TheNumisMaster's Blog

12 Feb 2021

A Brief History of Large Cents

| TheNumisMaster

Good morning everyone! In todays blog I would like to give you a insert an excerpt from my Numismastery 101 Course which I have been working tirelessly on for the past week. I hope you all enjoy! Like I have mentioned before, the Cent, commonly called the Penny, is my favorite coin to collect. Like many other numismatists, I “specialize” in the US Cent. We have gone over the fact that this was “the peoples coin”, and that it was circulated significantly more than its numismatic counterparts. Because of inflation, we rarely use the penny today. I like to draw a parallel between the cents of the 1800s to the $1 bill today. The Cent was used in the 1800s much like the $1 bill is used today, only slightly more. Not only does this mean that a “early American copper” coin was handled by more people, therefore adding more of a story to its existence, but it makes it harder to find in its original Mint State “red” condition. A highly graded Cent from the 1840’s in full red condition can fetch thousands at auction.

The first noteworthy Large Cents in US history began in 1787. Around this time, the US Government did not mint its own currency, and all of that was done privately. Due to this, the majority of the copper coins circulating at the time were significantly underweight, not nearly containing one full cent worth of copper. (Remember, that was a decent amount of money back then). To prevent another economic crisis, the government approved its first official coin, the Fugio Cent. This coin, the design inspired by Benjamin Franklin, featured a sundial, the word Fugio (“fly” in Latin) which game the coin its name, and the slogan “mind your business”. This motto was adopted in hopes that it would encourage the American people to be industrious and use their time wisely. Unfortunately, the industrial spirit the Founding Fathers envisioned for America never grabbed hold until 1875, after the reconstruction period which proceeded the Civil War. The piece displayed 13 chains liked together surrounding the phrase “We are One”, a plea for national unity. As you might have guessed, the chains were representations of the 13 colonies bound together. Unlike most coins of the time period, this coin had no denomination attached to it, just its weight in “pure” copper to back it up. Unfortunately, the means by which James Jarvis (a copper coinage manufacturer for Connecticut) went about production of this coin was unsteady, and he came short on several contracts, which left a grand total of around 400,000 Fugio Cents minted, all of which too light to be used for circulation. They simply did not have the metal content needed to be worth 1/100 of a Spanish Milled Dollar (which was the golden standard in the late 1700’s). While these coins never circulated, we have been lucky enough to find large storages of them, making them more accessible to collectors… …for the right price.

In 1792 the government finally passed a coinage act, allowing the United States to have a mint. During the several months preceding the opening of the first US mint in Philadelphia, experimental coin (called patterns) where privately struck in all denominations in hope to gain some insight into what kinds of coinage designs would be used to represent America. During this time, the idea of a one cent coin made of silver was the central topic of debate. After exploring other options, the government decided on using a copper planchet. They were sure that with better funding, they could make sure these coins were not rejected like their Fugio Cent predecessors.

With the completion of the mint, as well as proper funding, the government began production of the new copper cent in 1793. The coins produced were rather crude, but they were still a source of American Pride. The coins were designed by Henry Voigt, who was employed as a skilled mechanic, not an artist. They featured a bust of Lady Liberty on the obverse, with the wind blowing through her hair. The obverse featured the same chain design as the Fugio Cent, but with 15 links rather than 13, surrounded the words “One Cent” rather than the old slogan.

The coin was harshly judged to say the least, and the general public had loads to say. The mint received comments about how “the chain on the reverse is a bad omen for liberty [and] Liberty herself appears to be in fright”. After such harsh criticism, the Chain Cent was replaced, leaving only 36,000 that were struck. By nature, these coins are extremely desirable on the current market, and are the most sought after coins among Large Cent collectors.

Its predecessor was the Wreath cent, and it was received with a warmer spirit. The chain on the reverse was replaced with a wreath, and the bust of Liberty was much more defined. However, until its discontinuation in late 1793, the bust of Liberty was often referred to as “a wind squaw with the heebie jeebies”, and faced numerous counts of criticism. This early discontinuation left only 63,300 coins in circulation. The bust of Liberty was then replaced with bust that appeared on the Libertas Americana medal, which was thought up by Benjamin Franklin, and designed by Dupre, a famous French artist. The only change they made was to switch the way Liberty was facing, so she would appear to face right on the Cent. Remember, this bust was also used on the Half Cent in 1793, but was facing left; only the Cent was switched.

In 1795, the weight of the coin was adjusted to be roughly 3 grams lighter to accommodate the changing economy. The design was changed a year late in 1796 when the engraver Gilbert Stuart was charged with redesigning all US coins to have a better appearance. He drew a design featuring Mrs. Anne Willing Bingham, a wealthy Philadelphian Socialite, which became the Draped Bust design with a runtime of 1796-1807. This coin was produced at a very dark time for the US mint. The Mint was being critically examined by the government, who saw it as an expensive waste of time. During this era of turmoil, there were many bills to abolish the mint that came from legislators. While all of these bills were doomed at the beginning due to lack of support, the moral standing of the mint was very low. It was not the dignified position it once was, and that American sense of pride was nearly gone. To make matters even worse, a large number of unmistakable minting errors were exhibited in this period, including a personal favorite, the 1/000 error (as opposed to 1/100).

in 1807, the mint hired yet another assistant engraver, John Reich. Reich’s arrival at the mint was a great topic of controversy. The Chief Engraver, Robert Scot, feared John’s natural ability, and saw to it that he was treated awfully. His promised salary was $600 a year, and saw no hope of a raise for a decade. Reich tried his best to take it to the best of his ability. He blocked out the noise, and doubled his focus on what he loved, art. His coin, later to be known as the Classic Head, featured a new bust of Liberty that his enemies would later call “Reich’s Fat Mistress”. Sadly, these coins are especially susceptible to corrosion and wear, so most numismatists will never see a sharply struck example.

In 1815, the British blocked trade to the US because of the War of 1812. Because of this, no copper planchets for Cents could be obtained. For the first time in the history of its series, no cent was minted in 1815. This leaves a hole in all date sets which many collectors would later fill with altered coins with dates that have been re-done to look like an 1815.

1815 left, and do did the British blockade. Robert Scot began on a new design for the cent, known as the Matron Head. Collectors agree that this work was inferior to his earlier issues, and is all around an ugly coin. Thanks to a few hoards discovered in the 1900s, MS Matron Head cents are fairly easy to find in years 1816-1820. Later examples are harder to locate in Mint State, but easier to find in XF to Fine condition.

In 1835 to 1839, the famous engraver Gobrecht along with lesser known William Kneass tried to made the Matron Head cent look more attractive. This work lead to the creation of some of the more hilarious and unfortunate patterns the Mint has ever realized. These utter failures included the “silly head” and the “Booby Head” coin. They left a permanent bad mark on both Gobrecht and Kneass’s record as US Mint employees. They ultimately decided on the best design they had created, which would come to be known as the Coronet Head, or Braided hair cent, which ran from 1839 to 1857.

By the early 1850s, large copper coins were costing more to produce than their face value, and were becoming a money pit for the US Government. They explored many options including different metallic alloys, but all the good candidates were far to brittle for striking. Eventually they settled on decreasing the size of the coin, ending the regime of the Large Cent.

The passing of the Large Cent made way for the ushering of a new era of heightened numismatic activity. Once the small cents were introduced, collectors everywhere tried to assemble sets of the obsolete currency, and would continue to engage in this activity for the next century. This increase in cent collecting opened doors for the numismatic club Early American Coppers (EAC) to form, and it gained many members from the change to small cents. Thanks so much for tuning in, and I will catch you all at a later date! Stay healthy, and be safe out there! Later!


Mr. B Coins

Level 4

The NumisMaster comes through again. The article is informative and interesting. Thanks for sharing. and, thank you for all the time you put into our hobby. All the best, Mr. B


Level 5

Very nicely said! Early american coppers would be a very fun set to start, but I'll have to wait until I have a job. Thanks for the great blog!

I. R. Bama

Level 5

I agree sourcing is important. Very interesting blog. I believe the northeast was well industrialized at the time of the War of Southern Succession. That was the advantage the north had over the south; its industrialization.


Level 5

It is hard for me to make a "source" list, because all of this information is just coming from my head. I have learned about it for years, and from many different sources. But I don't remember where exactly it came from lol!


Level 6

Great blog! Interesting information. Thanks for your research! ; )

It's Mokie

Level 6

Nice Job, you are a budding Bowers.


Level 6

Well researched blog. How about a sourcing? I did learn from you. Well done.


Level 5

Great blog. I have a nice Fugio. The inside story of coins is always interesting.


Level 7

Very well done. Sounds familiar in certain parts. That's right I did a blog on the Fugio. There are 819 still out there . Many were damaged in a water leak. They were stored in barrels. They say the Mellon New York Bank has them. And in the 1940's they gave them out to preferred customers!! I enjoyed this so much I did read it twice. Keep up the good work. Looking good!!


Level 3

Thanks for the great blog, it's clear that a lot of research and effort was put into this! I really enjoyed reading this and learned a few things about the large cents too. The feud between the engravers was particularly interesting. I wonder how the tale must have gone for half cents if it was similar or not. Thanks for a great blog! Sincerely, CoinsInHK


Level 5

Sounds like a great idea for a future blog of mine... *Alternates touching fingers, and releases maniacal laughter* lol!


Level 5

Thank you for the info, I have always liked the early examples. I only own a very few of them. While stationed in England, I fell in love with their One Penny coin & subsequently have a decent collection of them. Great blog Pally, later!

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