on the subject and it was decided to improve the Liberty head but abandon the chain reverse in favor of a wreath. Voight had already engraved a wreath for the silver-center patterns of December 1792 and everyone felt that there would be no problem. As with the Chain cent design, the new work must have been approved by the President personally.

Voight began work at once on the revised designs but his work went slowly. He also saw to the production of planchets and by the last week of March more than 40,000 had been prepared, even to the edge-lettering. The dies were completed around the first of April and soft-metal samples submitted to key officials. They were accepted and coinage resumed on April 4; the blanks on hand were all struck by the 19th of the month.

Practical considerations dictated that half cent coinage begin as soon as possible and more than 30,000 planchets were prepared in the last half of April. Another delay ensued when the half cent dies could not be finished on time and the coiner now went back to preparing cent blanks. Important pieces of machinery had an unpleasant habit of breaking down at the wrong moment, delaying coinage even more.

Despite continual interruptions, Voight was finally able to resume coinage on June 27 and in the next few days struck nearly 20,000 more cents. In all, there were 63,353 Wreath cents of 1793 with the Flowing Hair obverse. These Wreath cents are worth somewhat less than the Chain design, but still require a fair outlay of cash. In Good-4 the value is usually about $850 (for the edge with Vine and Bars; the lettered edges are worth higher prices) while in XF-40 one can expect to pay around $7000 for a decent specimen. As with the Chain cents, many of them are porous; the collector should examine cents of 1793 very carefully before making a purchase. The half cent dies were finally ready in mid-July and the 30,000+ blanks on hand struck into coins. Because it is the first year as well as being a type coin, the 1793 half cent is heavily sought after by collectors. However, prices are more reasonable than for chain cents, with Fine-12 bringing around $3600 in auctions. In XF-40 one can expect to pay nearly $11,000 for a specimen with minimal porosity.

(The question of the engraver for the half cent dies is a thorny one but it is believed that newly-arrived engraver Joseph Wright prepared the obverse dies while the reverses may have been partly done by Adam Eckfeldt and Henry Voight.)

There seems to have additional criticism of the Wreath cent design and government officials went back to the drawing board. This time, however, they had the services of Joseph Wright, a famed portrait painter and skilled die-sinker. Working with Wright after the half cent dies were completed, Rittenhouse came up with revised designs for the obverse and reverse of the cent. The reverse was not actually changed that much, much of the revision being cleaner lines and less berries cluttering the wreath. Wright's obverse is a distinct improvement and features a well-modeled Liberty head together with a Liberty Cap. The cap symbolized, in classical terms, America freed from the tyranny of the English crown. It seems likely that the famous head of Liberty on the Libertas Americana medal, which had been struck in France by order of Benjamin Franklin in the 1780s, was the direct inspiration for Wright's Liberty head.

It is not clear just when Wright's dies were finished, but on September 18 the coiner delivered 11,056 cents. Just at this time the Yellow Fever epidemic struck Philadelphia and everyone able to do so left the city. The Mint did not reopen until November but by this time had acquired a new engraver, Robert Scot. Wright had died of the plague in mid-September. The Liberty Cap cents of 1793 are also quite valuable. In Good-4 the coin is worth about $2100 while even in VF-20 it commands a respectable $15,000. Those owning a cent of 1793 may justifiably be proud of having a souvenir of our first copper coinage and the history behind it.

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